Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson celebrates a play by teammates against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Eye on the Hawk: Breaking Down Dashon Goldson's Film Against Some of the Best Teams in the NFC

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Jan 12, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson (38) tackles Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings (85) during the third quarter of the NFC divisional round playoff game at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers obviously did an excellent job of improving their defensive backfield by bringing in Darrelle Revis. He’s one of the best cornerbacks of his generation, and if healthy, he provides so much more value than a first round pick could have provided in the 2013 NFL Draft.

But bringing Revis Island to the Bay Area overwhelmed the news from just weeks earlier, when Dashon Goldson arrived on a plane and signed a deal to join the Buccaneers. Like Revis, Goldson is one of the best players at his position, and is in his prime athletically. But as a free safety who is known best for his bone-jarring hits, do Buccaneers’ fans really know what they’re getting with “The Hawk”?

I broke down Goldson’s performance against a few key NFC opponents in 2012, and had some observations.

Making Plays With Speed and Awareness

Dashon Goldson is not going to win the team 40-yard dash competition. His 40 time coming out of college was around 4.6 seconds, so he’s not got great track day speed. What he has is great quickness combined with a football brain that knows where and when to put his legs into motion.

November 25, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson (38) against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The first example I saw was a pair of plays in the first quarter against the Saints. On the first play, he was playing deep on the left side of the defense, and read the eyes of Drew Brees and crashed down to be near the tackle of a play on the opposite side of the field. He identified the play quickly and closed to be in a position to make a play on the running back who caught the football. The next example is even more drastic. Goldson is lined up on the same side of the field as the matchup between Marques Colston and Carlos Rogers. Colston runs a 13 yard out route, and Goldson winds up reading and reacting to the play to the point where he is closer to Colston than Rogers is, and Rogers was the primary defender who was supposed to cover Rogers the whole way. Goldson covered a ton of ground and was in a better position than a cornerback to make the necessary play.

The next example came against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, and it’s a play that resulted in a catch. Goldson was playing deep over the middle, but wound up being responsible for Julio Jones, who was cutting across the middle of the field. Goldson came downhill and got into perfect position to defend Jones, but the combination of Jones’ reach and Matt Ryan‘s throw was impossible to defend, despite Goldson getting a fingertip on the football.

Making a Big Hit

This is what Goldson is known for, and he uses it to his advantage. Against the Saints, in the third quarter, he delivered a hit to Marques Colston that may have led to an interception and touchdown for his team. As is the case with most of these plays, Goldson is playing downhill, and gets to Colston as he jumps up to receive a high pass from Drew Brees. It’s unclear as to the moment at which Colston lost the ball, and when Goldson delivered his hit, but the presence of Goldson and his safety partner Donte Whitner spooked Colston enough to leave him unable to haul in the high pass. The ball deflected off his hands to Whitner, who brought it to the house for six points.

In the same game, I spotted a play where Goldson charged downhill on a pass play over the middle, spanning 20 yards from the time of the throw to the time of impact, when he would deliver a huge hit to Lance Moore and almost force a fumble. He saw Drew Brees’ favoring a target, and once the ball was let go, Goldson was off to the races, and he covered ground well, and used his momentum in the tackle.

Jan 20, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) carries the ball past San Francisco 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson (38) and Patrick Willis (52) during the first quarter of the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Making Mistakes in the System

The downside for Goldson, and arguably the reason for the two touchdowns he is credited for allowing, was a pair of miscommunications that turned into scores during the 2012 season. Watching the tape, it’s clear neither of these touchdowns were allowed due to an inability to keep up with a receiver, or poor position, but rather they were due to a breakdown in the responsibilities for the play as it was called.

The first example was against the Green Bay Packers on week one. Goldson was lined up on the same side of the field as wide receiver James Jones and running back Randall Cobb. Goldson keys in on Cobb and comes downhill to cover him, as it appears no one else is covering the dynamic athlete coming out of the backfield. But this didn’t match with the play of the corner covering Jones, who thought Goldson would have coverage to the inside, and allowed Jones to run straight past him and into the end zone. It’s unclear who was in the wrong on this play, and may speak to Goldson’s aggressive, downhill nature that he would rather attack the threat further upfield than sit back and watch an athlete like Cobb catch an easy swing pass. Whether this aggression is a good or bad thing depends on how it matches up with the playcall, and in this instance, it appears someone failed to deliver on their assigned duties.

Another example comes against the Falcons in the NFC Title Game, when Julio Jones broke the game open with a long touchdown in the first quarter. Goldson was in coverage on Jones’ side of the field, and was hip to hip with him closer to the line of scrimmage. But Goldson did not even begin to follow Jones downfield, instead staying short and keeping his eyes on the quarterback and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Once again, it’s not easily discernible as to the guilty party. The worst case scenario would be that Goldson believed Julio Jones was going to sit down on his route and not continue on. This would be the kind of error a rookie might make, but I strongly doubt a player who makes audible calls for his teammates and is known as a leader and teacher to other players would do something as boneheaded as assume Julio Jones was going to cut a route short.

The alternative is that Goldson didn’t believe, or didn’t retain, that he was to stay back and defend the last man. Goldson had his eye on Tony G, as Troy Aikman pointed out on the TV Broadcast. Goldson may have been concerned about the dangerous tight end, and assumed that someone else, maybe even Donte Whitner, would take Jones should he slip past. This is not an excusable play, and as a leader I am sure Dashon would take blame for what happened. But it hardly came down to Goldson’s ability.

Overall, I watched a player who stayed deep and kept his eyes and feet moving. He reacted very well to plays in front of him, and had a knack for being around the football despite his lack of elite speed. He showed himself capable as a man-to-man defender in the few examples I saw, and he made impact plays even from deep positions.

Dashon might not have the elite statistics of a free safety like Ed Reed. But in a different system, in the prime of his career, he has a chance to take a step forward and prove himself to any doubters that may remain. It will be interesting to see how he is used in Tampa Bay, as that may dictate how he performs in red and pewter.

How do you think Goldson will do in his first season in Tampa? Leave your comments below.

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