FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland, a fifth-round pick in 2022, had a nice rookie season playing primarily as an inside, nickel corner as he hauled in five interceptions, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. Losing Trevon Diggs to injury was a big blow for the Dallas defense (Diggs' 18 interceptions since 2020 are tied for the second-most in the league), but Bland has seamlessly transitioned to playing outside corner in 2023.
Bland playing well after making the jump to outside corner would have been a reasonable expectation, given his rookie year. The 24-year-old recording his fifth pick-six of the season on Thanksgiving Day in a 45-10 win against the Washington Commanders, to and insert himself in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year race? Not even the most optimistic of Cowboys fans could have predicted that -- not to mention Bland having the fourth-best DPOY of the year odds through 12 weeks (+1400).
If he can win the award, Bland -- who made one small tweak to his technique that unlocked his potential (more on that below) -- would become the first defensive back to do so since Charles Woodson (2009), Colts safety Bob Sanders (2007) and Hall of Famer Ed Reed (2004).and only the sixth of the 21st Century. The other defensive backs to win Defensive Player of the Year since 2000 prior to Gilmore are Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu (2010), Hall of Famer
"It's easier to get a sack than it is a pick," Gilmore said Monday when asked about winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a defensive back. "That's how I feel. It's easy, well not easy to get 10 sacks or 15 sacks or whatever it is. When a guy has 10 picks, it's just harder to do. That's how it goes sometimes [when people throw away from a dominant defensive back]. You just have to be ready when they come your way, take advantage of opportunities and watch tape. You put the tape on, you can see what is really is."
Bland has Gilmore's full stamp of approval when it comes to his 2023 DPOY candidacy.
"For sure," Gilmore said. "He's been making plays ever since he got in the starting lineup. He's been turning the ball over and not just turning the ball over, scoring with it, and he broke the record last week. That's hard to do. I think the next person to break that record will be when my 8-year-old gets to my age . It's going to stand awhile. Anytime someone does something like that, it's special."
Bland's 12 career interceptions are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2022, and his five touchdowns are the most by a defensive player since then-Texans defensive lineman JJ Watt had five in 2014 as a goal-line tight end. He and Watt are two of only five non-offensive players since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger with at least five offensive touchdowns in a season.
DaRon Bland's 2023 season stats
Comp Pct Allowed
Interception Return TD
Passer Rating Against As Primary Defender In Coverage
* Ranks among 66 players who have been targeted at least 50 times in 2023
** NFL single-season record
Cowboys two-time All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons leads the NFL with 71 quarterback pressures and 20.8% quarterback pressure rate, the highest among defensive players with at least 200 pass-rush snaps. His 11.5 sacks are tied for the sixth-most in the league with Raiders Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby. Parsons currently possesses the second-best odds to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2023 (+175), but he would be thrilled for Bland, even if he overtook him for the award.
"I'm super excited, it's kind of weird because me and [Trevon Diggs] had a big bet against each other on who was going to win [Defensive Player of the Year]," Parsons said Monday. "Tre was like, 'I'm going to win it this year. I'm going to be the best ever.' The way Tre started the season, he was lights out. He actually had a chef, he was cutting out pot pies [taking his diet seriously]. I'm so proud of him. To see him go out, and then now I'm like, 'I lost Tre, I got this in the bag.' Then, I see DB the dark horse. He's always the dark horse that comes out of nowhere. It's always fun.
"One thing I've been amazed by with Tre and DB is their intent and how deliberate they are about the game. You can tell that they really love the game and what they're willing to put into the game and how special they are. I think there's a lot of greatness on this team. When you get to witness greatness and things that haven't been done before, I think that kind of triumphs any type of personal or small goals that you have in mind, because this is stuff that has never been done before, so I'm still amazed by the greatness. I'm just taking it in. I always say, 'I love greatness in any and every sport.' So right now I'm amazed about DB, and I'm kind of in awe of DB right now."
However, Bland isn't stopping to smell the roses.
"I never liked to look at my accomplishments immediately," Bland said Sunday when asked about balancing playing for the record and playing within defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme. "I always liked to see the flaws in there first and then try to go back and see what I can do better."
The subtle technique change that helped Bland shine
One critical but simple adjustment Bland has made since becoming a Cowboy that he has improved upon greatly is adjusting his stance at the line of scrimmage before the snap. Absorbing the critique is easy for Dallas defensive backs, since their position coach is a former two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, Al Harris, who paired with Hall of Famer Charles Woodson on current Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy's Green Bay Packers teams in the 2000s to form a vaunted defensive backfield.
"It's great," Bland said of Harris' impact. "He has taught me to believe in myself and what I see on the field. Believe who you are. It's a lot about confidence. Every since I got close to the record, he kept putting in my mind 'you have to go get it, go get it.' Believing in myself that I can do it. Having a coach like that to bring that confidence into you means a lot."
Bland, who wears size 14 shoes, used to naturally have a wider stance at the line of scrimmage. Streamlining his stance and maintaining that technique on a regular basis has been a game-changer for him.
"He changed my technique since I got here," Bland said. "Pretty much all of it. He always clowned me on my feet, so he always tried to have me tighten that stuff up. Tightening my base [how wide apart his feet were at the line of scrimmage] because I was a little too wide [is the biggest adjustment]. He showed me I can move better if I lined up a different way. If my feet were too wide outside of my shoulders, things like that. He [Harris] is just a technician, so the little things matter."
