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Cowboys Analysis: The Right Starters at Safety and ‘Going Light’ on Defense

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At NBC, I posted an article detailing why I believe Barry Church and Matt Johnson to be the right men for the starting safety jobs.

Church and Johnson are considered the favorites to win the job, and for good reason. Church has shown glimpses of greatness in his limited work, totaling the highest tackle rate on the Cowboys over the past three seasons. He’s a big 6-2, 218-pound safety, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be a poor fit in Monte Kiffin’s scheme. Kiffin has said he wants to mimic what Seattle did last year, which was play a whole lot of Cover 3. In that defense, Church would play the “Kam Chancellor” role in the box—something he could potentially do quite well.

Johnson is a player without NFL experience, but one whom the numbers suggest is ready to start. Take a look at this comparison:

Johnson: 6-1, 215 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.07 short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 18 reps

Player X: 6-0, 214 pounds, 4.63 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.06 short shuttle, 6.78 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 15 reps

Player X is 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. Sometimes we think differently of players because of where they went to school, but Johnson has early-round athleticism. We’ll see if his play matches up.

I also proposed a very “undersized” defense for Dallas.

The shift to Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense means that the Cowboys were bound to bring in lighter players, but they’re likely going to field the lightest defense in the entire NFL in 2013. Take a look at the size of the projected starters in 2013:

DT: 6-5, 304 pounds
DE: 6-4, 252 pounds
LB: 6-2, 238 pounds
S: 6-2, 217 pounds
CB: 6-0, 198 pounds

They’re particularly light at defensive end. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer can both play the run, however, so perhaps Kiffin doesn’t have many concerns with starting one of the lightest pass-rushing duos in the NFL.

Some will argue that the Cowboys are leaving themselves susceptible to the run. That might be true, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Running is a sub-optimal play-calling strategy in most game situations, so forcing teams to run at times when they could pass—such as first-and-10—is a smart idea. The Cowboys might be vulnerable to the run, but it could end up working out in their favor.

Actually, I think the Cowboys should go as small as possible in almost all situations, daring teams to run. That could mean playing with nickel personnel in base situations. By lining up in nickel when an offense is utilizing base personnel, the Cowboys would be saying “if you want to beat us, you’ll have to continually run the ball down the field.” They say that continually getting run on is demoralizing, but I’d argue giving up an 80-yard touchdown pass is even worse.

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