Safety First! Dallas Cowboys Safety Position Review & Preview

We continue our position reviews with the safety position. What's there to review, you might ask? Everybody knows that the Cowboys safeties stunk up the joint, right?

Well, perhaps they did, but we're going to do a thorough evaluation anyway. We'll look at the detailed player stats as well as the player grades and see what that can tell us.

And because that could end up being a fairly straightforward assessment, today we also look at a couple of free agents and see what they have to offer beyond name recognition at the safety positions.

Once again, we'll use the Profootballfocus (PFF) data for this review. Please refer to the running back position review if you are unfamiliar with their metrics. I cannot currently access the Football Outsiders player pages, so we'll have to make do without their insight today.

Cowboys safeties in pass coverage

Quick explanation of the stats I'll use below:

Burn rate: number of catches a defensive back allows versus the number of balls thrown at the receiver he is covering. For example, a burn rate of 80% would mean that opponents have completed eight of ten passes thrown at the receiver the cornerback is covering.

Defensive Passer Rating (DPR): uses the same data and formula used for the passer rating for the quarterback (i.e. completion percentage, yard per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions), but applies them to a defender, where they become completion percentage allowed (aka 'burn rate'), yards per attempt allowed, touchdowns allowed and interceptions made.

NFL rank: ranking among 85 safeties who played on at least 25% of their teams' snaps in 2010. Snaps, Targets, Caught and INT ranked high to low; Yards, Burn rate, TD and DPR ranked low to high

Gerald Sensabaugh: Sensabaugh played most of the defensive snaps in all games except for the second Redskins game, which he left early with a concussion. He was targeted fairly often with 42 passes thrown his way (15th most most among all safeties). Fortunately, he recorded a fairly good burn rate of 57% which ranks him the 21st best safety in this category. To put these numbers into perspective, only eight safeties in 2010 recorded a burn rate below 50%, and only one, the Packers' Nick Collins, stayed below 40% (12/32).

Based on the above quantitative stats alone, Sensabaugh clearly delivered an above average safety performance in 2010. But the stats that really stand out are that he allowed only one TD and grabbed a career high five interceptions. Only Ed Reed (8 in 10 games) and Troy Polamalu (7) had more interceptions last year. As a result, his defensive passer rating is an exceptionally low 47.0, the fifth best value in the league. Here's Sensabaugh's full pass coverage stat line:

2010
Snaps Targets Caught Yards
Burn rate TD INT DPR
Sensabaugh
929 42 24 292
57.1% 1 5 47.0
NFL rank 31 15 21T 54
23T 19T 3T 5

Accordingly, based on these and other stats that we'll look at later, PFF hand Sensabaugh a +7.6 grade, making Sensabaugh the 10th best safety in the league last year. 

Alan Ball: The decision to start Alan Ball at safety has drawn the collective wrath of the Cowboys fans, and justifiably so. In terms of pure quantitative stats like yards and burn rate, Ball is an average to below average safety, ranking 44th in yards allowed and and 51st in burn rate.

But he also gave up seven TDs versus only two INTs. No other safety in the league gave up more TDs, the Chiefs' Eric Berry and the Raiders' Tyvon Branch share the dubious honor of also allowing seven TDs. As a result, Alan Ball has a 105.2 defensive passer rating. As the last line of defense, Ball was clearly a disappointment.

2010
Snaps Targets Caught Yards
Burn rate TD INT DPR
Ball
987 27 17 272
63.0% 7 2 105.2
NFL rank 25 58T 51T 44
51 83T 24T 64

Also, keep in mind that these are just the pure volume stats in pass coverage. They say nothing about how often Ball may have been out of position, how often he bit on a play-fake and how often he took wrong angles. All of this, and more stats, are summarized in PFF's final season grade of -9.7, ranking Alan Ball number 78 out of 85 safeties in 2010.

Pass rushing, tackles and stops

Again, just to get the definitions right:

Pass rushing points (PRP): Total Sacks + (Total Hits x 0.75) + (Total Hurries x 0.75) = PRP

Stops: the number of solo defensive tackles that constitute an offensive failure

Pass rushing stats for safeties are always a bit tricky, as how much they rush is largely a function of the defensive scheme they're playing in. Sensabaugh rushed the QB only nine times all season, but did record two sacks and two pressures in the process. Ball rushed seven times, with one pressure and one hit to show for it. They recorded 3.5 and 1.5 pass rushing points respectively, which nets both of them positive grades from PFF in pass rushing. The Saints' Roman Harper recorded 13.5 PRPs on 82 pass rushes, notching three sacks, nine hits and five pressures.

2010
PRP Tackles
Missed Tkls Stops
Sensabaugh
3.5 60
7 30
NFL rank 40T 34 37T 7T
Ball
1.5 40
4 4
NFL rank 60T 59T 13T 79T

Of course it's not fair to throw a SS and a FS into the same table for tackling stats, but PFF do not make a distinction between the two positions, and I'm not about to manually check each of the 85 players to figure out who's a SS and who's a FS. Not that it matters, the numbers are pretty clear anyway.

