The importance of the safety position to defenses varies across the NFL, depending upon scheme and defensive preference. But for the most part, the general idea behind the safety is to be the last line of defense for your team, preventing plays from going the distance. As always, there's much more to it than that.
The basic concept behind the position of safety is to stand your ground and close in for a tackle when you need to. You are to prevent a long play at all costs and to play a support role to the rest of the defense.
Safety has historically been one of the more interchangeable positions in the NFL. In other words, some quicker linebackers can play safety, some corners are better at safety, some safeties can play linebacker or corner, and vice versa. It's because of the varied skill sets a safety can have, and depending on assignments the defensive scheme will ask of him, may or may not need.
Safeties line up anywhere from 10 to 20 yards behind the line, sometimes even deeper, and in some cases, "in the box" of the front seven to play a run support role or to bring a blitz. Because of this, quarterbacks tend to be taught to locate the safeties and try to identify their assignments based on where they line up and how far back. It can be a big tip off, or it can be a big bluff from the defense that causes a negative play by the offense.
The skills set
Safeties can and will use all different types of skills. A safety needs to be able to play to the coach's assignment for them, and depending on that scheme, they will need to do different things well. But I will pinpoint and explain several key skills for any safety.
- Tackling skills. A safety needs to be able to wrap up and bring down ball carriers without any hesitation. As the last line of defense, this is the most important requisite for any safety. Because safeties generally have a full running start and are sometimes the surest tacklers on a defense, some of the hardest hitters in the NFL's history have played safety.
- Coverage skills. From zone coverages to man coverages, a safety must have some form of coverage ability in all aspects of coverage. If they cannot cover they will be exposed time and time again if assigned to any form of coverage role -- which 3 times out of 5 they will be.
- Recognition skills. Like a cornerback, one of the most important asset any safety can have is the ability to read, recognize and react to what is going on in front of them. Being in position and knowing where the best position for you to be in is a big part of playing safety, and a lot of that comes with recognition and general on-field smarts.
Many schemes assign safeties to many tasks that revolve around the same concept: being the final line of defense. But there are schemes where the safety is asked to do more, and sometimes that safety's skills are such that a coach will ask different things of a safety that more resemble duties of another position, such as play closer to the line and support the run, or man up on a slot receiver or a receiver coming out of the backfield. There are even "ball hawk" safeties, assigned to do nothing but roam the defensive backfield and swarm the ball carrier as quickly (and as ferociously) as possible. It all depends on the defensive scheme and the skills of the safety.
Some of the general assignments are:
- Cover 2 Zone coverage: The general premise of a Cover 2 Zone is playing two safeties deep in zone coverage. One safety will cover one side (half) of the defensive backfield while the other will cover the remaining half. The idea is to restrict any pass to the shallower areas of the field or have the receiver face two defenders when trying to make the catch.
- 1 Deep coverages: Utilizing the better coverage safety, teams will place said safety deep and in center field while using the other safety in a man assignment, shallow zone or a "free roam" or "ball hawk" assignment closer to the LOS. This ensures that at least one safety will always be deep for assistance against any long throws while keeping the better hitter of the two safeties closer to the line where can make an impact -- literally.
- Man coverages: While not very common, some safeties are asked to move up and cover a receiver one on one in man coverage. They can also be assigned to a tight end or running back. Assigning them to a running back is usually more common than any of the others because, even if the offense runs, there is already a good tackler designated to follow the running back.
- Shallow zone/Run support: By playing a safety in a shallower zone, closer to the center of the field, teams can keep him near the area of the play and increase the defenses' chances of stopping a run early. This is usually used in conjunction with a cover 1 assignment by the other safety.
- Free-roam: A bit pop-warner and old school for this new age NFL, there are still safeties that strive at playing this assignment and schemes out there that still assign this. This assignment asks the safety to simply wreak havoc any way possible. They need to read the offense and play to their recognition skills, and put themselves in the best position to make a play of any kind based on the offensive play call. Free-roaming is usually used in conjunction with a cover 1 assignment from the other safety.
Safeties always have certain duties to keep in mind that they have to maintain at all times often regardless of their assignment for that play.
- Maintain a last line of defense. Don't let anything past you or your team is giving up six.
- Break up middle-field catches with a hard hit. Most of the time the safety will not get there before the catch is made, but as it's being made, with barely enough time to stop it, as it happens. Timed just right, you can separate a receiver from his catch or be a force no receiver wants to challenge in the middle of the field while extending for the catch (and thus exposing their midsection to some serious pain infliction by the safety).
- Support the cornerbacks in coverage. If a corner is getting beaten or struggling to cover on a particular play, it is the duty of the safety to roll their assignment in that direction and provide an extra coverage blanket against that receiver.
- Support run coverage. If the front seven is beaten by a running back, a safety is the final hope to prevent a score. They cannot be caught out of position and need to make the play.
While free and strong safeties are generally interchangeable, there are widely accepted differences between the "mold" of safety who plays each position.
Strong safeties are typically the larger safety, capable of hitting hard and playing all the assignments closer to the LOS to perfection -- playing more physical in both coverage and run support. They tend to line up closer to the line as well, and are often the slower of the two safeties.
While the misconception is that they are called "strong" safeties because they play the physical role of a safety, they are actually called strong safeties because they play on the "strong side" of the defense, the side the Tight end usually lines up on.
Free safeties are typically the smaller of the two safeties. They are often better in the coverage aspects of playing safety, and thus line up a bit deeper. However, the "free roam" assignments began as a free safety duty, which is most likely the reason it earned it's "free" pre-fix. Generally speaking, they are never actually free, especially in this age of zone coverages.
It all depends on scheme. For example, a team might ask their free safety to play a shallow zone and support the run while the strong safety plays manned-up on the tight end during one play, then on the very next play have the free safety play a deep zone while the strong safety blitzes. However, another team may stick to specific "free" or "strong" assignments, preferring to keep their free safety in coverage and their strong safety closer to the line.
More teams actually utilize their safeties in the same roles nowadays than teams that use them specifically in "free" or "strong" roles, and the pre-fixes have actually become more of a title of which side of the field they line up on rather than what duties they are assigned to. But again, it all really depends on the scheme and preference of the coach.
Summing it all up
Safety is often referred to as the easiest job on a football team. Success at the position is typically intelligence driven rather than just speed and athleticism. As long as a safety is playing the way the coach asks within his assignments and schemes, he will be always be there as his defense's last line of defense.