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Opinion: Thanks To New Age of Offense, NFL More Un-Safe Than Ever


By William Carroll

Not to worry, this is not about concussions or the post-football mental and physical challenges that players face; instead the safety crisis I am highlighting is the lack of great safety play in the NFL. In this offensive age the tsunami of points has, all too often, washed over the safeties in the league.

When I was first imprinted as a fan of the NFL the following players were starting safeties in the NFL: Dick Anderson, [All-Pro], Ralph Anderson, George Atkinson, Bill Bradley,[All-Pro], Ray Brown, Tommy Casanova, [All-Pro], John Charles, Neal Craig, Thom Darden, Chuck Detwiler, Clarence Ellis, Dave Elmendorf, Richmond Flowers, Cornell Green, [All-Pro], Charlie Greer, Cliff Harris, [All-Pro], Rickie Harris, Jim Hill, Hugo Hollas, Gus Hollomon, Ken Houston, [Hall of Fame], Honor Jackson, Karl Kassulke, Jim Kearney, Leroy Keyes, Paul Krause, [Hall of Fame], Dick LeBeau [Hall of Fame],{note-he was a Cornerback most of his career} Spider Lockhart, Jerry Logan, Al Matthews, Jerry Moore, Jim Nettles, Brig Owens, Mel Phillips, John Pitts, Steve Preece, George Saimes, [All-Pro], Bryant Salter, Jake Scott, Mike Sensibaugh, Mike Simpson, Ron Smith, Walt Sumner, Jack Tatum, Rosey Taylor, Maurice Tyler, Mike Wagner, Roger Wehrli, [Hall of Fame], {note-he was a Cornerback most of his career}, Rick Volk, [All-Pro], Mike Weger Larry Wilson, [Hall of Fame], and Doug Wyatt. If you are examining this list you have no doubt noticed something, six of those players who started games at safety were at some point in there careers, 1st team All-Pro and four were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now if you are looking at the NFL today, Earl Thomas is a great player as are Eric Berry and Eric Weddle, Harrison Smith is very good as are: Rashad Jones, Devin McCourty, Kam Chancellor, T.J. Ward and Tyrann Mathieu but to put things in perspective Jack Tatum was never a First Team All-Pro in his career, (AP or UPI), Donnie Shell, Cliff Harris and Jake Scott are also players that some think should be in Canton, but were often seen as second tier safeties in the era in which they played.

Now, in fairness, the job of the safety has never been as close to impossible as it is now. The rules are, thankfully, protecting defenseless receivers better than ever. Those changes are largely effecting safeties, tight ends are bigger, faster and better at catching the ball than ever before, slot receivers have gone from previously being an afterthought, in most cases, to being a center-piece in several offenses.

Take a look from Edelman to Fitzgerald and Emmanuel Sanders it’s worth noting that three of the final four teams that were left in the NFL playoffs had very productive slot receivers and depending upon the coverage called, one of the safeties is either taking: the slot, tight end or running back that means at times Edelman, Danny Amendola, Fitzgerald, Emmanuel Sanders, David Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, etc. are going to be matched on a safety.

Why else is it harder than ever to play safety?

Not only has intimidating hitting been curtailed, with the shift towards three and four receiver sets rather than two back sets the safety has to now be a space player on defense, he must still be a great open-field tackler, be responsible for organizing the secondary and still must be able to help shut down big plays against the run and pass as well as aid when other defenders need help over the top.

Despite that the safety position is rarely prioritized in the draft.

Peruse this list: Nate Allen, Adam Archuleta, Mark Barron, Rogers Beckett, Eric Berry, Mike Brown, Deone Bucannon, Jairus Byrd, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Patrick Chung, Johnathan Cyprien, Matt Elam, Derrick Gibson, Ken Hamlin, Tyrell Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, Kenoy Kennedy, Darcel McBath, Brandon Merriweather, Michael Mitchell, Rahim Moore, Troy Palomalu, Kenny Phillips, Calvin Pryor, Ed Reed, Eric Reid, Mark Roman, Harrison Smith, Jaquiski Tartt , Sean Taylor, Earl Thomas, Kenny Vaccarro, Jimmie Ward, T.J Ward, Tank Williams and Tavon Wilson are among the safeties who have been selected in the top 50 selections of the past 15 years.

