Safeties Off: Renewed Trouble For The Cowboys Secondary
Preseason games may have little bearing on the regular season, but they can be useful in constructing the optimal depth chart. For players deprived of full-contact, running-start hits in practice — like safeties — they can be instrumental. And while the Hall-of-Fame Game is hardly enough to go on, preliminarily, it looks like the Dallas Cowboys got it right at the safety positions.
Both spots have been centers of negative scrutiny all offseason, and the game validated those worries. While the backups didn’t surrender any big pass plays in a game that basically meant nothing, their performances have re-catapulted safety to the absolute top of the concerns list — at least in terms of quality depth.
Trouble began in the second quarter when FS Matt Johnson suffered a stress reaction to his ankle, leaving without showcasing any of his touted ball-hawking skills. Johnson’s timetable is unknown, but the fact that he re-aggravated a joint that is literally pivotal for good lateral movement doesn’t bode well for his efficacy as a roving free safety. Rookie J.J. Wilcox has been publicly hammered for being hesitant and late to the point of attack in his NFL debut. Jakar Hamilton, an undrafted free agent who’s been struggling to make noise in training camp, didn’t give us any bone-rattling hits or heads-up plays in coverage to rave about.
So it’s probably safe to say the coaches picked the right starters in SS Barry Church and FS Will Allen. As a returning contributor, Church’s job was more certain than that of Allen, who was picked up in free agency. Baseless rumors of Johnson outlasting the veteran as the starter abounded all offseason, and now, it looks like going with experience was the smart move.
Monte Kiffin’s scheme runs on aggressiveness, especially with regard to the secondary. Physical corners that can disrupt routes and powerful safeties that can swarm the ball and deliver crushing hits are the kinds of players that are crucial to Kiffin’s defense and to the Cowboys improving on last year’s seven interceptions and 15 forced fumbles.
At 6-2, 218 pounds and boasting a humble 4.6 40-yard dash, Church is built for downhill run-stuffing and box-crowding. It’s a simpler contribution that focuses less on positioning and read-and-reacting, and one that’s more suited to a player of Church’s stature, limited experience and a recovering Achilles injury. With Allen, you get the inverse: a skillset grounded in speed and smarts — not strength — and a player who always knows where he’s supposed to be.
What does this mean moving forward? First, until Johnson stays healthy long enough to show anything, Allen is going to bear a lot of responsibility against the pass. He’s going to have to cover a lot of turf and be among the defense’s best open-field tacklers. If Johnson was once considered the defense’s great unknown, Allen is now its de facto leader from the standpoint of scheme assignments. It’s a lot of information and responsibility for a new player who’s spent most of his career as a backup.
Second, the Cowboys’ defensive line better turn out to be the advantage it’s been predicted to be. These guys have to be assertive against the run and dangerous with the pass rush. Today’s quarterbacks are too accurate when given time, and the receivers are too explosive when given space. If their pockets stay intact and their receivers get past the initial bumps into the open field, opposing quarterbacks are going to absolutely shred this secondary. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr may have great cover skills, but that won’t save them in one-on-one situations exceeding five yards.
The Dallas defense can still be good through power and stinginess. They have enough talent and athleticism in their front seven to prevent any offense from getting into a balanced rhythm, and if that group stays healthy, this unit can be exceptional. But while the Cowboys have the right starters in place, the issues at both safety spots are going to be felt until the system’s been in place for a while.