What do the Cowboys have in J.J. Wilcox? That's a question on the minds of many fans. We've all heard stories of the athleticism, the raw measurables. But we've also all seen the bad angles, the blown coverages. Because of the position he plays it's hard to actually see what he does on most plays. We knew going in that he would be a project, having only played safety for a very short time. So how is the project progressing? Here's a look at every J.J. Wilcox play in the first half of last Sunday's win over Houston.
Play 1. It's a somewhat inauspicious start for Wilcox. He starts off playing man coverage:
So far so good. As Wilcox's man comes out in his pattern we see Wilcox drop into a stance that looks like he is planning on pressing his man.
After a small bit of contact where the receiver is rerouted outside, Wilcox bails off of coverage, and starts to look into the backfield at the quarterback.
After finding the quarterback it looks like Wilcox starts to drop into a shallow zone. The only problem, the play is a run going the other way. Look at Wilcox's feet in the next picture; it appears he's going into his backpedal when he locates the play is actually about to end with the ballcarrier tackled on the other side of the field.
Play 2: These first three plays show a lot of the different ways Dallas uses Wilcox. On this play we see him playing as a single high deep safety. Notice how far off the line he's set up.
He's a good 17 yards past the line of scrimmage. And at the snap he immediately drops:
Here we see Wilcox is 25 yards past the play...when he begins breaking towards it! He's also a good 20 yards beyond the deepest Texans receiver.
Now I don't blame Wilcox for this...I'm pretty positive this is just part of the scheme. But you can see why it can be hard to get a good read on just what Wilcox is doing, let alone how well he is doing it.
Play 3: Here we see a skill of Wilcox's I didn't know he had; rushing the passer. Wilcox lines up on the line of scrimmage:
He puts that athleticism on display, just exploding off the line and around the corner.
Wilcox hits the QB and brings him to the ground. The QB just manages to toss the ball forward before he's down; this should have been an easy intentional grounding play, but somehow the refs missed it.
Play 4: Cover 2 look. Looks like man coverage. Wilcox bails off his man once the ball is in the air to break on the tackle. Decent coverage.
Play 5: Cover 2 look. Wilcox picks up an underneath receiver.
Play 6: Single high safety. Plays deep zone with man coverage underneath. At the snap Wilcox drops to about 20 yards deep. Seems a bit slow breaking to the thrown ball.
Play 7: Cover 2 look. Traditional cover 2 coverage, pick by Scandrick in the shallow zone.
Play 8: Offense is in a single WR, "big" look. Wilcox is the single high safety, 14 yards deep. Run up the middle, play is over before Wilcox has finished his initial drop.
Play 9: This was the first "bad" coverage I saw from Wilcox. Play starts in a cover 2 look:
Instead of dropping into zone Wilcox immediately comes forward and picks up the slot receiver crossing across the middle.
So far so good. But then the receiver makes a cut up the field. It looks to me like Wilcox can't make the cut quick enough and reaches out and grabs the receiver (should have drawn a flag). Regardless, he's beat. You can see in the picture he's off balance and still facing across the field while the receiver is facing upfield. Luckily the QB has already thrown the ball outside.
Play 10: 3rd and 1. Wilcox is the single high, 15 yards back. Initially backpedals, then reads run and breaks towards the play. Again, I'm not really blaming Wilcox, although it would be nice if he made his read faster, but this is one reason why our defense is struggling in the run. With Wilcox so deep, then backpedaling, we are effectively playing with 10 men on the field on this run play.
Play 11: This is another bad play by Wilcox. It starts with a Cover 2 look:
The play is a run. I'm not really sure what Wilcox is doing; at first it looks like he's coming up to play man coverage, then realizes it's a run...but he could see it's a run the whole way and is just trying to diagnose the play. Either way, it results in him hesitating at the point of attack:
It appears that Wilcox is breaking down to diagnose the play, and that he is looking at the fairly big gap circled in red. Unfortunately it seems that Wilcox has lost the play in the backfield, and his hesitation allows the receiver to engage him in a block.
Wilcox is unable to get off his block and allows the running back to get behind him. Barry Church is able to trip the running back up enough to make him stumble and fall, but this could have been a very bad play for the defense.
Play 12: Single high safety, 20 yards deep. Drops at the snap, run play.
Play 13: Single high safety. Double teams a deep crossing route with the CB. QB is forced to scramble.
Play 14: Cover 2 look. 14 yards deep pre-snap. Drops into the deep middle (cover 3 coverage). No receiver enters area.
Play 15: 3rd and long. Dallas in deep Cover 2 look, 17 yards off the line. Plays cover 2 zone. Draw play, Wilcox diagnoses quickly but misses the open field tackle.
Play 16: Cover 2 alignment. Run play. Not sure if J.J. does a great job reading the play or if he was on a blitz call but he immediately shoots in at the snap forcing the TE to come over and block him.
Play 17: Cover 2 look, 13 yards deep pre-snap. Run play. J.J. hesitates before coming up in run support.
Play 18: 3rd and short play, and Texan's come out in a "big" formation. Dallas counters with a single high safety, (Wilcox). Texans run up the middle for a first down. This play is another good example of why Dallas is struggling in the running game; there is no way that Wilcox could have any impact on the play as deep as he is playing.
Play 19: Cover 2 formation. 12 yards deep. Cheats up to five yards deep pre-snap. Play action. Wilcox bites on play fake initially, but is quick to recover.
Play 20: SIngle high formation. 18 yards deep. Drops to 25 yards at snap. Short pass.
Play 21: Here's a play where we can see why the coaches are so excited about Wilcox. It starts out in a traditional Cover 2 alignment, with Houston throwing a quick bubble screen. In the picture below we see the receiver with good blocking in front of him and only Wilcox between him and the end zone. Wilcox does an excellent job breaking down and making the open field tackle.
Play 22 & 23: 3rd and 17. Marinelli comes out in a really interesting formation with three down linemen, four linebackers playing ten yards deep, and the safeties in a cover 2 formation twenty yards deep. Houston has to burn a timeout trying to figure the formation out. The next play Dallas stays in the same formation and Houston runs a draw play for minimal gain.
Play 24: This play comes right after the punt return fumble. Cover 2 alignment 12 yards deep. Cover 2 coverage, no receiver comes in Wilcox's zone.
Play 25: Cover 2 alignment 12 yards deep. Houston runs a little two-yard pass to the wide receiver. Wilcox does an amazing job reading the play and coming up in support. You can see in the red circle that the receiver has linemen coming over to block for him.
This has to really excite the coaches; Wilcox does a great job of making the blockers look silly; they aren't able to even get a hand on him.
In fact he completely spins number 76 around!
Play 26: 3rd and 8. Wilcox lines up on the line and again shows off his explosiveness, getting around the edge, and getting by the running back.
The running back gets just enough of Wilcox's side to spin him around and stop him from getting to the QB for the sack.
What Does it Mean? It's hard to say. Wilcox just didn't have many opportunities to shine in this game. He flashes great ability in run support, but struggles in play diagnoses. He showed very well in pass rushing opportunities, but didn't do much in coverage (not really his fault, he didn't have many opportunities).
My biggest takeaway from all of this is that Dallas gears its defense to stop the pass, then worries about the run. Our safeties, particularly when we play single high, are generally so deep they are of no use in the run game, especially in short yardage. I don't know if this was just the game plan against the Texans, or if this is how our defense operates in general, but it helps to explain some of our difficulties with the run.