Matt Johnson Dallas Cowboys minicamp

Cowboys safety Matt Johnson has spent his first two NFL seasons injured

By Matthew Postins

The Dallas Cowboys have a safety problem. The question is how did the Cowboys get here?

Historically the Cowboys have done a great job of finding quality safeties and keeping them for long periods of time. Witness the 1970s and the tandem of Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, a pairing that still has to be considered among the best in NFL history. The 1990s brought Darren Woodson for more than a decade of stellar safety play. To a lesser degree, Roy Williams fits this mold as well.

Right now none of the safeties on the Cowboys’ roster would qualify as great:

Barry Church: Easily the best safety on the roster, but by no means an elite player.

Jeff Heath: An undrafted Division II star that ended last season as the starter at strong safety.

Matt Johnson: A fourth-round pick in 2012 that hasn’t played a down for the Cowboys due to injury. But right now he is Church’s backup at strong safety.

J.J. Wilcox: A third-round pick in 2013 that played safety for one year in college, the Cowboys pushed him into a starting role a month into the season and his performance was spotty at best. He gave way to Heath after an injury.

That is the extent of the safety position right now in Dallas. The team has been seriously hampered by Johnson’s injuries. The Cowboys believe he can be a dual-threat safety, but he’s never had the chance to show it. The Cowboys also jettisoned their veteran safety, Will Allen, too soon last year. That put Wilcox in a bad position. Wilcox impressed observers with his ability to hit, but the Cowboys were asking him to step into a starting role after a month and it didn’t work. It doesn’t mean Wilcox won’t develop this offseason. But his performance in 2013 was as much about Wilcox’s learning curve as it was about the Cowboys’ rush to put him into the starting lineup. Heath is a nice player, but players from Division II – especially undrafted free agents – need even more time to develop.

That’s why safety has become, after the defensive line, a popular first-round selection for the Cowboys in mock drafts this offseason.

The Cowboys will host a safety at Valley Ranch this month – Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois. The two top safeties in the draft, Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor are not believed to be visiting. That doesn’t mean the two players are not on the big board at Valley Ranch. The Cowboys get 30 visits and theoretically, the scouting staff had enough face time with both at the scouting combine or at their pro days to get what they needed to evaluate both.

Remember – the Cowboys, like every other NFL team – have been scouting these players for at least eight months, if not close to a year. There are few surprises left.

The Cowboys need more help at the position. But it has to be the right help. That’s where understanding the defensive scheme, the Cover 2, comes in.

The roles of the safety in football are traditionally distinct. The strong safety is the player that knows how to hit and typically helps a bit more against the run. The free safety is the rangy defender who is usually more helpful in pass coverage. On the surface it feels like the positions are filled with freelancers, but that’s not the case at all.

Draw a straight line down the middle of the field parallel to the sideline, thus cutting the field in half. Then, from the line of scrimmage draw a line across the field 15 to 20 yards downfield. Where those two lines intersect is where safety play begins.  In the Cover 2 one safety gets one side of the field and one safety gets the other.

This is part of the reason both safeties in the Cover 2 must be able to defend the pass well. That’s a lot of room to cover. Plus there are additional responsibilities. The strong safety must read the middle of the field and watch for running backs and tight ends running free underneath. Linebackers should pick these players up, but at some point they must release them in order to stick to their assignments. The tight end seam and the ubiquitous running back wheel routes are tricky reads for any strong safety.

The free safety, in addition to being a pass defender, will sometimes become involved in blitzing the quarterback. Or, if one of the linebackers goes up field on a blitz, the free safety must then replace that linebacker in his coverage area.

When I covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Monte Kiffin tweaked these basic assignments due to Ronde Barber’s unique skill set. Kiffin consistently used Barber as a slot cornerback on third downs, sliding him inside so he could also use Barber as a blitzing corner. In these situations the free safety would roll over to assume coverage of the slot receiver Barber would release on the snap.

Last year Kiffin used Orlando Scandrick in this inside slot role and Scandrick’s overall play improved from 2012. But the Cowboys were beat up the middle more often in 2013. The reason? The Cowboys did not have the quality safeties that the Buccaneers had in the mid-2000s, much less Woodson or Harris or Waters.

That’s why it makes sense for the Cowboys to spend a pick in the first, second or third rounds on a safety that provides a multiple package of skills sets. That’s a hard safety to find, but Ward is a little unique in that way. He’s played both safety and corner in college, possesses great speed, knows how to tackle and displayed toughness by running 4.47 in the 40 on a broken foot at his pro day. Note that I think Clinton-Dix possesses the same kind of versatility, and Pryor a little less so.

Also don’t rule out the Cowboys taking a cornerback and turning him into a safety. The Bucs did this during the time I covered the team with Tanard Jackson. He played corner in college, but the Bucs saw qualities on film that led them to believe he could be converted to safety. The Bucs drafted him and for a few years Jackson was a quality starter on the back row.

The Cowboys cannot stay pat at the position. While Church is solid, there are too many question marks surrounding the other three safeties. It’s certainly possible they may develop quickly into the kind of talent the Cowboys need at the position. But, like the defensive line, the Cowboys need numbers and depth. Not addressing the position with a selection that can offer help in 2014 isn’t an option.


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