Sensabaugh doesn't have all that many tackles compared to other SS, while Ball has more tackles than many other FS. Where Sensabaugh has missed seven tackles, Ball has only missed a total of four tackles, which is pretty good. Unfortunately, even though Ball made a lot of tackles hardly any of them constituted an offensive failure: there are only four safeties in the league who recorded fewer stops than Ball. Sensabaugh on the other hand recorded the 7th most stops in the league for a safety, another factor contributing to his strong overall grade.

Overall Grade Cowboys Safeties:

Player # of snaps 2010 Overall Grade Rush Cover Run Penalty '09 Grade 09 Snaps
Alan Ball 987 -9.7 0.3 -11.0 1.4 -0.4 -0.4 266
Gerald Sensabaugh
929 7.4 1.1 3.3 1.5 1.5 2.0 825
Barry Church
112 -4.5 -0.1 -1.7 -1.8 -0.9 - - - -

Let's start at the bottom of the defensive backs table. Barry Church only saw extended action in the second Redskins game after Sensabaugh was knocked out early, and what a rude-awakening his 49 defensive snaps proved to be.

"I felt like I've played better games," Church said. "I got kind of thrown in the fire, but I expect more from myself and I think I missed too many tackles."

Redskins TE Chris Cooley was held without a catch in the first two quarters with Sensabaugh in on most snaps at strong safety. When the game was done, Cooley had five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown against Church. PFF additionally 'credited' Church with three missed tackles for an overall grade of -4.9 in the one game. Outside of the Redskins game, Church did not stand out positively or negatively. Whether Church will be an option in 2011 is an open question, as is the Cowboys' second UDFA hope at safety, Danny McCray, who saw 39 defensive snaps and graded out an even 0.0.

Another open question is Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. Will he be the answer at safety for the Cowboys, and if so, at which position?

Alan Ball is clearly not the answer, and we can safely close that chapter. The Cowboys must find a new free safety. Which leaves Gerald Sensabaugh. What should the Cowboys do with him? Sign him to an expensive extension or let him test the free agency market? Word around Valley Ranch is that interest in re-signing the 27 year old Sensabaugh has significantly cooled, despite stat-lines that (on paper) make him look like a pretty good SS.

At the end of the day, it's always easy to point fingers at a player or two and say they were bad. But at some point you've also got to ask some pointed questions about the coaching. After all, Alan Ball for example played four solid if unspectacular games games in 2009 as a replacement for the injured Ken Hamlin, yet imploded this season. The two Cowboys corners earned Pro Bowl berths in 2009 but combined for the most yards allowed by any CB duo in the league in 2010 (incredibly, even more than Houston's CBs). The defensive line allowed exactly zero, nada, zilch, 100+ yards rushing games by a running back in 2009, unmatched in the NFL. In 2010, they allowed five such rushing performances.

When individual players and whole position groups fail so spectacularly from one year to the next, it's not all on the players. You have to take a long, hard look at the scheme and at the coaching as well. Wade already had to go mid-season, Paul Pasqualoni left of his own accord. Who's next?

The Cowboys could be looking to bring in at least one and perhaps two new safeties, either through the draft or via free agency. The standard caveat ("If there is a CBA in place") applies here as well, of course. Below is a sampling of how the top ten free agent safeties graded out in 2010. Which one(s) should the Cowboys pursue, keeping in mind that Sensabaugh ranked tenth in the NFL last year?

NFL rank Player Pos Age Team 2010 Overall Grade Rush Cover Run Penalty '09 Grade
1 Quintin Mikell
SS 30 PHI 17.0 -3.3 10.8 11.0 -1.5 5.4
2 Michael Huff
FS 27 OAK 13.9 3.8 8.4 1.1 0.6 1.0
3 Eric Weddle
FS 26 SD 12.6 1.5 1.5 8.0 1.6 7.4
4 Dawan Landry
SS 28 BAL 10.5 -3.2 2.5 9.5 1.7 -11.3
6 Danieal Manning
SS 28 CHI 9.5 -0.5 6.4 4.0 -0.4 -0.1
11 Roman Harper
SS 28 NO 7.1 1.9 1.9 6.8 -3.5 2.3
15 Husain Abdullah
FS/SS 25 MIN 4.5 0.8 -3.0 5.3 1.4 - -
25 Brodney Pool
FS/SS 26 NYJ 2.5 -2.8 6.5 0.5 -1.7 9.1
45 Charlie Peprah
SS 27 GB -1.1 0.2 -0.8 -1.6 1.1 - -
49 Deon Grant
SS 31 NYG -2.1 -0.1 1.6 -4.9 1.3 -2.0
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