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How Cowboys Safeties Saved The Day Against Green Bay (Part 2)

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Part two in our look at safety play, including the contributions of Jeff Heath and Barry Church.

Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In our last post about the play of the Dallas Cowboys safeties, we examined the efforts of J.J. Wilcox and Byron Jones in overcoming the loss of Morris Claiborne. With only two cornerbacks able to play, all four Dallas safeties stepped up their game and kept the considerable passing abilities of Aaron Rodgers largely at bay. One of the things we discussed was the underneath coverage where athletic Cowboys defensive backs trail their receiver and dare the quarterback to drop a perfect throw over them.

Aaron Rodgers, as he has been known to do, did. Once. But the effect was contained immediately by a rangy, fast free safety playing deep coverage perfectly. No, not Byron Jones. Jeff Heath.

Play 1

Dallas is in a straight nickel with Heath (blue circle) lined up in a Cover 2 look. Jordy Nelson (yellow circle) will be running a deep sideline on Anthony Brown.

Dallas is actually running an almost classic Tampa 2 here, with a linebacker in the deep middle. Jeff Janis (yellow circle) is open near the 30, but Rodgers never gets to look that way because Ryan Davis is coming around the corner on him (blue arrow) and Jordy Nelson (yellow arrow) is running past Anthony Brown. Meanwhile Heath (blue circle) waits in his half of the deep field.

But Brown appears to be playing the trail coverage we discussed. He’s tight underneath as the ball is released and Heath breaks on it.

Like the other corners before him, Anthony Brown makes a mighty leap at the ball (which is in the yellow circle). It’s a nice effort, but the ball is thrown just beyond his reach. This is commonly a problem, because Jordy Nelson with one guy to beat for six points usually is good for the score. But look as Heath adjusts his angle and goes to meet Nelson at the ball.

Before Brown has come all the way back down to earth, Heath has covered the ground and delivers a punishing blow to Nelson. These kind of hits often separate receivers from the ball, though this one did not. Nonetheless, great safety play protected Dallas here, though Green Bay would go on to finally score on this drive.

Next, we'll look at the true star of the Green Bay Packer game, Barry Church. He made tons of big plays, but the biggest of all were the two turnovers he directly caused.

Play 2

Here Dallas is in their base defense. They are blitzing two linebackers (Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, blue arrows forward) and dropping Demarcus Lawrence and the unassigned Brandon Carr in to zones on the left side of the field (blue arrows backward). Green Bay max protects and sends only two receivers, Jeff Janis and Jordy Nelson (yellow arrows) into the pattern. Byron Jones (blue circle) is clapping for attention as he has seen something.

I’ve added a blue box to show our hero, backing up in single high, but not yet very deep. Janis and Nelson run in breaking routes at different levels. Claiborne, at the 24, is dropping deep in respect of Nelson’s speed. Brandon Carr begins a pretty epic run to close off the middle. Byron Jones seems to be in pretty good shape.

As the play goes on, though, a lot happens. Jones trips over the 30 yard line. Fortunately, Carr has come across and prevents a throw to Janis. But then Nelson breaks his route hard in, leaving Claiborne well behind. Barry Church, however, has seen all of this and recognized that the throw is going to Nelson. From the 40 yard line he is now flying forward to meet the ball...

Which is coming in to Jordy Nelson (ball is in the yellow circle)...

Who turns upfield in time to meet this...

And the ball comes straight out to the waiting Morris Claiborne. Dallas ball in Green Bay territory. To be clear here, Nelson is at the 31 just outside the hash when catching the ball above. Church hits him roughly midway between the hash marks at the 32. Nelson literally got a gut full of Church’s shoulder the moment he finished his turn. That play was a work of art for a free safety.

Play 3

Church’s second interception of the season was also pretty. Church (blue circle) has been assigned man-to-man coverage on the tight end. Randal Cobb (yellow arrow) is running an extended slant which will take him across the formation and, ostensibly, past any linebackers in zone. Dallas is otherwise in a straight nickel, with Byron Jones in the slot and J.J. Wilcox at the other safety position.

Church, who is free to roam because his man, the tight end, stays in to block, initially brackets Jordy Nelson off the ball. Cobb begins his inward move.

Rodgers looks left and sees Church underneath Nelson. but Church is merely bating Rodgers, acting as if he’s been looked off. Rodgers starts his throw here...

As Church breaks from there and closes the distance with Cobb heading towards him, Cobb never has a chance. Really nice pick by Church.

It’s worth noting that there was no right answer for Rodgers on this play. Anthony Brown has his man blanketed down the field. Jones is right on Cobb and had Church not broken on the ball it still would have been a contested catch. Had Rodgers locked in on Jordy Nelson, Church was in position to stay underneath and make the throw a very tight window. Just fantastic coverage all around, as was the story for much of the game.

This defensive back field is very strong, folks. And of particular depth is the safety position.