ARLINGTON, Texas — Brandon Carr admitted Saturday night that after the Cowboys drafted Morris Claiborne in April, Carr immediately began thinking about his four years in Kansas City and the cornerback he lined up across from during that time.
Brandon Flowers was the player on Carr’s mind. Flowers and Carr were one of the best cornerback tandems in the league last year, helping Kansas City possess the league’s sixth-best pass defense, allowing 201.3 yards per game.
When the Cowboys presented Claiborne with a No. 24 jersey, Carr thought it might be a good sign considering Flowers wore the same number.
“When he got No. 24 I said, ‘Oh, I played with another No. 24 that was a really good player,'” Carr recalled. “I said, ‘Man, if you can come bring that same game to this type of defense, then this should be a fun, fun year.’
“It’s going to be fun.”
Flowers, a second-round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2008, was given a five-year, $50 million contract extension by the Chiefs in September. That move meant Kansas City would probably not have the money to re-sign Carr, the corner the Chiefs chose in the fifth round in 2008.
Carr got almost an identical contract from the Cowboys and throughout organized team activities, mini-camp and training camp has appeared to be worth the investment. Intercepting Philip Rivers twice on Aug. 18 showcased an example of what the Cowboys saw in Carr when they made him their top priority in free agency.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, didn’t challenge Carr often Saturday night. Instead, he focused on Claiborne, the rookie corner still trying to get his feet wet. From playing with Flowers, who has 13 career interceptions, Carr understands some games he’s going to be challenged more than others.
“I just have to be ready every play because there may be those times where you only get one or two plays a game that you have to make the play,” Carr said. “You have to be ready. You can’t fall asleep out there. That’s going to be my mentality.
“I got a feeling on the other side he’s going to start locking things down. And then they’re going to have to start coming back to my side.”
Claiborne, who stands two inches taller than Flowers, responded well to the St. Louis game plan. After getting beat for a 14-yard gain on St. Louis’ first offensive play, Claiborne buckled down and seemed to improve as the game went on.
The former LSU standout’s final challenge from Bradford came on fourth-and-goal from the Cowboys’ five-yard line late in the first half. Claiborne responded by staying with Rams receiver Steve Smith as he broke to the inside and sprinted across the middle of the end zone. Bradford made the throw but Claiborne was in position to dive and deflect the pass.
“He’s a guy that’s gotten better every day,” Cowboys inside linebacker Sean Lee said of Claiborne. “He’s really put the work in, had the sense of urgency to get better. You see him getting better and that’s encouraging. I think it’s just a matter of time before he’s going to be a really, really good player.”
Claiborne missed all of rookie mini-camp, OTAs and mini-camp because of a surgically repaired left wrist. He was then out for several days of training camp after spraining the MCL in his left knee, an injury that prevented him from playing in the preseason opener.
But after his showing against St. Louis, Claiborne’s teammates and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett seem impressed with the 22-year-old’s improvement.
“He seems comfortable out there,” Garrett said. “He seems like he’s getting more confident.”
“I think he’s transitioning really well,” Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. “Coming in, being a younger guy with a lot on his shoulders, he’s taken on that role really well.”
Ware, who is recovering from a strained hamstring, didn’t play Saturday night. But even without arguably the NFL’s top pass rusher, the Cowboys recorded a preseason-high four sacks, a total that was aided by the coverage in the defensive backfield.
According to a couple of first team defenders, the coverage in the secondary is making a noticeable difference.
“I notice them every day,” Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer said. “I tell them that I appreciate them every time I get a chance to.”
“It felt totally different from last year,” Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher said. “You get to the quarterback and you can [usually] kind of see him getting ready to throw it. But tonight, he was just panicking. It was a very, very unique deal. Those guys are all doing a great job back there. I hope they keep it up.”
The Cowboys ranked 23rd in pass defense in 2011 and 26th in 2010, a drastic change from some of the Cowboys teams in the 1990s. From 1992-1997 the Cowboys were ranked in the top 10 in pass defense every season and held the top spot in 1994 and 1997.
One of the most significant contributors to the Cowboys secondary during those years was safety Darren Woodson.
The five-time Pro Bowl selection attended practice Thursday at Cowboys Stadium and said he believed the Cowboys pass defense would be much improved. Woodson spoke highly of the Cowboys starting safeties and the importance of adding Carr and Claiborne.
“They can be a much better secondary than what they were last year,” Woodson said. “Last year it wasn’t so much on the athleticism that cost them, I think it was more on the mental side, mental mistakes of giving up big plays in the fourth quarter. I think they’re more mature in what they’re doing.”
Woodson said Carr’s ability to be physical, yet possess the instincts to make a play on the ball, which he showed against the Chargers, is rare among defensive backs, and he sees similarities of that in Claiborne.
He added: “I think Claiborne’s going to learn from one of the better corners in the league in Brandon Carr.”