Jeff Heath went through an early-season slump.
Maybe it had to do with being a first-year starter at strong safety for the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe it had to do with adjusting to a full workload of defensive and special teams snaps.
Heath played 100 snaps (78 on defense, 22 on special teams) in Week 3 at Arizona.
“I had a bad game, or like some bad sequences, where I would just let it bother me too much,” Heath said. “As a result, my play was just kind of a snowball effect. I don’t think I was tackling as well up to my standard. I just had to focus on getting back to fundamentals and realize why I was making some of the mistakes I was making. Just worked hard to try and fix it.”
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Heath has battled his way out of the slump and is proving to be a more-than-capable starter in the NFL. The Cowboys had confidence in Heath to do just that in the offseason as they let safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox bolt in free agency.
Everything came to fruition Sunday night when Heath played a starring role in the Cowboys’ 20-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys host Seattle next.
Heath forced the game-sealing fumble with 31 seconds left. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr broke free on a run toward the end zone and extended for the front pylon. Just as Carr lunged for the end zone, Heath hit him and Carr lost control of the ball. It bounced out of the end zone for a Cowboys touchback, securing a victory.
On the play before that, Heath broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Michael Crabtree.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli praised Heath’s instincts on breaking up the pass intended for Crabtree.
As for the play on Carr, Marinelli said, “That was relentless. He took a great angle and he was not going to be denied. He was not going to allow our team to be denied of a win. That thing was impressive. You saw it. He looked like a missile going.”
Heath’s speed is one of the more underappreciated parts of his game. He ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash coming out of college.
And, now in his fifth professional season, Heath has a better understanding of how to maximize his speed to make those types of signature plays.
“I just feel comfortable, a little bit more comfortable with my role,” Heath said. “Even though this is my fifth year in the game, I’m still improving. You don’t stop improving as long as you approach the game the right way. I think it’s just continuing to slow down for me a little bit.”
Heath has made most of his reps. He’s been one of the most used players for the Cowboys, playing 997 snaps so far this season (770 on defense, 227 on special teams).
“He’s just getting better with time,” linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “The more snaps you get, the better you’re going to be. You look at him from his first game to now, he’s gotten better. That’s all you can ask for out of players.
“A lot of people are just seeing it now, but we’ve seen it weeks ago.”
Heath, who missed a game last month with a concussion, has a team-leading three interceptions and is fourth with 75 tackles, according to the coaching breakdown. He’s also been credited with five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and six tackles on special teams.
Speaking of special teams, Heath made a name for himself earlier this season at San Francisco. When kicker Dan Bailey went down with an injury, Heath stepped in and went 2-for-3 on point-after attempts and had two touchbacks on five kickoffs.
Now, he’s making headlines for his play at safety.
“He was in a little slump early but, boy, he worked through it,” Marinelli said. “He’s really showing us and he’s showing the league what kind of player he is.
“All players go through [slumps], but the character guys come out of it. The guys who can’t handle it? They go to the bench. The other guys? They have a way to grow and get better. He has the right mindset to be a really special player for us.”
That’s high praise for a guy who joined the Cowboys in 2013 as an undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State, a Division II school in University Center, Michigan.
Heath’s journey to being a starter and making impact plays in the NFL is quite remarkable, although he doesn’t see it as a fairytale story like others might.
“Maybe initially in my rookie year I felt that way cause I never really thought I was going to have a chance to play,” Heath said. “But now that I’m here and I’ve been here for a while, it’s not at all. I know I belong.
“It doesn’t really matter what you did before you got here, or how you got here, it’s the work you put in once you’re here. The stuff you put on film once you’re here, that’s really what matters.”