Dallas Cowboys: Have Faith in Church

Nov 15, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys strong safety Barry Church (42) during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 10-6. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys strong safety Barry Church (42) during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 10-6. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys have many worrisome issues on their defense but this player should have us all breathing easy. It’s time to have faith in Church.

Worry about the pass-rush. Worry about the injuries. Worry about the suspensions. Worry about the coverage. But whatever you, don’t worry about safety Barry Church.

Playing in his seventh season, Barry Church is the elder statesman of the safety unit.  The former undrafted priority free agent joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2010. Church, 6’2” 218lb safety from Toledo, has never been the flashiest of players on the Cowboys but he’s arguably been the most reliable. It’s curious then that so many are quick to disregard his expected contributions in 2016.

Church, 28, has always been overlooked. He was overlooked in college, overlooked in the draft, and he’s overlooked now. Despite this, Barry Church has always found a way to carve out a role. He’s endeared himself to teammates and coaches, and he’s played some VERY underrated football along the way.

Just last season Barry Church had one of his better seasons as a pro. He’ didn’t light up the stat sheet by any means but he executed his role extremely well nonetheless. Pro Football Focus rated Barry Church as the NFL’s 67th rated safety. Given the NFL has only 32 team that doesn’t reflect particularly well for number 42 – but like always – there’s more to the story.

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Barry Church consistently ranks low in coverage. Whether it’s man defense or zone defense, Cover 1 or Cover 2, Church struggles.  PFF gave him a 41.9 score in this category making him one of the absolute worst in the NFL. While I believe that may be a little harsh, I do respect PFF’s methods and accept them as truth in this regard.

So how then was this one of his better seasons?

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Because of how good Church is against the run.

Against the run, Barry Church ranks as PFF’s #3 safety in the NFL, earning a score of 93.7. Only the Minnesota duo of Harrison Smith and Antone Exum rate higher. Is that enough to make up for his coverage deficiencies? More than enough.

Here’s why…

The Dallas Cowboys run primarily out of the single high safety set. One safety back in coverage and one up in the box. They will run different coverages like Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3 (Tampa 2)from it but more often than not, the strong safety plays closer to the line.

Think of the Seattle Seahawks defense. Both the Cowboys and ‘Hawks play a very similar brand of defense. Seattle executes it considerably better but the scheme is remarkably similar and it really shouldn’t be surprising since Rod Marinelli and Pete Carrol all fall under the same Monte Kiffin coaching tree.

In the traditional single high safety scheme, the FS (Byron Jones) usually plays a center fielder role while the SS (Church) plays up in the box. While it’s usually obvious what the FS’s role is, it’s not always apparent for the SS.

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Like most defensive positions, diagnostics are priority #1. Church may line up close to the line or 10-yards back, but he always has to diagnose whether it’s a running play or passing play. It’s especially important in this scheme because Church is given sole responsibility for his own gap.

The Cowboys run an aggressive 1-gap defense. They will deviate from time to time and 2-gap, but more often than not, Rod Marinelli wants his players exploding through the gaps. The benefits of a 1-gap defense is clear – the player can attack his gap rather than sit back (read and react) assessing both gaps.

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The disadvantages to the 1-gap is that there is no backup player helping you cover gaps. Every player has one gap to watch and there aren’t enough players to provide insurance and double cover a gap.

Most defenses just use their front seven in gap assignments but the Dallas Cowboys will use eight. Keep in mind the Dallas Cowboys switch things up and disguise assignments often. Early in training camp it has been clear – disguising schemes and coverages is a defensive priority this season.

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Church will still drop back and play traditional deep safety roles at times. He may start off 10 yards off the line and then explode to the line upon snap. He may start at the line and explode back in coverage upon snap as well. But when looking at the sum of all plays, it’s clear that Rod Marinelli uses Barry Church as his extra linebacker.

That’s why the plays against the run greatly outweigh the plays against the pass. Church is almost a coverage afterthought. But he’s a key cog in the run-stopping machine and that’s why it was such a good year for Church, regardless of what some may say.

2016 will see changes though. The Cowboys tinkered around with their shiny new toy, Byron Jones, last season. This season, they appear to be locked into their strategy. Jones will be the deep safety. He’ll be the Earl Thomas of the defense.

Barry Church will be in the box. He’ll be the Kam Chancellor of the defense. Because of this, the principle change we’re likely to see is who covers the TEs. Last season the Cowboys moved Jones up to handle those duties but this season the Cowboys seemed intent on following the Seattle model and using their SS, Barry Church.

This first part of training camp has Barry Church doing a lot of this – and doing it with pretty good results. It’s important to keep in mind, a TE (or slot receiver) lining up between the hash marks, will always have the advantage. ALWAYS.

Without the benefit of a sideline, the best DBs in the NFL struggle to follow a receiver who can cut in any direction. As long as the QB is accurate and on the same page, he should win. That is one reason the Cowboys are disguising coverage better and one reason they are saving Byron Jones for a more winnable role.

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Barry Church is a big part of this defense and while he isn’t the playmaker we all covet, he’s a reliable part who knows and executes his role. There are too many legitimate concerns on this defense to justify worrying about Barry Church. In 2016, have faith in Church.