Some of them are very a good, a few of whom are great and a few have not played well.

Not surprisingly some of the players now lining up at safety were drafted as corners: Jenkins, McCourty, Rolle and Woodson are among the more prominent examples of this, Chris Conte was a college corner-back as well; many feel that Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey will be a top five or top 10 selection, he played corner and safety in college and he may well be projected to free safety. If we will now see a trend towards assigning a greater value to the position it makes sense. To contain big plays, cover slots, tight ends and running backs as well as having effective open-field tackling you need intelligent, athletic and well-coached players to man the last line of the defense.

So what can be done?

Deone Bucannon is playing weak-side linebacker at 6’1” 211 pounds and in the upcoming draft, Skai Moore, Su’a Cravens, Myles Jack and Eric Stryker are among the undersized, but very athletic linebacker/safety hybrids who are entering the league, if you have a linebacker who can run and cover like a safety, in concert with playing a third “nickel” or slot corner means that the team now has as many as six defenders that can be considered trust-worthy in man coverage. It should be noted that two of the most successful defenses in the league are predominately Cover-3 match-up zone, in their secondary coverage.

What that means is a deep middle, free safety is largely responsible for helping over the top while the corners play a match-up zone, which is a more aggressive form of zone that has similar technique components to man coverage. Length, strength, aggressiveness and ball-skills are prized for corner-backs in this scheme while the deep middle safety must have great range, a high football IQ and exceptional closing speed for the scheme to be effective and the strong safety is generally responsible for deeper routes by backs and the tight ends as well as acting as the secondary’s preeminent run-support defender in the “box.”

The other predominant coverage schemes are: Cover-2, wherein the safeties split the deep coverage chores equally, it’s variant the, “Tampa-2” largely the same, but the middle linebacker carries the middle of the field routes deeper, effectively plugging the ‘hole’ in the middle of the field, 2-Man, is essentially man to man coverage underneath with the the deep coverage responsibilities handled by the split safeties. Cover-1 and Man-Free both feature a single high safety, in Cover-1 the safeties are in a single high, zone concept and in man-Free all the players have man responsibilities, with the exception of the free safety who is in charged with the the deepest and most ‘dangerous’ route.

In certain situations, Quarters Man and Quarters Zone are used and there are “Robber” and ‘Trap’ variations of all the previous coverages. One of the reasons that Cover-3 match-up works so well, for the teams that have the right personnel, is that it limits big plays and forces the passes to be very accurate to prevent interceptions or broken up passes. The weaknesses are: in the seams, the area just behind the linebackers’ drops and against four or five vertical routes.

Perhaps the greatest hope for the future is the players; the way many colleges are combating the offensive onslaught is to recruit bigger cornerbacks, some of whom become safeties, but this can’t just be all about size. Think of it this way, defensive backs are like security guards, in man coverage the cornerbacks ‘guard’ this one particular possible ‘thief’, while in zone they watch everyone in one part of the ‘store.’ In man the safeties in addition to ‘guarding’ this one particular possible ‘thief’, must also watch the whole ‘store’ and in zone they must ‘monitor the cameras’ covering the whole mall. To play safety effectively a player needs to be able to very quickly decipher a great deal of information accurately and communicate it correctly, every time he fails it can mean goal lines and headlines.

In conclusion, the days of intimidating hitters like: Atwater, Lynch, Shell and Tatum are gone, likely never to return. To succeed in the game today safeties must be more intelligent and athletic than ever before. Examples such as: the retiring Charles Woodson, as well as Eric Berry, Earl Thomas and Eric Weddle illustrate the prototypes of the safety of the future.

It’s clear we live in an age of offensive football, that can’t be changed but every practice, film-session and game safeties must prevent this offensive age from becoming offensive to the eyes of those who love safety-play.


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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at [email protected]

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