I have long preached the Dallas Cowboys will be running much more than just the typical Tampa 2 defense in 2012. Besides mixing in both man and zone coverage along with the Cover 2 and Cover 3 formations, the Cowboys coaching staff has bluntly stated they will be running a Single High Safety look similar to what the Seattle Seahawks run. Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin specifically asked his players in January to study film on the Seattle defense in preparation for 2013. Cornerback Brandon Carr explains,
"I kind of asked him (Kiffin)what our philosophy and what the look of our defense was going to be, and as a prime example he said, ‘Go see Seattle film and you’ll probably learn a lot from those guys and just watch how they move on the field.’ That’s some homework for me to do for the next couple of weeks.”"
Why the focus on Seattle’s Single High Safety you ask?
Sep 5, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive back Barry Church (42) breaks up pass intended for New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (88) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O
Because it is effective in stopping the Read-Option Offense, that’s why.
That’s the same read-option RGIII abused Dallas with. It’s a similar read-option even Terrelle Pryor had success against the Cowboys with (at least the running portion). If the Cowboys want to compete for the division they must go through Washington to do it. And the Single High Safety may be the best way to get that done.
Now that the Dallas Cowboys are installing and applying the new defense, it’s probably a good time to review exactly what is the Single High Safety.
The closest version of the Single High Safety Dallas will run is the one Pete Carroll is running in the Pacific Northwest. Carroll, a former Kiffin disciple, has been slowly building Seattle’s defense over the past three seasons. He took a slow moving 2 gap defense that ranked 25th in the NFL and made it into an aggressive one gap force that ranked #1 in the NFL last year.
The process to change a defense is long. Installing the scheme, the coaches, and the players take time.
Let’s look at the key part of his defense and the specific part Monte Kiffin assigned for homework – The Single High Safety. By understanding the roles of the single high safety we can see if the Cowboys are equipped to stop the Read-Option Offense in 2013.
The Single High Safety
Aug 4, 2013; Canton, OH, USA; Dallas Cowboys strong safety Will Allen (26) warms up before a game against the Miami Dolphins at Fawcett Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
The single high safety is an aptly named defense that employs one deep safety in a ball-hawk centerfielder role. If a outside zone coverage is called then the single high formation becomes essentially a Cover 3 with the 2 cornerbacks responsible for the outside deep sections of the field.
If it’s a man defense the corners will play up in man and the safety will provide the Cover 1 element. The other safety plays in the box in both situations, serving as an extra LB in run and pass support.
The in-the-box safety presence allows the 3 LB’s and the safety to each be responsible for only one gap. Without having 2 gap responsibilities the LB’s only need to read run or pass before fully committing. Without the additional safety in the box this would not be possible and the Cowboys would be vulnerable to the run on the weakside of the formation.
1 gap responsibility improves reaction time and makes a significant difference in run support especially against a running QB in a Read-Option/Pistol offense.
For those of you who just had traumatic flashbacks to either of the Redskins games of 2012 this should come as welcomed news. The truth is the running element of the pistol offense is very easy to stop with the single high safety. With the four lineman simply holding their gaps and their containment responsibilities, the LB’s and the shallow (strong) safety are able to play single gap and stop the pistol offense with ease.
The only problem is RGIII is an excellent passer and can beat teams with his arm also. In 2012 the single high scheme shut down RGIII’s running but he made teams pay for their poor coverage. According to ESPN’s Dan Graziano’s late season column,
He has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes on throws more than 10 yards downfield against single-safety coverage, and fewer than half against split-safety coverage.
Aug 5, 2013; Richmond, VA, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) hands the ball off to running back Keiland Williams (25) as quarterback Rex Grossman (8) hands the ball off to running back Chris Thompson (35) during afternoon practice as part of the 2013 NFL training camp at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
You may be asking, “If RGII excels against the Single High Safety why would the Cowboy’s want to use it?” The reason RGII succeeded wasn’t because the single high concept was wrong but rather because it wasn’t executed correctly. RGIII may have done well against most single high safeties but against the Seattle defense he only managed 84 yards passing and 21 yards rushing. That’s good for a 33.9 QBR.
The single high safety stacks the line of scrimmage and forces teams to play one-dimensionally. The pressure is placed on the cornerbacks (Carr and Claiborne) and the deep safety (Church, Allen, or Wilcox). If Mo Claiborne takes the expected step forward in his development this season, the Cowboys should be well equipped to stop the pass from the CB perspective. The safety side of things is the scary part. Barry Church is easy to love but largely unproven. Matt Johnson is hurt again and may never be a factor. Will Allen is nothing special and merely a stop-gap. If the Cowboy’s employ the Single High Safety in 2013 they better be sure they are covered in centerfield.
Carroll’s defense asks for a disciplined deep safety to play centerfield and a separate safety who excels in run support rather than coverage. Gerald Sensabaugh was never much of a ball-hawk and he was recently rated one of the worst NFL safeties in run support. It’s easy to see why he was cut now – He just didn’t fit this new single high safety scheme.
The Key to the Single High Safety is – SURPRISE – the Single High Safety! The question is, does dallas have that player to be successful in this scheme or are we in for a long year?
We don’t have an answer yet, but hopefully things will clear up by the time the season starts. Keep an eye on the Safety position the rest of this preseason. The Cowboys ability to stop the Redskins may just depend on it.
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