That footwork shift is a big deal, considering the Cowboys utilize man coverage on 37.5% of their defensive snaps, the third-highest rate in the NFL. Having proper technique when playing man is critical since one wrong step can result in huge play. Playing man at the frequency Dallas does is something Bland credits for his run as an interception magnet.
"It's great, I'm able to see the quarterback and the receiver," Bland said. "It's good to have eyes on both. I always feel good when I'm in man coverage. That's one of the biggest things I've been doing all my career is playing man coverage."
There are different ways defensive backs can play man coverage, but the primary approach Dallas instructs their secondary to use is motor technique, according to Bland. That is when a defensive back in coverage inches back from the receivers as they start to press (push and shove at the line of scrimmage), so the defender can get some space between them and receiver. That separation is key because then the defensive back can shift forward to cut off the quarterback's throwing lane to make a play on the football. Motor is something Bland has run going back to his high school and college days, but Harris tightening Bland's stance is "the only difference" in what he does with his man coverage technique as a Cowboy.
That technique teaching point hasn't been a "little thing" for the Cowboys secondary. Multiple Dallas defensive backs have been coached by Harris to tighten their stance.
"Naturally once the ball is snapped, you get wider [as you make your first move off the line of scrimmage]," Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said Monday. "So if you start tighter, when you get wider, you're not going to be as wide. If you start wide, they snap the ball, you're extremely wide. Narrowing your feet just keeps your feet under you. That's actually something Al has worked on with me, getting a more narrow base…. If my feet are narrow and then I get a little wide, I can still get lateral and stay in front of my man. That's what it helps the most."
Given his resume, Harris' message is just about always well-received.
"It's been huge having a guy that not only played this game, he played this game at a high level," Kearse said. "He was a part of a great secondary over there at Green Bay where he made his share of plays throughout his career in the league. So when he says something, it's something that just resonates because this is something he's actually seen. This is something he's actually been through, you know, and not saying you can't do that with other coaches, but it's just different because he's sat in our shoes, he's sat in those meeting rooms. He's sat in training camps. He's been through things where you may feel a different way. He's been in the locker room, he's had to go through injuries and coming back, he had to go through everything that we go through as players.
"When he says something, you know, it's coming from a place of 'I know what I'm talking about' and it's not just 'do it this way, do it that way.' It's coming from 'I've done this and this worked for me like you should try this.' He's been a huge help to not only the corners but our whole entire secondary room."
Like Bland, Harris had a nose for the football in big moments and the ability to turn interceptions into touchdowns. His most famous example of this came against the team the Cowboys will face Thursday to kick off Week 13: the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers entered overtime against the Seattle Seahawks tied at 27, and despite then-Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck saying "We want the ball, and we're going to score," Harris intercepted him for the game-winning touchdown.
January 4, 2004: After winning the coin toss to start OT, Seattle #Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck infamously said "we want the ball and we're going to score." Hasselbeck would throw a walk-off INT-TD to CB Al Harris that sealed a 33-27 Packers win in Lambeaupic.twitter.com/uM2RjYWmbe— Pro Sports Outlook (@PSO_Sports) January 4, 2022
"Al is a critical coach," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said on Sunday. "I think any time you have a chance to be in a room, not only with someone who as an expert, how to do it, but he's also done it. That carries a lot of weight in this game without a doubt. Personally, I'm just so happy for him to see him get some recognition for the type of job that he's done in our time here. And obviously, our time at Green Bay. Very proud of what he's doing here in a second career.
"We had a discussion across the hall [where offensive players meet with defensive coaches and vice versa], which I spoke on here in the past, I sat in on Al's across the hall with the receivers. It was really cool for them to hear some of the similar coaching points from from a different language and different perspective. Especially coming from someone that's done it at such a high level"
Harris wasn't someone McCarthy always envisioned as a coach, but he credits Harris' player-like approach to coaching as a key component of his ability to effectively communicate his message to players.
"No, I didn't," he said. "[But] I think out and if you knew him as a player, he was a bulldog. He was just all all football. Yeah. I'm not surprised by it because of the way he played because it's the way he coaches and what he believes in. Al was such a strong technician. He always challenged and was a challenge for the receivers that were preparing for him, week in and week out. So he coaches the same way."
The "across the hall" portion of the Cowboys coaching is also critical in Bland's ability to continue to add to his interception-return touchdown tally. Bland began his football career on offense as a running back before making the moving to quarterback. The present-day corner always played defense as well growing up, but he became a regular wide receiver when he reached middle school. He harkens back to his high school and younger days every time a football appears in his vicinity.
"Every time the ball goes into the air, I go into my offensive ways trying to get the ball," Bland said. "Just trying to see what I can do with the ball in my hands."
Given the way the 2023 season has gone so far for Bland, he'll likely have the football in his hands again soon.
"It's insane," Cowboys Pro Bowl receiver CeeDee Lamb said Monday when asked about Bland's season. "Obviously, it's an NFL record, happy for him. All the work that we put in, you know, week in and week out in training camp and day after day, just being a competitor that he is and always looking to be better, I'm sure it's not going to stop. They keep trying him, I'm sure he'll get another one."