There were a number of things we could have selected to study from the Detroit game, but to ignore the aerial show from the Lions that was historic and I imagine something that we really will remember in 20 years seems like it would be folly on our part.
So, let’s pick a few plays that were of the highest leverage variety and focus on the real issue that we see going on and moving forward which is the achilles heel of the last decade of Cowboys defensive football – the safeties.
I have written about this quite a bit each offseason – with the latest version here – as we have detailed both the history of how Dallas has not placed significant investment in safeties since Roy Williams blew up on them and the issues that this has caused on the field of play.
Below, please see a rough chart that shows the progression of the safety position over the years since Darren Woodson roamed center field at an All-Pro level so well. One note is that as the position has morphed over the years, the designation from free to strong safety has almost merged, and therefore this chart is not to claim that one played one position more than the other – but rather a simple rundown of who the two were at the post at the time.
Lynn Scott/Tony Dixon
Not exactly a list of stars, is it? I haven’t totally understood the idea of just grabbing anyone to play a vital spot league-wide, but it is clear that Jerry/Stephen Jones treat the two safety spots as far down the list of priorities each year. Even a guy like Gerald Sensabaugh, who might be the most significant addition besides Ken Hamlin over the last decade, was certainly not highly regarded in Jacksonville when the Cowboys brought him in (1 year starter) and the Cowboys signed him to a series of 1-year deals before inexplicably giving him a 5-year deal after 2011 and then cutting him after 2012 (in perfect Cowboys cap management style.
And like I said, that is one of the better ideas. We haven’t even started on Keith Davis and Abram Elam – two guys who were brought back a few times, Pat Watkins, or heaven forbid, the Brodney Pool story (I won’t waste your time, but let’s just say he makes the Will Allen story look like a book worth reading).
Anyway, fast forward to 2013, where we are starting to think that the Cowboys realize that this needs to be a point of emphasis, and have tried to find the proper fits at safety here for the last few years. It is a tricky position, because you need a guy who can hit (sorry, Sensabugh), has ball skills (sorry, McCray), and can stay healthy (Matt Johnson, anyone?) as the position requires lots of high-speed collisions from players who are not built like linebackers.
Barry Church has really taken the next step in his development and although he is not close to perfect, he is a candidate for the “best Cowboys safety in years”title these days. Meanwhile, in small doses, JJ Wilcox has looked the part of a very strong prospect who everyone has high hopes for. Together, they seem to form a capable duo that tells you that development is making strides.
Well, in Detroit, JJ Wilcox was in street clothes. And in the final 5 minutes, Barry Church was on the sideline, too, with a hamstring issue that appeared to occur at 4:50 to go when he sprung to action to tackle Reggie Bush. That leaves centerfield against the scary Lions attack to undrafted rookie Jeff Heath from Saginaw Valley State and after Church left, undrafted rookie Jakar Hamilton from South Carolina state and a guy who was promoted from the practice squad the day before this Detroit game because Wilcox got hurt.
Play #1 – 4Q – 6:45
When the Lions are in 11 personnel, the Cowboys have to figure out how to handle Reggie Bush and Brandon Pettigrew. By design, both are difficult match ups for linebackers, and therefore whether you play zone or man, the Cowboys and most opponents try to bring a safety up against at least one of them – usually the TE Pettigrew. Of course, this is what Matt Stafford wants, because hitting home runs over the top is a lot easier if you only show him a single-high safety. And, you have to imagine that when they see a young safety on the opposite hash from Calvin Johnson, it is meal time.
The above frame shows you exactly what you would expect to see from a QB who knows exactly what he is doing. Stafford looks to his left and holds the safety over there. Heath can see that he has plenty of help on both Durham and Ross (the 2 threats to the offensive left), but the eyes of the QB are too much to ignore. Meanwhile, at the top of the screen, you can see Johnson getting inside leverage on Brandon Carr and nothing but green turf in front of him. Church has moved up to the 30 and is now looking for someone to cover since Pettigrew is not in a route, but rather in protection. In this particular zone coverage (except for Carr on Johnson), Church is now going to peel off and look for someone to assist and he sees Ross coming through the middle (also at the 30 yard line on the hash) and switches over to him.
In the above frame, Lee has released his man to Church. Scandrick and Webb are all over Durham down below, but Stafford sees his 6’5 monster inside Carr and the safety is across the field still. This is where you imagine it is difficult not to smile if you are Stafford.
