Finding the Single High Safety: Understanding the Dallas Cowboy’s Defense


The Dallas Cowboys recently stated they will be running much more than just the typical Tampa 2 defense in 2013. 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. As if that wasn’t enough, Defensive Coordinator  Monte Kiffin specifically asked his players 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.”"

Sept 5, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive back Barry Church (42) knocks the ball away from New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (88) during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

With so much written on the Tampa 2 it’s kind of puzzling why so little has been said of the Seattle Single High that Pete Carroll has been perfecting 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.

Next column we will look at the process Pete Carroll has gone through the past 3 years to get to where he is today – the best defense in the NFL.  Seeing what Carroll has done in Seattle could serve as a blueprint in Dallas and give fans an idea of what to expect.

But for today 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 role of the single high safety we can see if the solution is on the roster or in this weekend’s NFL Draft.

 The Single High Safety

The single high safety is an aptly named defense that employs one deep safety in a ball-hawk centerfielder role. If a zone coverage is called then the single high formation becomes essentially a Cover 3. 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 Pistol offense like RGIII.

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."

You may be asking, “If RGIII excels against the Single High Safety why would the Cowboy’s want to use it?” The reason RGIII 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.

Sept 16, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin (19) jumps for a batted pass against Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) and cornerback Marcus Trufant (23) during the second quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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, Johnson, or “other”). 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 even more unproven. If the Cowboy’s employ the Single High Safety in 2013 they better be sure they are covered in centerfield.

Finding the Safety

One of the more difficult roles to fill in Kiffin’s previous defenses was the roles of the safety. The two deep safeties needed to be both reliable tacklers and ball hawks. Cowboy fans know all too well this combination is very hard to find.

Carroll’s defense asks for a disciplined deep safety to play centerfield and a separate safety who excels in run support rather than coverage. One dimensional safeties are much easier to find than a traditional “complete” run/pass safety like Ed Reed. Since Gerald Sensabaugh was rated one of the worst NFL safeties in run support, it’s easy to see why he was cut now. He was never very good as a ball hawk and he was awful against the run. He just didn’t fit this new single high safety scheme.

Can Matt Johnson be that in-the-box safety the Cowboys need? Is Barry Church the reliable deep safety? Is it the other way around? We know so little of these guys who really knows? What we do know is these roles will be much easier to fill in a system like Pete Carroll’s.

Feb 25, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Fresno State defensive back Phillip Thomas catches a pass during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Most will agree finding the ball-hawking Free Safety more difficult than finding the run-stopping Strong Safety. The Cowboy’s will certainly be looking to the draft to cover themselves in case Church and Johnson prove to be better in the box than in centerfield.

2013 Draft’s Best Centerfield Safeties:

Eric Reid

Kenny Vaccaro

Phillip Thomas

Bacarri Rambo

DJ Swearinger