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Matt Johnson Is The Cowboys' Great Unknown

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Cowboys FS Matt Johnson has the physical requirements and skill set to lend depth at either safety spot, but how exactly his strengths will be catered to remains a mystery. Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images.
Cowboys FS Matt Johnson has the physical requirements and skill set to lend depth at either safety spot, but how exactly his strengths will be catered to remains a mystery. Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images.

On a Dallas Cowboys defense searching for identity and an ingrained starting 11, the question of how to utilize S Matt Johnson remains a straight conundrum. Johnson’s hamstring injuries have kept him from playing a single regular-season down. His size — 6-1, 215 pounds — lends itself to the hard hitting and downhill blitzing of a strong safety, his primary position at Eastern Washington University. The scouting report says that while he has good speed and lateral range, his backpedal is sub-par and unsuited for deep ball coverage — a top priority as a free safety in the Cover 2. Media observers have since disputed that claim, and essentially said the starting free safety job is his to lose.

Veteran Will Allen is currently taking reps as the starting free safety, but some consider Johnson a stronger lock to make the roster. Barry Church, the starting strong safety, is coming off an Achilles heel injury, which is notorious for its lingering effects and long recovery. Johnson is the best backup on paper, but depth concerns prevent Dallas from exploring that option too deeply.

Johnson could be a force on ball carriers, and it would be great if Monte Kiffin could dial up some run-blitz packages for him. But his health is too valuable to risk on plays like that, except once in a blue moon.

It all adds up to one giant question mark.

Throughout the offseason, the Cowboys have repeatedly changed the complexion of their safety problems; they haven’t fixed them. They cut Gerald Sensabaugh, presumably to open the door for Johnson. They signed Allen, an understudy of NFL great Troy Polamolu, to compete with him and bring the “Steelers mentality.” They drafted J.J. Wilcox in the third round, so he probably won’t be ready to adequately contribute this year, even if Dallas needs him too.

They’re trying to encourage competition. OK, fine, that breeds improvement. But it takes time, coaching and reps to fine tune that improvement into a valuable, in-game contribution. The personnel shake-ups have done little more than ensure that both safety spots are still as uncertain now as they were in February.

What will that lead to on the field? In all likelihood, teams will want to test the Dallas safeties through the long ball: get the ground game going by pounding the defensive line’s interior (another weak spot), establish the play-action and force those safeties to cover deep.

The Cowboys cornerbacks can handle themselves inside 10 yards. It’s the sideline and post routes the secondary is vulnerable to, and Johnson’s range is a crucial asset in defending them. But with so little experience, teams are going to try to bait him into coming out of position, then test the speed and competence of his backpedal coverage with deep passes — it could lead to a lot of big plays being surrendered.

Dallas seems committed to Johnson, and he will definitely have a big role in 2013. What that entails and how heavily it comes to be relied on is anyone’s guess. But at the end of the day, his play is subject to the constraints of his position. Meaning, it’s unlikely either he or Allen will lock down the starting job for an extended stretch this year.