On paper, the Dallas Cowboys replaced Jeff Heath with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix this offseason but there’s reason to believe this is not a clean replacement at safety.
Cowboys Nation’s favorite goat/scapegoat, Jeff Heath, is gone. Replacing him on the roster is former Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. With no rookie safety addition through the NFL Draft, it’s natural to conclude Clinton-Dix will just slide into Heath’s vacated role in the Dallas Cowboys secondary. It probably won’t be that easy…
I’m not suggesting Ha Ha will lose the second safety job, but rather the second safety job is likely to change. In fact, there is a good chance the second and third safety will rotate in and out depending on the coverage called. That’s to say Jeff Heath’s role from last year will basically be divided up given the changes in the Dallas Cowboys coverage this coming season.
There are a lot of unknowns on Mike Nolan’s defense here in Year 1. While it’s expected to be a base even-man front defense, there’s projected to be fluidity between odd man and some hybrid fronts. The secondary is also set to undergo changes. While the physicality and man coverage from the old regime is expected to carry over (even expand), the coverages aren’t expected to be as predictable and there are strong indications coverage will lean on 2-man coverage heavily.
Yesterday we discussed 2-man coverage and why it’s perfect for the Dallas Cowboys’ physical, yet raw, cornerback personnel. I encourage you to catch up on it because it should excite those seeking to see a more aggressive brand of coverage.
These changes apply to the safety position just as much as the cornerbacks since they recast everyone into different roles. More to the point, the new defense won’t be as consistent or predictable as it was before. It’s going to change from down to down meaning there will be different roles and responsibilities for the players in it.
Some of those roles are good fits for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Some of those are not. That’s why we‘re more likely to see him and a third safety (or even fourth safety) share the workload with Xavier Woods this season.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is more of a free safety than a strong safety. His tackling is suspect as are his angles and decisions closer to the line. Ask Packer fans about Clinton-Dix’s stupid mistakes and they’ll probably sit you down for a story or two (not unlike Dallas Cowboys fans would do when explaining Jeff Heath’s mistakes).
As you may recall, Heath played closer to the line more often than not, while Woods handles that traditional free safety role. That’s why when Dallas signed Clinton-Dix it almost seemed like a redundancy since he’d be paired with Woods.
But in more Cover-2 and 2-Man coverages, there’s nothing redundant about it. That’s because those coverages call for two deep safeties. And that’s why Dallas needed to find a deep safety with range in free agency rather than just replace Heath in the box.
When Dallas wants a box safety they have options as well. I’ve spoken before about how Chidobe Awuzie is best suited for a strong safety/nickel cornerback hybrid role. His best games in college have been in the box either as an attacking safety or as a slot cornerback. And as one of the best tackling DBs on the Dallas Cowboys, the new role makes sense.
We also need to consider Donovan Wilson inside. Dallas coaches where obviously hesitant using him in coverage situations last season (even though he was the biggest preseason standout), but having a part time role as a box safety may be all the opportunity Wilson needs to carve out a role.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix isn’t a do-it-all safety you want on the field for every down. But using his strengths as a deep safety would be riding the good and hiding the bad. It also opens the opportunities for other DBs to get on the field and do what they do best. 2020 should be a fun season to watch this secondary work.
Don’t expect the Dallas Cowboys to just keep everything the same and slide Ha Ha Clinton-Dix into Jeff Heath’s old role. The role is changing (praise be) and we should see a platoon of interchangeable defensive backs.