When going back though my notes on the Cowboys' 2011 season, the one thing that kept popping up as a problem was the play of the safeties on this defense.
Before the season, Rob Ryan spoke of how he liked to use the safeties as interchangable players, meaning that either could line up at the strong or free. I understand what that does scheme-wise, but if one or both of those safeties struggles in coverage, it puts a great deal of pressure on the rest of your defense to make plays.
If I was still on the scouting staff with the Cowboys, I would be in my office day and night trying to find more of a true free safety than two guys like Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh, who have simliar skill sets. When I watched this team play in 2011, there was no one at the safety spot that played with any range. I guess you could say if the ball was in front of them, things were okay, but how many times did we see the ball going down the field without a safety getting over to help the cornerback? Too many, even for Ryan to stomach.
In the offseason, the Cowboys signed Brodney Pool, who played last season with the New York Jets and before that with Ryan and Jerome Henderson with the Cleveland Browns. When I studied Pool last season with the Jets, I saw a player who would play very deep and with some hesitation in his game. There were times that he saw the ball, but his reaction was just late.
Against the Eagles, Pool had a chance to make a play on tight end Brent Celek, but he was late arriving out of the middle of the field and was unable to keep him out of the end zone. Pool really tries to get in position, but he can't. I really didn't see a player that moved all that well. Pool had struggles when he was asked to play coverage out of the slot, allowing way too much separation in the route.
I don't think he runs all that well. He doesn't have a burst or any catch-up speed. In the same Eagles game, he recovered a LeSean McCoy fumble and was run down by offensive tackle Jason Peters when trying to score.
I also had some questions about his ability to be a consistent tackler. In the Giants game he badly missed a tackle on Victor Cruz in the open field.
There are scouts who have told me that he had played better for Henderson in Cleveland than he did last season with the Jets, so we will see if that translates well for the Cowboys. I know it's not a long term commitment by the Cowboys - only a one-year deal - but this is why there was plenty of talk pre-draft that the Cowboys were potentially interested in Mark Barron from Alabama. The club did draft a safety, Matt Johnson, who in the games I studied looked like he could be that player capable of lining up at strong or free safety, and being productive.
The addition of Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne at corner should also help these safeties not be exposed as much. In a group that includes Barry Church, Danny McCray, Johnson and Pool, someone needs to step up and be that guy on the other side of Sensabaugh.
From what I have seen, I like Johnson's chances.