Barry Church fascinates me. The raw numbers are there. The consistency is there. But is he just an average player putting up some good stats on a bad defense? Or is he a hidden gem that is suffering due to his porous teammates? Church had 107 solo tackles in 2013. No other safety in the NFL had more than 88. Church finished 8th in the league in tackles with 135 total tackles. That is a ridiculous amount.
Church is the ultimate test case as to whether you prefer a bird in the hand or two in the bush. You know what you are getting from him and it’s a very solid player who won’t lose you games. Think of him as the Alex Smith of safeties. Good enough to get by with, but maybe a player you always wish you could upgrade. But let’s first take a look at how Barry Church measures up physically when compared to some of the best strong safeties in the league:
It’s not like Church is too limited athletically to become an elite safety. His 20 yard shuttle and 3 cone drill suggest he has good feet and ability to change direction quickly. But what he does lack is the top end speed to cover tight ends and it shows on tape. We will get to that in a second. Let’s first take a look at what Church does really well. He is phenomenal in the run game. He is essentially a fourth linebacker on the field and was the team’s most reliable tackler in 2013.
Church is so disciplined in the run game and understands how to fill lanes and make tackles. This is a play you would expect a star linebacker to make, not necessarily a safety. Church stops 6’0, 225 pound Bryce Brown in his tracks. And if you watch the All-22 tape on Barry Church, you will see him make this play over and over in every single game. I would hate to see how bad their run defense would be without Barry Church coming up and making plays.
But so far, I really haven’t shown you anything that you haven’t already known. But the big question with Church’s game is how he does in the passing game. And what I have found is that there are actually areas in which he does fare well. The first being when he is asked to read and react. Let’s take a look at a play that took place against the Kansas City Chiefs early in the year.
Church excels when the ball is in front of him and he is allowed to roam and make plays. This play against the Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles is a perfect example of that. He locates the ball and takes the correct angle to get to the receiver and makes a fantastic open field tackle against one of the best running backs in the league.
But my biggest complaint about Barry Church is about how he plays in man-to-man coverage when matched up with tight ends. Here is a chart that shows how well (or bad in this case) the Dallas Cowboys covered tight ends in 2013:
As you can see, the Cowboys were awful against tight ends last year, in particular elite ones. Teams could throw to the tight ends at will and completed over 73% of their passes aimed their way. And obviously, you can’t put all the blame on Barry Church, but he was a big factor in giving up 8 touchdowns to opposing teams’ tight ends.
I like Barry Church’s game. I do. He is like having another linebacker on the field at all times. But I question his ability to be an effective safety on third downs. But I do see a few potential solutions that may help the Cowboys avoid putting Church in coverage on third downs. The first option is to make him the permanent weak-side nickel linebacker along side Sean Lee. We have seen that Bruce Carter struggles in that spot and Church has the range and instincts to play the weak side. He can tackle, blitz and does a decent job covering backs out of the backfield. The other option is to replace him with J.J. Wilcox on obvious passing downs. Wilcox has better feet than Church and has more fluid hips to cover tight ends. The Cowboys also may be able to use Brandon Carr to cover tight ends in 2014 if Morris Claiborne can return to the player that everyone saw in college.
All in all, Barry Church is a fun player to watch that has his obvious flaws. I don’t see him being replaced any time soon, so the Cowboys will need to figure out ways to play to his strengths and hide his weaknesses. I expect to see an even better Church in 2014, but potentially in a smaller role. Church played the third most snaps of any Cowboys defender in 2013, but replacing him with Wilcox or another corner on obvious passing downs might be what is needed to make this a better defense.