Byron Jones and the Ability to Shut Down Tight Ends

The NFL is filled with talented tight ends who can line up all over the field and wreak havoc on opposing linebackers and defensive backs. Joseph Ferraiola breaks down how Dallas Cowboys safety Byron Jones has a unique ability to shut down tight ends

Since the NFL has become more pass-oriented in recent years, the value of having a pass-catching tight end has increased. Teams like the New England Patriots’ and Carolina Panthers’ number one targets are tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen, both of whom led their respective teams in targets and receptions in 2015. With teams expecting more production from the position, defenses are working on thwarting opposing tight ends. It’s a difficult task to defend the size and athleticism of today’s NFL tight end. Asking a linebacker to guard Gronkowski is a difficult task, as is asking a smaller cornerback to do the same. That is why hybrid players like defensive back Byron Jones have become more valuable.

If the Dallas Cowboys did one thing right on defense a season ago, it was their decision to allow Jones to mirror the opposing team’s tight end. Jones had the pleasure of defending some talented tight ends including: Gronkowski, Olsen, Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz, and Jimmy Graham. At 6’0”, 199 pounds, Jones possesses enough size and physicality to cover bigger targets. He’s also a freak athlete, as seen in the performance he put on at the NFL Combine in 2015 – most notably his world record breaking broad jump of 12’3”. That’s more than  two full-length Byron Joneses.

Not only does Jones possess elite level athletic ability, but he also has excellent length and speed. Those traits allow him to swat passes away and catch up to his receiver should he make a mistake. Jones didn’t record an interception in his first full season, but as he adapts to the NFL level the traits are all there for him to grab his first pick and many more afterward. That’s something the Cowboys are in dire need of, as the team finished 32nd in turnovers created in 2015.

On this play in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jones makes a play to basically seal the game for the Cowboys in the fourth quarter.

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The Eagles have 11 personnel with two receivers to the left and a receiver and tight end on the right with a running back alongside quarterback Sam Bradford. Dallas has J.J. Wilcox as the single deep safety in the middle of the field. Jones is lined up as a cornerback across from the TE Ertz. His positioning is square to Ertz and when the ball is snapped Ertz releases and runs his route to the inside. With Sean Lee manning the inside, Jones is playing the right outside shoulder of Ertz. Once the TE moves through Lee’s zone, Bradford passes to what he thinks is an open Ertz. The throw is a bit late giving Jones a chance to make a play on the ball. Jones takes a good angle to get in front of the the receiver and reaches his arm out, disrupting the pass and deflecting it into the air. Wilcox, being the deep safety on the play, is there waiting with open arms and intercepts the deflected pass.

On Thanksgiving against the Carolina Panthers, Jones played well when the opposition was in the red zone, including two plays that saved six points shortly before halftime.

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Carolina is in 13 personnel with two tight ends on the right side. Jones is lined up behind Wilcox and has responsibility for one of the tight ends. When the ball is snapped, the inner tight end on the right side, Scott Simonson, stays in to block. Olsen runs an in route to the middle of the end zone. Cam Newton has space to fit a ball to Olsen, but Jones is trailing and closes the space. He’s able to get a hand where Olsen is attempting to make the catch. The first swipe isn’t enough to knock the ball completely loose, but the second attempt assures an incompletion.

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Two plays later Jones is asked to cover WR Devin Funchess, who is built like a TE, on 3rd and goal. Funchess is lined up to the outside at the bottom of the screen. He releases from his route at the snap and tries to create separation by being physical, using his hands and body. Jones has a hand on Funchess, but he lets go when the ball is in the air. There’s a throwing window for a moment, but Jones’s arm length is too long. He stretches without holding onto Funchess and defends the pass. A flag is thrown, but it was later picked up after a quick discussion because Jones played the ball cleanly.

This season, Jones will start at free safety after starting at safety and cornerback last season. If there is any significant injury to the cornerback position, Jones has the ability to step in. For now though, he’s a better fit at free safety. However, I expect the Cowboys to use Jones  to stop opposing teams’ tight end threats no matter what position he’s slotted to start at.

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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass. 

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