STILLWATER — When evaluating Oklahoma State's performance through the first four games of the season, coach Mike Gundy has consistently come back to one area that needs improvement.
Defending the deep ball.
Of course, there are several defensive backs that play a role in covering long passes down the field. And it's clear Markelle Martin is missed at the strong safety spot.
But the most concerning — and, really, surprising — development so far in the early season for the Cowboys is the regression of cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown, who were hyped as potentially the best DB tandem in the Big 12 before the season.
“I think they got exposed last Saturday night (against Texas),” Gundy said last week.
Despite being listed at 5-foot-8, last season Brown consistently frustrated bigger receivers — most notably, Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller — and continued to make athletic plays to get to the football. And Gilbert took a giant step in proving he was more than a speedy weapon in the return game by picking off four of the nation's top quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Landry Jones. Brown and Gilbert each tallied five interceptions to help pace a defense that led the nation with 44 take-aways.
Yet so far this season, both Brown and Gilbert have often been beat in 1-on-1 coverage and been called for pass interference. The pair has combined for zero interceptions and one pass breakup. Neither has looked like a player worthy of garnering All-Big 12 honors, something Brown earned last season and Gilbert appeared to have the potential to grab as a junior.
In a primetime game against the Longhorns, that was all magnified, with quarterback David Ash passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. On one of the game's most crucial plays — a 32-yard pass to Mike Davis down the sideline on the Longhorns' game-winning drive — Gilbert was out-jumped for the football.
“We know we're better than that,” said Gilbert, who engaged in some pregame trash talk by announcing he was not yet sold David Ash. “(The coaches are) not just going to let us be average, and we've been out there working on it.”
So why the struggles for the two promising corners? Coaches and players point to multiple reasons.
Defensive coordinator Bill Young first looks at needing to pressure the quarterback more, as any defensive line coach would. Of the Cowboys' eight sacks this season, only three have come from a defensive lineman. Against UT, 1.5 of OSU's two sacks and one of the its two quarterback hurries came from linebacker Shaun Lewis.
“So much depends on the team on these deep balls,” Young said. “You can just say, ‘Well, the corners are breaking down.' When in reality, with a great pass rush, you can fall down as a corner and you still don't have an issue.
“Nobody's feeling worse about the interference calls and the deep balls than (Brown and Gilbert) are, but at the same time, we need to do a much better job on the defensive line at rushing the passer.”
Gilbert said he personally needs to work on technique like controlling his eyes and “finishing the play,” such as that jump ball that Davis corralled over him.
And Gundy added Brown and Gilbert simply need to play hungrier.
“We were getting effort from them (in the UT game),” Gundy said. “But one thing that happens sometimes with veteran players is they get into almost a physical part where they're just kind of floating out there. They've done it so many times.
“Really, the best way to term it is they need to be hungry. They need to be hungry to defend those balls. They've been told that, they understand that.”
Young said that despite the troubles defending the downfield passing game, he does not expect OSU's scheme to change much, because the Cowboys have given multiple looks. Sometimes they play Tampa Cover 2. Sometimes they drop eight defenders into coverage. Sometimes they blitz.
Gilbert knows his team will need him, Brown and the rest of the defensive backs as the Cowboys head into the meat of their schedule, with teams that sport prolific offenses like West Virginia, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech still on the slate.
He also knows their reputation is, in a sense, on the line over these final eight games.
“For me, that last game, it brought something out of me that made me want to work even harder than I've been working,” Gilbert said. “I've been doing a little bit extra of everything that I've been working to do.
“For the rest of the season, I'm (going to be) a harder worker.”