- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Struggling Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne admitted his confidence has taken a hit, attributing many of his issues this season to adjusting to playing primarily zone coverage.
Under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys already have allowed a pair of 400-yard passers, the first time in franchise history that has happened in a season. Claiborne was targeted repeatedly in both of those games, and has been publicly criticized by owner/general manager Jerry Jones, executive vice president Stephen Jones and coach Jason Garrett since giving up several receptions in Sunday's 31-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
"I feel like it's high, but it's not where it needs to be to be able to play corner," Claiborne said of his confidence Tuesday on the weekly ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM radio show he co-hosts. "We're not the type of team that we were last year. We're not assigned [receivers] and you go wherever he goes, you follow him wherever he goes, and that's your man. We're not in that. We don't do that anymore.
"Now we're basically a zone team. You have to play within that zone. Everything is new to everybody. When guys come in and hit those big dig routes in between the zones, then of course the corner's there, so they're going to say, 'Oh, yeah, that's the corner.'
"It's still a transition. When we were in press, just faced up man to man, they only hit one ball on me. But overall, I think all my big plays come within the zone."
The Cowboys selected Claiborne with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, packaging their top two picks to move up eight spots to grab a cornerback their scouting department graded as the best college prospect since Deion Sanders.
The expectation was that Claiborne, a Jim Thorpe Award winner at LSU, would quickly develop into a playmaking, shutdown cornerback. However, he has only one interception in 19 career games.
ProFootballFocus.com's play-by-play grades rank Claiborne 99th among 101 cornerbacks who have played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps this season. Claiborne finished his rookie season 83rd in the site's cornerback rankings.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Claiborne has allowed 272 yards on 15-of-23 passing when targeted this season, including six catches for 115 yards on seven targets against the Chargers. Claiborne said he is thinking too much while on the field.
"Definitely, definitely," said Claiborne, who missed all of the preseason due to a knee injury and is playing with a harness to protect a shoulder he dislocated during the season opener. "It goes with a lot of thinking when you're playing zone.
"When you're playing zone, you have to know where your help is, you have to know where you can push a guy to, to your help, you've got to know when you can man up and play it, all just man-to-man. You have to think about so much before the snap. You have to think of, 'We're in bail. I should be bailing. I should be off 5 yards here.' That's something I have to get used to.
"Coming from a place where I'm playing nothing but man-to-man and last year it's man-to-man, you don't have too much responsibility. Now, it's a big adjustment. It takes time to adjust to it."
Claiborne's hope is that he's one play away from boosting his confidence, but he acknowledged that allowing a catch can negatively affect his psyche.
"It can take one play to turn it down; it can take one play to turn your confidence level up," Claiborne said. "You get a deflection or something like that, you feel like your confidence is up. You can get a ball caught on you, and it depends on what you do after that. You can be like, 'Aw, my confidence level is down. What do I do now?' And they come and hit another, and it's constant and it's constant, and it seems like once that ball gets to rolling down the hill, you can't stop it."
Orlando Scandrick took over the starting role from Claiborne because the Cowboys wanted to limit the exposure to contact for Claiborne's injured shoulder. At this point, it appears Scandrick will continue starting based on merit.
Garrett told reporters Monday that the coaching staff would not consider benching Claiborne in favor of fourth-round rookie B.W. Webb in nickel situations. However, Garrett cited decreased confidence and poor technique as factors in Claiborne's subpar performance.
"I think it's probably a combination," Garrett said. "Technically, you go back at each of the completions against him and you say, 'Hey, you should do this. You should do that.' But I also think confidence, playing that position, is critical. And usually those two things work hand in hand. When you're playing technically sound and you have ability, you tend to have more and more confidence because you're in the right place.
"They went to him too much in this ballgame, and they were too effective. He's just got to play better, and he will play better."