The challenge for any good coaching staff is papering over weaknesses as the playoff drive approaches. And almost every team has at least one major weakness to hide.
In Dallas, there are several, which have been discussed throughout the season. Big, strong, young offensive linemen as needed. That's plural. I was told offensive line was Priority One by a trusted source the week before training camp started and nothing we've seen should disabuse us of the need. No backups have made a push this year, which is why the Cowboys are stuck with an undrafted free agent and a lot of hope at left guard right now.
Dallas also could use a big nose tackle. The DEs are playing better but Jay Ratliff could probably disrupt offenses even more were he moved to end and away from double teams. His 290 lb. frame would also be spared the grinding nose tackles endure.
The biggest need, in my opinion, is at safety. The Cowboys are now in their fifth consecutive year without a solid pair of safeties and the coaches will have to hope for continued improvement in the rush and improved health from the cornerbacks to overcome the deficiency.
Consider the sorry state of affairs. The Cowboys have Ken Hamlin at free safety. He was the secondary's captain last year, plugging a gaping hole in the deep middle. The '07 Cowboys stopped surrendering the 60 yard bombs that doomed the team in December '06. Hamlin has dropped off a bit this year, however. His tackling in particular has been inconsistent.
Who backs Hamlin if he goes down? That's the major issue, as Dallas again is fielding several one or no-dimensional safety partners.
1. Roy Williams began the season as the starting SS, but he again displayed mediocre coverage skills and stopped delivering the kill shots that made him an effective in-the-box player early in his career. He lashed out at critics in the press and among the fan base last spring, but did nothing to quiet them once the real games began. (I'll include myself among the rippers. My old site referred to him as "Thong," since he barely covered anything.)
Williams has a huge contract, and is coming off a lost, injury-shortened season. He's not getting any younger, nor is he getting any faster.
2. Pat Watkins got a shot at strong safety in camp and was moved back to backup free safety. He's still around because he's a good coverage guy on special teams but his neck injury has made him next to useless in pass coverage. He's stiff and can't turn and run, even with tight ends. Vernon Davis made him look slow on a 4th quarter TD Sunday.
More distressing, Watkins has lost what little pop he possessed. Exhibit A -- in the Redskins game, Jason Campbell ran a quarterback draw on a 3rd and 12. Watkins was playing in the deep middle and got a running start at Campbell, who ran upright and made no effort to slide, since he was determined to reach the first-yard marker.
Safeties would give their pinkies for free shots like this. So what did Watkins do? He crumpled when Campbell ran over him. You wonder if Watkins' neck might end his career prematurely. If you can't cover and you can't hit, you're not going to get playing time, unless your peers can do these things either.
Which brings us to:
3. Courtney Brown. Dallas moved him to strong safety in camp. The coaches were optimistic about his chances, but Wade Phillips cautioned that his tackling ability would tell the story.
Has anybody seen Brown at SS since? He may be running out his time. In the 2nd quarter Sunday, Patrick Crayton fielded a punt at his own 30 and looked for room to run. Brown was one of the up men but was run five yards backwards and then shoved another ten yards back into Crayton's path. Crayton tripped over Brown's feet and settled for a small return because Brown could not hold a block.
4. Keith Davis.
He was a special teamer who couldn't crack Miami's secondary in camp. He was a late cut and he's been the lifeboat for this year's safety corp.
Davis was awful as the starting FS in '05 and '06. He's a SS by nature and he could not cover. He can't find footballs in the air and good teams isolated him on slot receivers. His YPA those two years ranked dead last in the NFL.
He's playing his better position this year but he still can't cover. Davis beat him on a first quarter bomb and burned him again in the 3rd quarter. A strong rush forced Shaun Hill to short arm a sure TD into an incompletion.
Davis gets the most out of his game. He's been good playing in the box and stuffing running plays. But he's a poor man's Williams, a band aid until a better-rounded alternative arrives.
* * * * *
Dallas kept five safeties to start the season it has only one dependable safety in the group. The next Dallas strong safety is probably on a college campus as you read this, preparing for his season ender and a bowl game.
It's been a long time since Darren Woodson. It's time the Cowboys got serious about replacing him. It does not matter if they find their man in the 2nd or the 7th round, so long as they find him.
It would not hurt if they acquired his back up as well.