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The Cowboys need some safeties who can tackle

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With the free agency loss of Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, the Cowboys’ safeties are not tackling at the rate they did last year.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

With the trade deadline approaching at the end of the month, SB Nation asked us to suggest a trade we’d like to see Dallas execute before the deadline. My answer was that the Cowboys should go after safety Tyvon Branch from the Cardinals to replace the low-rated Jeff Heath. This got me thinking, so I decided to do a bit of a dive into the stats this season for the Cowboys’ safeties, and specifically their tackling stats.

One of the main differences between this year and last is the Cowboys run-stopping ability has plummeted. This is not solely due to the team not being ahead and forcing opponents to pass. It’s largely due to the fact the Cowboys haven’t tackled well.

One reason they haven’t tackled well is that, until last week, the Cowboys didn’t have both Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens on the field. Hitchens missed four games, while Lee missed two. As a result, the Cowboys had to use Jaylon Smith far more than they intended, when he’s not been fully ready for his close up.

But another reason has to be the safeties. Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox were not perfect players in Dallas, but they were pretty good tacklers. Let’s see how the safety group of 2017 compares after six games to last year’s group. I’m using full-year data from 2016 and discounting it to six games (.375).

Using Pro Football Reference data, here are the tackling totals for 2016.

Year Player Snap % Tackles Assists
2016 Byron Jones 93% 67 14
Barry Church 64% 61 24
JJ Wilcox 53% 33 12
Jeff Heath 23% 13 4
Kavon Frazier 3% 1 1
Total 236% 175 55
Team 644 283
Safety % 27.1% 19.4%

Here are the numbers for 2017 so far.

Year Player Snap % Tackles Assists
2017 Byron Jones 97% 19 6
Jeff Heath 91% 22 5
Xavier Woods 32% 6 0
Kavon Frazier 19% 8 2
Total 239% 55 13
Team 255 81
Safety % 21.5% 16%

What do you notice?

In 2017, the Cowboys’ safeties are only making 21.5% of the tackles, versus 27.1% in 2016, and 16% of the assists versus 19.4% in 2016.

In addition, Barry Church played 12 games last year. Jeff Heath has played six so far this year. The reason Church played only 64% of snaps is because of missed games, not lesser use during the games he played. So it’s reasonable to double Heath’s tackles this year and compare them to Church. The problem with that is that Heath’s totals, if doubled, come to 44 tackles and 10 assists, while Church made 61 tackles and 24 assists. Heath is also graded by Pro Football Focus at 46.7, with equally bad pass and run defense grades. Last year, in more limited use, he scored 77.7

But it’s not just Jeff Heath who’s off. Byron Jones is playing slightly more than last year, but his tackling pace is way off. At his current trajectory, he would finish with 50 tackles and 16 assists over 16 games. Last year, he finished with 67 and 14. Byron Jones gets an overall 75.4 grade from PFF, but only a 51.8 score on run defense. Last year, he scored 83.4 overall.

The best tackler per snap this year is Kavon Frazier, who would project to roughly 40 tackles and 10 assists so far if he was playing nearly 100% of the time, like Byron Jones. That is essentially double Byron Jones’ production, and almost double Jeff Heath’s production. The problem with playing Kavon Frazier is likely coverage ability, not tackling.

Is it fair to compare six games to 16 games? It’s not ideal. But one test is to discount the team’s tackling over 16 games from 2017 down to six games for 2016 and see how they compare. That reduces the 16 games to .375 to reach six games. If you take 644 tackles and 283 assists from 2016 and reduce them you get 241 tackles and 106 assists. So far, the 2017 Cowboys have 255 tackles and 81 assists. So on a team-wide level, the Cowboys have more tackles per game, but fewer assists. The safeties, however, are under on both counts.

Is there a way to fix this problem?

That brings me back to the top. The best way to fix it in 2017 would be to trade for a solid safety, and relegate Jeff Heath to a reserve role, like he played last season. This would allow Dallas to bring Xavier Woods along as fast as he can develop, but not have to expose him before he’s ready. Chidobe Awuzie could also play some safety, where he’s better suited than the three cornerbacks he would compete with for playing time. In other words, if you need to give Jeff Heath some time off, Jourdan Lewis, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Brown can’t really do it, but Awuzie could.

Given how conservative the Cowboys tend to be, it would be a miracle if they actually made a trade to shore up their safety play. They essentially wasted a pick on Ben Benwikere that would have been better spent as part of a package for an impact player, not someone who’s gotten four defensive snaps in four games, as Benwikere has. But there’s little doubt that’s what the Cowboys should do in a year when they hope to be playing meaningful games in January and beyond this season.