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Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland shrugs off blip in historic season as Eagles await

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — From pick-6s to picked apart, DaRon Bland has seen a sudden change in his breakout season as the Dallas cornerback prepares to face A.J. Brown and company in an anticipated rematch with Philadelphia.

One thing about Bland, he bounced back from getting burned for 107 yards in the first quarter by Seattle's D.K. Metcalf to getting his NFL-leading eighth interception in the second half.

And another thing about the league's new record holder for interception returns for a touchdown in a season with five, Bland probably never worried much about it in the first place.

The unheralded 2022 fifth-round pick out of Fresno State didn't change his low-key persona as the pick-6s piled up.

Bland also wasn't flustered much when the Cowboys decided to keep veteran Stephon Gilmore on Metcalf after Bland's early struggles in the 41-35 victory over the Seahawks last week.

“I probably wouldn’t have done that,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said, “if I was worried about how somebody would react to it.”

The penchant for interceptions didn't start when Bland grabbed a fluttering ball and ran 22 yards for a score after a hit by Trevon Diggs on New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley in the opener.

Bland led the Cowboys with five interceptions as a rookie last season, and he's the only player with at least 10 since he entered the league. Bland has 13.

The NFL record for pick-6s in a season fell when Bland got the last two in consecutive weeks against Carolina and Washington.

“It’s just opportunities,” Bland said. “You can’t chase a pick-6 or you’re going to get a touchdown scored on you. When it comes, you’ve just got to be ready.”

Being a low-round draft pick wasn't really a new experience, either.

Bland took the only scholarship offer he had, a notch below college's highest level at Sacramento State of the Football Championship Subdivision. He transferred to Fresno State for his final season, and caught the eye of Cowboys defensive backs coach Al Harris.

There were 15 players listed as cornerbacks taken ahead of Bland in the 2022 draft, and another dozen with the more generic tag of defensive back, which he had.

Bland played all 17 games as a rookie, with eight starts, and now all those players, and every other cornerback in the NFL, are listed behind him in the latest Pro Football Focus rankings at the position, despite the hiccup against the Seahawks.

There won't be anywhere for Bland to hide Sunday night against the defending NFC champion Eagles (10-2), who beat the Cowboys (9-3) by five at home, but had their NFC East lead trimmed to a game with a loss to San Francisco last weekend.

DeVonta Smith starts opposite Brown for quarterback Jalen Hurts, an MVP candidate along with Dallas QB Dak Prescott. There will be chances for Bland to get burned again.

“I think it’s life in the NFL. It’s the reality of what these men compete in,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I don’t anticipate any change in the way he approaches it and the way he plays.”

Less than two weeks after triggering Bland's first interception return for a score, Diggs sustained a season-ending knee injury in practice.

Suddenly, Bland was starting outside opposite Gilmore instead of in the slot. The second pick-6 came in Bland's second game in that role, the third three more games after that.

“Nothing changed,” Bland said. “Just try to keep that same mindset coming in. Just try to keep attacking and be sound. It was definitely devastating when he first went down.”

Metcalf's 73-yard touchdown on Seattle's third play came when Bland tried to step in front of a slant route to knock the ball down, not intercept it. He's been praised for staying within the scheme as the 24-year-old closed in on history.

“As humans, you have four pick-6s to tie the record, you can’t help but just, ‘I want to break this record. I’m going to make this play,’” safety Jayron Kearse said. “With him, it’s just been, what’s meant to happen is going to happen, regardless.”

Bland broke the record when he jumped a sideline route against Washington, and brought Sam Howell's pass back 63 yards, breaking Howell's attempt at a tackle and sidestepping receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Brian Robinson Jr., who collided around the 10-yard line trying to bring Bland down.

“To witness something like that from such a down to earth, young player, a genuine guy. He’s a quiet kid. And he just comes to work,” Kearse said. “The right person did it, a guy that’s deserving, that came in and went straight to work from day one.”

Kearse is in his eighth season, still looking for his first pick-6. So he chuckled at being asked what he sees as the key to bringing an interception all the way back.

“I don’t know,” Kearse said with a smile. “He’s the right guy to talk to when it comes to that. Whatever he says, it’s law.”

Anyone listening will have to lean in for Bland's answer. It won't be very loud.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

Schuyler Dixon, The Associated Press