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Football Explained: Safety

With this post I wrap the position portion of Football Explained. Yes, we only covered the defense—the standard 4-3 defense, but I have much planned between now and the full press Hawks coverage that we try to run August-May. Offense and special teams will just have to wait until 2009-Rigamortous. After we look at the safeties, I’ll again diagram a few actual plays from 2007.

Here’s the tentative itinerary for the next month:

The completion of the season retros, again with stats thanks to my beautiful and, yes, indispensible wife. Prior retros missing stats will be updated. Remember, every season retro is linked to the Field Gulls official depth chart. Names link to season retrospectives for veterans and best available content for rookies. Also, the positions, CB, WLB, RDT, etc. are now linked to their corresponding Football Explained post.

What does it all mean? A look at how different stats correlated with different outcomes. How costly was it when Tatupu blew a tackle? Grant blew an assignment? How beneficial was a Bernard penetration? A Mebane forced double team? I think it will be a lot of fun.

Seahawks All Time Fantasy Draft. We’ve got four GMs including me. A fun look at the Hawks history: different voices, different memories, different priorities. Bernard or Nash? Tez or Beck? Boz or Rouen?

Let’s get down to business.


8 in the Box: Usually, when a safety is both between the two offensive tackles (horizontally) and within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (vertically).  8 in the box is used to counter runs plays, but is weaker against passes, especially the deep pass.

Play Action: Via Wikipedia: A play action pass is a type of American football play. The play action, or "PA" for short, appears to be a running play, but is actually a pass play; in this way, it can be considered the opposite of a draw play.

Soft Shell: Denotes a sideline to sideline deep zone. In a Cover 2, the soft shell is comprised of two deep safeties. In a cover 3, the soft shell is comprised of 3 DBs, typically one safety and both outside corners. The goal of a soft shell is to defend against the deep pass and allow greater freedom to freelance by coverage defenders playing “under” it.

In many regards, the tools and responsibilities of the corner are the tools and responsibilities of the safety. Safeties are much more likely to play zone than man coverage, but may man-up against slot receivers and tight ends. Safeties are more likely to play deep, but, then, are also more likely to play shallow. The responsibilities of a safety vary quite a bit from scheme to scheme and personnel to personnel. Some safeties are primarily run stoppers and short zone DBs—the 8th man in the box.  Others play mostly in a soft shell. Even the designation of “free” and “strong” safety can be deceiving. Some teams, like Seattle, use the two positions interchangeably. Others simply assign their safeties the left or right half of the field regardless of the offense’s formation. The most important, defining and universal duty of the safety is the “deep zone” so I’ll expand upon that a bit.

Deep Zone

The classical safety assignment is the deep zone. A safety must “keep everything in front of him” or not allow an offensive player to “get behind” him. The position name “Safety”, then, is a metaphor derived from the sense of safety a deep defender provides. A deep zone can be as shallow as 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, or deep as abutting the goal line--like when defending against the Hail Mary.

Despite a very simple directive, deep zone coverage can be one of the most difficult, demanding and debilitating duties of a safety. Difficult because of the discipline necessary to maintain deep cover despite not directly participating in many offensive plays. Difficult, also, because of play designs (like play action) intended to dupe the safety into deep zone dereliction. Demanding because a safety playing in a deep zone must cover a very large expanse of field; half the field in a Cover 2, or the entire field in a Cover 1. Quickness, speed, but, moreover, efficient angles, recognition and anticipation of how a route will develop distinguish great safeties from adequate safeties from Michael Boulware. (Yes, I’m doing the “D” thing on purpose.) Debilitating because safeties that cannot contain the deep zone die a thousand deaths before being traded to the Texans.

Free safeties are more likely to play in a deep zone, while strong safeties are more likely to be the 8th man in the box.