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How The Cowboys Safeties Helped Save The Game Against Green Bay (Part 1)

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Looking at the safety play that shut down the Green Bay Packers. Part one focuses on Byron Jones and J. J. Wilcox.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys could have been in serious trouble during the Green Bay game. With Orlando Scandrick already out, Morris Claiborne left the game with a Sean Lee induced concussion. Only two cornerbacks remained active and one of them was sixth-round rookie Anthony Brown. Surely Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s all-time highest-rated passer, would pick apart a defensive backfield full of safeties?

Perhaps not.

In this installment, we will take a gander at some of the play that J.J. Wilcox and Byron Jones brought to Lambeau Field.

Play 1

First up, the much maligned Wilcox (blue circle) is playing up on the left side of the defense. His assignment is a supportive zone, much like the one Joey Ickes showed Barry Church performing in his recent breakdown. With Ty Montgomery (yellow arrow) leaking out of the backfield, he becomes Wilcox’s responsibility.

Aaron Rodgers has no one to throw to. You might think the Packer in the yellow circle is open, but Brandon Carr is already driving on the route (blue arrow) and a throw there is likely to be broken up. Everyone else is locked up tight. I might especially mention Jeff Heath at the Dallas 47 yard line running down the seam with Richard Rodgers.

Rodgers checks down to his speedy outlet guy from the backfield. Montgomery fills a Lance Dunbar-like role here and is dangerous in the open field. But by the time he catches the ball (pictured here) Wilcox has driven on the play and is breaking down to both contain Montgomery and make the tackle.

From the end zone view, we get a nice look at the excellent job Wilcox does positioning himself to force Montgomery to the sideline and out of bounds for no gain.

Play 2

Here we have Wilcox with a little noted but possibly game-changing play. He has halves coverage at the goal line. Ty Montgomery is running a quick look-in route.

You may be wondering why the linebacker (Anthony Hitchens, I believe) doesn’t disrupt this play. But he is trying to double Jordy Nelson, taking away the underneath throw on the outside. This seems an odd call as it leaves a massive hole right where Montgomery’s route is and Rodgers already has the ball out. Perhaps it was a missed assignment, but Wilcox is already breaking on the throw, interrupting his drop.

The catch is made, but as Montgomery turns, Wilcox is right there with a sure tackle.

Why the big deal? If Wilcox is slow reacting or misses this tackle, the Packers score a TD and make it a one score game with tons of time left (this is the third quarter). But the very next play, David Irving strips Rodgers and Dallas recovers, leaving the Packers without even a field goal to show for their efforts.

Now we’ll move on to a couple of nice plays by Byron Jones.

Play 3

The Packers are in five wide. Dallas has four safeties on the field to defend this! Barry Church (blue circle) will take Montgomery, Jeff Heath (blue square) mans up on Jeff Janis, and J. J. Wilcox is playing deep at the 20-yard line shaded to the defensive left (offscreen, blue arrow). Byron Jones is our X-factor here (blue x).

As they go into their routes, the Packers receivers find themselves closed out by Church and Heath underneath, but Cobb appears to be past Byron Jones. Rodgers is winding up to throw there.

But in what is becoming a theme (and what I believe is a specific technique being implemented) Jones is simply playing underneath coverage on the long throw. Playing tight like this forces the QB to fit the ball in a very tight window. The QB has to get the ball over the coverage and often this will result in an overthrow. A perfect ball is a big gain here, but a perfect ball is very hard to throw. Anything less than absolutely perfect, and Byron gets his hands on the ball.

And lest you disbelieve me about the overthrows, here’s less than a minute of game time later. Same basic play, same coverage. Overthrown.

We’ve seen this particular technique a lot. With Morris Claiborne also coming up with some impressive break ups from it. This may be the result of the coaching change, or merely a change in philosophy. But this new, more aggressive type of coverage is paying dividends for Dallas and it hasn’t really bitten them yet, as we will see in part two, because of good safety play.