Arizona puts the heat on Cowboys secondary

Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer was intent on going after Cowboys rookie cornerback Kareem Larrimore. Then after Phillippi Sparks replaced Larrimore, Plummer went after Sparks.

Plummer got similar results, and the Cardinals got a victory, using big pass plays to come back.

Larrimore was struggling to stay with receiver David Boston. On the fourth play of the game, Boston had a step on Larrimore, who was called for interference. Had Larrimore turned to the ball, he could have made the play. Instead, he ran into Boston, and the 37-yard penalty gave Arizona the ball on Dallas' 16, setting up the first touchdown.

Larrimore then was caught playing way off Boston in the second quarter, and got burned for it. Boston caught the ball, then eluded Larrimore for a 21-yard gain to Dallas' 14.

After that, Larrimore was replaced by Sparks, an eight-year NFL veteran who was acquired to supply experience in the secondary. But Sparks fared no better. In a play similar to Larrimore's, Sparks made contact with Boston and was called for interference. That moved the ball 44 yards to Dallas' 18, setting up Plummer's four-yard pass to Frank Sanders that cut the Cowboys' lead to 24-20.

The clincher came on Arizona's final drive. With the Cowboys leading, 31-26, Sparks bit on Plummer's pump-and-go. Having turned in, Sparks was beat, and Boston came up with a 63-yard reception to Dallas' 22. Three plays later, Plummer hit Sanders, trailed by Duane Hawthorne, for a 17-yard touchdown.

After not being tested in the first game, Dallas' corners came up short under intense pressure.

"We had a rough night," Cowboys coach Dave Campo said, when asked about the secondary. "We had two pass interferences and a couple of big plays, and we had a double cover on the last touchdown. We didn't get it done."

Front seven changes

The Cowboys' problems against the pass overshadowed the improved play of their front seven. After allowing 306 yards rushing against Philadelphia, the Cowboys surrendered 98 yards to the Cardinals.

With Arizona hoping to run the ball early, the Cowboys made some changes. They switched the ends, moving Greg Ellis to the strong side, and sometimes used tackle Alonzo Spellman there. They did that because Ebenezer Ekuban is undersized for that position, and inexperienced there. Ekuban, who played the right side last season, was switched in training camp.

The Cowboys' front seven, often caught out of position in the first game, did a much better job of gap control. Ellis and Ekuban contained the outside for the most part while the linebackers plugged holes.

"We were strong," linebacker Darren Hambrick said. "We had narrowed them down and controlled them. The main thing was gap control. We took care of our assignments."

Although the Cardinals started out in the I-formation and used two backs a lot on their first few drives, they reverted to their three-receiver set primarily because of Dallas' strong play up front.

Using 2 tight ends

With Dallas carrying only one fullback, they didn't have a backup when Robert Thomas left in the third quarter because of dehydration. As a result, they went primarily with David LaFleur at tight end and Jackie Harris at H-back instead of using two backs.

Special teams

Wane McGarity's 64-yard punt return for a touchdown started with the Cowboys' strong play up front. Dallas did such a nice job at the line of scrimmage that Arizona had only two players anywhere near McGarity when he caught the punt.

The Cowboys had done the same thing on the previous punt return, which was called back because of offsetting penalties. McGarity found a hole, taking the ball to Arizona's 30.