What I have learned over the years studying this scheme is that if you have poor safety play, it affects how well the defense functions. The idea is to funnel the ball to the inside and allow the linebackers and safeties to make the plays. But if those players are out of position, then you're going to have issues.
There were too many times in the 2013 season where this group was playing Cover 2 or in the single high look where they just couldn't finish the play and you saw a negative play as the result.
If there was a bright spot for the group, it was the play of Barry Church, who had only made three career starts coming into the 2013 season. Church was coming off an Achilles surgery and there were questions on whether he would be as good as he was last season. Church led the team in tackles with 147, also forcing three fumbles and one interception. Other than Sean Lee, there wasn't a surer tackler on the defense than Church. There were several times in the season where you observed him bringing LeSean McCoy or Adrian Peterson down in the open field.
The closer that Monte Kiffin was able to play Church near the line of scrimmage, the better he was as a player. If Church did have issues and it was no different than the other safeties on this club, it was in coverage especially when the ball was thrown between the linebackers and where he was in his drops. Where Church is going to have to improve is how he reads routes and how he reacts to them. The ability is there to cover or react to the routes but the awareness needs to improve there and it should with more experience.
Where this defense needs to improve is how they handle the position opposite Church. As critical as we all were of how Jeff Heath and J.J. Wilcox played this season at times, we have to remember that they were rookies. The experience for both of them was outstanding but having to learn on the job can be taxing to your team whether that's on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. I thought where these rookies actually made progress was their overall tackling improved as the season went on. They were both awful for a stretch in the middle of the season and that should not be overlooked.
Like Church, these rookie safeties weren't ready to have to play coverage in this scheme. I will say though, there were some plays this season where both Heath and Wilcox were in really good position on routes and were able to finish plays. Heath had a nice interception on a nice zone drop on an Orlando Scandrick tipped ball and Wilcox batted the ball away from DeSean Jackson in the end zone against the Eagles. But the problem for this defense was there were not as many plays like these throughout the season.
It was clear that the coaches felt that Heath was a more reliable player assignment and scheme wise which is why they continued to stick with him. Both of these players need to work on their awareness and where they fit on routes. As mentioned, you did see flashes of their ball skills but there needs to be much more work in this area. As a safety, when that ball goes in the air, you have to find a way to make a play on it and this is where they struggled the most. As Bill Parcells use to tell us, safeties miss playing the ball costs you hundreds of yards during the season and that was very evident this season with what we saw too much this season.
Jakar Hamilton was another rookie that saw action this season in a limited role but the time that he was on the field was on that fatal final drive against the Lions that resulted in a loss. It was Hamilton's lack of understanding of how to play off the hash with his alignment that allowed Kris Durham to catch the ball along the sideline for a huge gain putting the ball deep in Cowboys territory. It wasn't Hamilton's lack of skill that hurt him in that situation but just his lack of experience. [embedded_ad]
In talking to guys in the front office that watched practice every day, they were pleased with how Hamilton responded after he went through that Lions game. There was also the thought that he could develop into a player that could play as more of a true free safety in this league. Danny McCray didn't see as much action on the defense that he did the previous year and was just able to focus on special teams only. McCray finished 6th on the team in tackles with eight, while Jeff Heath led the way with 13.
If there has been a position that has held this team hostage over the years since Darren Woodson and Roy Williams walked out the door, it would have to be the safety. This front office has tried to piece it together with veteran free agents and mid to late round draft picks, without much success. As another off season approaches, the questions once again need to be asked if the current group of players is good enough or does this position need to seriously be addressed?
I have no issues with Barry Church as the starter but I also feel like that you need to pair him with a player that can play opposite of him that has better ball and cover skills. There were just too many situations where this defense could have gotten off the field if they had that type of player there to make a play and it would not surprise me one bit that they try and address that player in the draft to help on that backend.