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The Importance Of The "Center Field" Safety In The Cowboys' Defense

A look at the Cowboys scheme and trends around the NFL to help sort out the safety position.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cowboys made the decision in the 2013 offseason to hire Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator, he brought his cohort, and current defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli with him. There was a great deal of talk regarding the "Tampa Two" scheme, and how the team would execute in Cover Two.

As the season went on, I observed that they were playing a very significant majority of their snaps in either Cover 1, Cover 3 or Cover 10. These are coverages that feature a single deep safety in the middle of the field (Cover 1 & 3) or shaded to one side or the other (Cover 10).

In order to substantiate my initial observations, I decided to go back and chart the coverages played by the Dallas defense in several games. In order to do so, rather than attempting to identify that nuances of the individual coverages played each snap, I divided them into three categories, based on the number of deep safeties - Two Deep, Single High,and Zero. Rather than studying the full 16 games, I settled on the first nine games of the year, which extended through stretches played by each of the three safeties who started games next to Barry Church: Will Allen, J.J. Wilcox, and Jeff Heath, to determine whether the changes in personnel at that spot would impact the scheme.

The table below outlines the findings of my studies.

Game Opponent Starter Total Snaps Two Deep Single Deep Zero Single Deep in %
1 Giants Allen 60 26 31 3 52%
2 Chiefs Allen 65 9 55 1 85%
3 Rams Wilcox 71 17 53 1 75%
4 Chargers Wilcox 65 17 47 1 72%
5 Broncos Wilcox 73 29 42 2 58%
6 Washington Wilcox 77 6 71 0 92%
7 Eagles Wilcox 79 17 62 0 78%
8 Lions Heath 78 25 52 1 67%
9 Vikings Heath 69 11 58 0 84%
Total 637 157 471 9 74%

So, of 637 total defensive snaps over 9 games and three different starters, the Cowboys played 74% of their snaps with a single deep safety. So much for "Tamp Two" huh?...

In fact, most of the Two Deep snaps were purely situational (red zone, 3rd-and-long, two-minute drill, etc), which only increases the percentage of standard open field snaps which featured single high coverage looks. This served as very straightforward confirmation of my thoughts. If you're putting a single safety deep on three out of every four snaps anyway, you are obviously better off having someone back there who has a skill set that specifically fits that type of role (speed, range, instincts, ball skills etc). They can then spend their practice reps developing that skill set to play that role, while simply being adequate at what they are asked to do the other 26% of the time, rather than trying to find a player who can be some type of multiple threat player and trying to train him to play several different roles in every area of the field. As my buddy Keith Mullins (@keithdeuces) likes to say, "a Swiss army knife is a nice thing to have around, but it is rarely the best tool for any particular task".

Armed with this information about the Cowboys, I wanted to get an idea of whether the rest of the NFL was employing specialized safeties or "dual threat" type players. Without the time to watch enough tape to make this determination myself, I decided to use size as a proxy. This was with the thought that a 230 lb safety isn't likely to spend many of their snaps in the deep part of the field playing coverage, and a 190 lb safety isn't likely to be mixing it up in the trenches of the run front very often at the NFL level either.

To gain this information, I first visited, which, while not perfect is the best source available for league wide depth charts, and noted the projected starters at both safety positions, and followed that up by visiting each teams official website for height and weight information.

Here are the findings.

  • The average starting safety in the NFL is 6 foot, and just shy of 208 lbs.
  • Of the 32 NFL teams, 25 featured a duo with a weight difference of greater than 5 lbs, of which 16 were greater than 10 lbs.
  • The average larger safety weighed just over 213 lbs, while the average smaller safety is just over 202 lbs, a difference of just over 10 lbs.
  • The height difference between the taller safety and smaller safety averaged only 1.75 inches.
  • To give some perspective on the average 10 lb weight difference between safeties, the weight difference between second year safety J.J. Wilcox, and veteran linebacker Justin Durant, is 11 lbs, (217 vs 228 lbs)..
Based on this information, I believe there is significant evidence which states that teams in the NFL believe that having safeties featuring two different skill sets, to play two different roles (box vs deep) is very important.

There is of course the element of scheme, in which some teams (specifically San Francisco, among others) base out of a quarters coverage, which features virtually identical roles for each safety.  But in spite of this, along with a few specific coordinators/coaches (primarily Rex Ryan and his tree) who are truly "multiple front/multiple coverage" schemes that place value on the flexible safeties (although Ryan made his name as DC of the Ravens, with Ed Reed patrolling the middle of the field), the league is clearly leaning towards varying skill sets at safety.

So there we have it, in a scheme that featured 74% single high a year ago, along with promising even more man coverage and press alignment from the CBs this year (signaling a likely continuation of this heavy single high), and a league quickly moving to increased specialization at the position, it's clear that the Cowboys are in need of a safety who thrives in the center field type role.

The question that will play out over the next six weeks for the Cowboys, is whether J.J. Wilcox can be that guy, or if he will be overtaken by Jakar Hamilton or someone else.

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