Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part V: Safeties
I have to be very careful when interpreting the secondary statistics gathered from my film study. For example, despite generally being superior tacklers, one might expect the percentage of missed tackles to be higher for safeties than cornerbacks because the latter is forced to attempt less open-field tackles.
For this reason and others, it is also unreasonable to compare statistics between cornerbacks and safeties. Comparisons can be drawn between players within a position, however, as long as we are aware of the possible limitations to such comparisons.
This season’s stats may be particularly difficult to compare because not a single one of the three safeties I graded (Alan Ball, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Barry Church) played the same position.
Ball is a free safety who was almost always 15 yards off of the line of scrimmage. Sensabaugh played much closer to the box at his strong safety position, and thus was targeted more often by opposing quarterbacks (he was in man coverage far more often than Ball). Finally, Church received the majority of his snaps at the nickel linebacker position–a spot to which he needed to adjust as the season unfolded. Nonetheless, we can analyze the stats and use what we’ve seen on film to provide (hopefully) fairly accurate grades for each player.
- Chart Key: TA=Thrown At, Rec=Receptions Yielded, PD=Passes Defended, Yds/Att=Yards Per Attempt Thrown At
- The best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.
- Some of the stats were provided by Pro Football Focus.
- The final chart details my own custom statistic, the Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating. It incorporates the factors I believe are most valuable in evaluating the success of a safety. The amount of points a player scores in each category is less important than the difference between his score and the average score. For example, a point total of 20.0 in a category where the league average is 5.0 helps a player more than a score of 100.0 in a category whose league average is 90.0.
- The final grade is weighted 2:1 in terms of pass defense versus run defense.
- Alan Ball
Pass Defense: D
As a converted cornerback, Ball’s upside at safety seemed to be tremendous this season. Although largely an unknown at the position, there were rumors of Ball being a bit of a ball-hawk in the back of the secondary.
As it turned out, those rumors couldn’t have been further from the truth. Ball was horrendous in 2010, yielding a ridiculously poor seven touchdowns, despite being thrown at only 27 times. Free safeties are rarely in true man coverage (which explains why Ball wasn’t thrown at as much as Sensabaugh). This is also the reason Ball’s Pass Defense Rating (bottom of the page) seems so high (it’s actually poor for a free safety). The 2.74 percent of snaps on which Ball was targeted are about average for a free safety.
Ball also yielded 10.07 yards-per-attempt–a terrible number. Most importantly, it was just obvious on film that he was uncomfortable at free safety and simply doesn’t possess the skill set to flourish at the position.
Run Defense: C-
Ball tallied the lowest missed tackle rate of any safety, so how did he receive a ‘C-‘? Well, Ball took such horrible angles to the football for the majority of the season that he simply wasn’t in position to miss (or make) a lot of tackles. Anyone who watched a handful of Cowboys games saw that Ball was hesitant to make hits and rarely did his job as a tackler.
- Gerald Sensabaugh
Pass Defense: B+
I admit that I was pretty low on Sensabaugh going into the 2010 season. Throughout the year, though, I noticed Sensabaugh becoming more comfortable in the defense and using his instincts to make plays.
Readers may be shocked to see this grade for a player many view as overrated, but I really believe Sensabaugh deserves it. Despite being targeted about as often as in ’09, Sensy yielded a lower reception rate and completion percentage, fewer yards, and less yards-per-attempt and per snap.
Sensabaugh also decreased his touchdowns allowed from five to one, while increasing his interception total from one to five. Many of you know I view interceptions as somewhat fluky and a relatively poor barometer for coverage ability, but Sensabaugh was actually usually in position to make plays in 2010.
Run Defense: B+
More tackles, fewer missed tackles, and fewer penalties in 2010. Sensabaugh was also one of the few players who stood out on film during the times of desperation as a player still giving it his all.
- Barry Church
Pass Defense: D+
Church’s sample size of plays (119) isn’t gigantic, but he played enough for the Cowboys to know he isn’t ready to receive more playing time. He was targeted only four times on the season, yielding a completion on each pass. His Pass Defense Rating is horrible, but some of that is the result of such a small sample size of plays.
Run Defense: D
Church missed as many tackles as Ball despite playing only 12 percent of the snaps. He has the skill set to be a solid tackler, but he didn’t show it this season.
Final 2010 Safety Grades
1. Gerald Sensabaugh: B+ (87.0)
- 2009 Grade: C (75.7)
2. Alan Ball: D+ (67.7)
- 2009 Grade: C+ (78.3)
3. Barry Church: D (66.3)
- 2009 Grade: None
The Cowboys need a new free safety, point blank. Ball was awful in every aspect of safety play in 2010, and there isn’t much of a reason to believe he will improve next season. With no safety projected to be a first-round pick in the draft (other than CB/S Patrick Peterson, perhaps–who will be taken before the Cowboys’ selection), free agency may be the way to go.
Luckily, there are a lot of quality safeties on the market, including Michael Huff, Quintin Mikell, Eric Weddle, and (most likely) O.J. Atogwe.
It probably won’t be popular among fans, but I think Sensabaugh deserves an extension. Other than Doug Free, he’s the top in-house candidate to receive a new deal. How he will perform if he receives that deal is yet to be seen.