Stafford had to slide to his right to buy an extra second and here is the moment of the release of the ball.
Heath does close quickly and it looks like there is nothing wrong with his wheels, but he has no chance in a jump ball situation against Johnson and it is a wonderfully simple gain of 54 yards in one play. I wonder if Heath tries to hit Johnson in the midsection rather than attempt to compete for the ball has a chance to change the outcome of the play, but it really looks very easy for the Lions. One editorial note, at this point of the game, I am staying in 2-high no matter what. If they beat me because Bruce Carter or Ernie Sims can’t deal with Pettigrew, then fine. But, at this point, Megatron already was over 200 yards easily. Why not have him locked down more? You could argue that the Cowboys are coaching for that chance at a turnover, and if Church sneaks into the path of a ball, Kiffin is a genius. But, man, you sure look silly when they kill you for 54 and you only have Jeff Heath trying to deal with Megatron.
Play #2 – 4Q – 0:40 – 2/10/O37
It seems like most people agree that this is maybe the biggest play of the game. Here the Lions are with no timeouts and the only way they can win this game – down 6 – is to hit on a huge play. If they have to take several plays of 8-10 yards at a chunk, there is not enough time. They have to hit on a big one. And, remember, on the final 2 drives, Jakar Hamilton is now in the game after spending another week as practice squad body until JJ Wilcox hurt himself. Then, he was promoted to the roster, but still figured he would to have to do anything unless there was another injury. And what were the odds of that?
In the frame above, I want to show what my friend Bryan Broaddus covered on Dallas Cowboys.com this week about safety play in this defense. In late game situations, it is customary to widen your safeties to take away boundary plays (like protecting against doubles by guarding the lines in baseball). If you give up a play to a team with no timeouts, make sure it is not to the sidelines where they can also get out of bounds and stop the clock. So, we see Jeff Heath on the numbers where you want him, but Hamilton is a few strides inside the numbers. This will prove to be a big deal in a frame or two.
When Stafford looked right, it again held the safety from going to Durham. Then, Stafford is flushed right by George Selvie. This would eliminate a throw to the left sideline for most NFL QBs and every college QB you might guess. Hamilton – at South Carolina State last fall – likely assumed that Stafford would not attempt this crazy throw. But, not only did he attempt it, but he made it look easy. What a cannon. And what a poor job of safety coverage with no other threat on that side of the field.
Here we circle Hamilto to show how he has no chance on this ball. Would Barry Church or JJ Wilcox have been on the scene in time? We will never know. But, this seems like a text-book rookie mistake from a talented player that was taught a tough lesson by a QB who demonstrated some great skills.
Play #3 – 0:33 – 1/10/D23
Here is the very next play. Again, the Cowboys want one safety up on Pettigrew. Easy for me to say on Thursday, but there is a 0% chance I do that in this spot because I cannot expose my two young safeties anymore to Stafford. They bring Heath up for Pettigrew because they are playing man-to-man on everyone with Lee in a rover zone in the middle (perhaps partly to spy on Stafford, but with no timeouts I am not sure that can be the plan) and here is Jakar Hamilton all alone up top to clean up any mess. Remember, he was just burned by Durham for 40 yards, so he isn’t thinking that the obvious threat is Megatron on the right numbers.
Stafford sees man coverage above and Hamilton to the top. Stafford knows that Megatron is on a go route right down the numbers and that Hamilton has no chance to get there now that he sees Heath moving up. Again, I have Heath and Hamilton high and I ask Sean Lee to run with Pettigrew underneath. At this point of the game, Pettigrew had 31 yards receiving and Johnson had 307!
Carr’s coverage is fine, but that doesn’t matter. Stafford trusts his guy to win a battle even when it looks like he is covered. Stafford is no dummy. He has seen this episode many times.
Clinical stuff from Detroit, but the entire time one wonders if the Cowboys would have just gone to the most vanilla settings and attempt to have 2 safeties playing high how much could be prevented. In fairness, they tried many different schemes all day and nothing was working. But, to see single-high to the very end with a practice squad safety is really putting a lot on a rookie.
I assume the biggest takeaway here is the requirements for healthy and able safeties soon. Luckily, Minnesota cannot do this sort of thing with their QB play, but Drew Brees is likely not losing sleep when he studies this film.