The safety position is one of the most challenging and complex in all of football.
These guys have to do it all: Cover the pass deep, come up close to the line to play the run, and many times cover an athletic player one on one in man coverage.
Defensive coordinators ask a lot from their safeties, so let's talk about what the safety position is, what their role is on defense, and who are some of the best of all time.
What is the Safety Position in Football?
A safety is a defensive back who typically is positioned deeper than any other position on the defense and serve as the last line of defense against a big play. Traditionally there are two variations of safety, a ‘free safety’ and a ‘strong safety’, though some coaches use these positions interchangeably.
It is a safety's job to help protect his team against pass threats when playing in coverage situations, but a safety can also be a prominent part of the team's run defense.
A quarterback will often be looking to see where a safety is headed during a play to try and attack a weak point in the defense. It is the safeties job to make that difficult for the quarterback by covering the space or doubling the coverage with a wide receiver who might be marked one on one with a cornerback.
Why is it called a Safety?
The position is named because usually the safety is the last line of defense against giving up a big pass or run play. It is the safeties job to stop any plays breaking for big yardage or a touchdown. If a running back breaks through the line of scrimmage and heads downfield for a big gain, the last man he has to beat to find the end zone is often the safety.
A free safety is named due to the fact that the player in that position is often given the freedom to roam the middle of the field without being assigned to a specific man.
For example, in a cover one defense, defensive backs will be assigned a man and the strong safety will cover a running back, tight end or possibly a slot receiver. The free safety is the only player unassigned and therefore makes a decision on where he wants to go after the ball is snapped.
Free safeties are still called upon to assist in man coverage situations, but typically possess more speed than a strong safety and are therefore more effective as a standalone deep man.
The strong safety tends to be stockier than a free safety and is usually more involved as a tackler than a free safety, especially against the run.
A strong safety will play closer to the line of scrimmage and therefore has a large role as a run defender, filling gaps in the defensive line that a running back might try to break through. The position can also be called upon to cover the running back in pass protection, and in cover two or four scenarios the player will drop back to cover a zone.
What are some other names for the position?
A lot of coaches use the term "Rover" for the strong safety position especially, since he is usually the 8th man on defense playing close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Another name that's often used is the "Star" position, especially when defenses bring on a 3rd safety in their special personnel packages. That extra safety is often called the "Star".
The free safety used to be known as the defensive fullback, while the strong safety would be a defensive half back, or a goaltender. The term is likened to that of a goaltender in hockey, otherwise known as the goalie, a slang term used for goalkeepers in soccer too.
The terms defensive fullback and defensive halfback are still used in the Canadian game which features 12 players on a defense, but they’re no longer used in connection with traditional American football.
What are the Skills and Body type needed to play Safety?
Overall, safeties cover a wide range of responsibilities. In the modern game, they must be able to cover wide receivers and tight ends in passing situations. They need to be able to run downhill and make strong tackles, often as the last line of defense. They need to be quick, athletic and above all else, be able to communicate effectively with their teammates. No defensive player on the field has a better view of the whole field than a safety.
As the game has developed to be a more pass heavy game, defensive backs and safeties have had to adapt. Their coverage skills are far improved and some of the best safeties in football are able to move from sideline to sideline with speed that can catch a quarterback out and result in an interception, even on a perfectly thrown football.
Who Are Some of the Best Safeties Ever?
There have been some all time great football players that made their mark as a safety. There are 17 safeties in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and many more who left a serious mark on the game.
Among those is Pittsburgh Steelers legend Troy Polamalu who won two Super Bowls with the Steelers during his career. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and while he might appear undersized, was one of the hardest hitting and most intelligent safeties in the history of the game.
Ed Reed was a Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens during a long career that included the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004 and 9 individual Pro Bowl appearances. Reed is considered one of the hardest safeties to play against in history due to his ability to disguise his coverage and move extremely quickly around the defense.
Ken Houston holds the record for the most Pro Bowl appearances by a safety with 12, and is one of the greatest players to ever play for the Washington Redskins, now Commanders. Other greats include Steve Atwater, Ronnie Lott, Brian Dawkins, Emlen Tunnell and Larry Wilson, all of which deserve their individual props for their contributions to the game.
And of course, the great Sean Taylor deserves to be mentioned whenever you talk about the safety position. Taylor was one of the greatest young safeties the league had ever seen. He was a two time Pro Bowler aged 24 and his untimely death is one of the greatest tragedies the sport has ever seen. Fans of the game have no doubt he was on his way to a truly remarkable career.
Why is the Safety Position so important?
Having a great safety gives the rest of the defense confidence that their last line of defense is in control. With the duels between safeties and quarterbacks, having a player that can win that battle against the opposition quarterback is a true asset.
A great safety can create turnovers for his team with interceptions, forced fumbles or big tackles to stop first downs and force punting situations for the opposition.
The best safeties can take away a huge portion of the field by making the quarterback hesitant to throw it in their direction, and they can provide extra help deep so that cornerbacks can be more aggressive with receivers without fear of making a mistake and giving up the deep ball.
Avoiding mistakes as a safety is critical, as being out of position or beaten by your man can result in touchdowns with no back up to support them. Their leadership and communication plays a large part alongside the physical attributes. There is a reason that safeties who can do it all are paid long term contracts worth a lot of money.
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