NFL Homonyms : Safety vs. Safety

There are two types of safeties in the NFL: safety the player, and safety the play. Today we’re going to define both and make the subject a little clearer than mud.

Safety the player is a defensive back, which means his main priority is defending against long passing plays. Safeties come in two varieties: free safety and strong safety. Usually, free safeties are the smaller and faster of the two; they defend the deep middle of the field. Strong safeties, as per their namesake, play on the strong side of the field – the same side as the tight end. They are usually larger and stronger, and often play closer to the line of scrimmage in order to tackle tight ends and running backs on running plays.

Here’s a visual to bring that all together:

football, basics, coverage

Safety the play is a defensive score worth 2 points. A safety is awarded under several circumstances:

1. When an offensive player is tackled with the ball in his own end zone. This usually happens when a team is pinned all the way back to their own 1-yard line and has to line up in the end zone. If the quarterback drops back to throw and is tackled before he has a chance to get rid of the ball, it’s a safety.

2. When an offensive player who has the ball is forced out of bounds in his own end zone. This is called a “safety touch” but is still considered a safety and still results in 2 points being given to the defense.

3. When the offense incurs either a holding penalty or an intentional grounding penalty while in their own end zone.

A safety is a dynamite play for the defense, because not only are they awarded 2 points, they also receive possession of the football for the next drive. Double whammy.

Safety vs. safety. Player vs. play. Makes sense, right?

Film Room Field Trip : Earl Thomas as Single High Safety

Ok, I’m going to make you guys work for today’s film room post. You’re going to have to follow links to get to the actual “film” part. And there’s to be no complaining because a) it’s not hard to do and b) I’m not enough of a rebel to knowingly post illegal footage on my website, so you’re supporting a good cause.

Today we’re going to learn how to find the single high safety through the excellent work of Seattle free safety Earl Thomas. He’s all kinds of crazy back there – due largely to the fact that Pete Carroll is all kinds of crazy when it comes to developing defenses. The Seahawks were hanging out near the bottom of the pile of the league’s best defenses before his arrival; now they live at the top of the list.

Earl Thomas is their resident single high safety when they use that coverage (and most of the time, they do). Take a look at two of the great interceptions he made last season: Here, a Pick 6 against the Bills, and here, in a comeback attempt against the Falcons in the playoffs.

He comes out of nowhere to pick those passes, right? Exactly. Let’s figure out how to find him using his interception against the Redskins in the Wildcard round. Watch the pick here, and then watch it again and again and again.

So where did he come from?! Let’s take a look from an overhead perspective. Here’s the first look the Redskins see as they approach the line of scrimmage:

football, advanced, safety

The Seahawks are so good with this they aren’t even trying to disguise it. They’re going to run the single high and they’re going to beat you with it…and you’re going to know it’s coming the whole time.

Taking a look at that screen shot might give you a bit of sympathy for quarterbacks trying to read the defense when contrasting it with this screen shot:

football, advanced, safety

Oh yeah, people are moving and shaking. Except for Earl. He’s still back there taunting you as the single high.

Let’s see if anything changes once the ball is snapped:

football, advanced, safety

There’s a bit of movement, but mostly everyone is set. And it’s blindingly clear who’s hanging out up top as the single high. Earl!

Here’s a question: just from what you see on the field, is this Cover 1 or Cover 3?

One high safety playing zone with three defensive backs playing man up front = Cover 1! (If that’s clear as mud – have no fear. We’ll go over how to figure out who’s on the field and what they’re doing with one simple trick in next Monday’s Fundamentals post.)

Let’s take a look at the actual interception:

football, advanced, safety

See how Thomas is closing in from the inside? We can tell he’s coming at the ball from the middle of the field as the single high safety. And see how Brandon Browner, 39, is defending from the outside? He was the defensive back on the line playing man against the wide receiver.

Once you have the foundation of Cover 1/2/3 and man vs. zone, finding the single high safety isn’t hard at all. Can I get an amen?!

Fundamentals : Single High Safety

I have to tell you, I’m pretty excited about the next two weeks on the blog. There is a lot of great information coming your way! Today we’ll wrap up our defensive fundamentals (for now). Next week, since we’ve been talking about so many different formations, we’ll talk about how to identify who is on the field and what they are doing when a) the player’s position is unclear and/or b) the funky formation is unclear. It should help a TON.

For now, let’s finish up on defense and talk about an increasingly popular defensive look: deploying the single high safety.

Let’s turn to our new friend Coach Billick for a basic introduction to the single high safety concept:

Not too bad, right? The single high safety is usually the free safety. He plays zone up high, hence the name, “single high safety.” There are just a few nuances from last week’s lesson on zone coverage, so let’s go over them.

Here’s the formation that Coach Billick drew up:

football, basics, single high

There are a few interesting things to note in this formation. Take a look at the defensive line and the second level. From a numbers standpoint only, it looks like a fairly traditional 4-3 formation, right? Four guys on D-line, 3 backers behind. But when we look at the letters, we see that Coach Billick has actually drawn up something that looks like a variation of a 3-4 offense, in which there are 3 defensive linemen on the field and 4 linebackers.

So is this a 4-3 or a 3-4? Great question! I didn’t know the answer, so I started doing some research and Greg Cosell came to my rescue with this article. I would have originally been inclined to say that it depends on the lineman’s stance: if he’s in a 2-point stance as a rusher, it’s a 3-4; if he’s in a 3-point stance as a blocker, it’s a 4-3. But luckily Greg is smarter than me and called me out: stance has nothing to do with formation. It’s all about gaps. If it’s a 2-gap concept in which defensive linemen are responsible for 2 gaps each, therefore lining up over the tackles (ends) and center (nose), it’s a 3-4. If it’s a 1-gap concept in which defensive linemen are responsible for 1 gap each, it’s a 4-3. (The whole article is well worth a read if you have a few spare minutes!)

So what do we have above? According to Greg, it’s a 4-3. (I think.)

(What do you guys think?)

Ok: moving on. We didn’t talk about Cover 1 last week because it’s not strictly a zone coverage. Let’s take another look at the illustration to flesh it out:

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 11.23.46 AM

Cover 1 is a mixed coverage: the deep safety is playing zone, and all of the other defensive backs are playing man-to-man. We can see that the corners are covering the receivers and the strong safety is covering the tight end. It’s a single high safety concept because – you guessed it! – there’s a single safety up high in the formation.


But a single high safety doesn’t automatically equate Cover 1, as Coach explained next:

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 11.25.57 AM

There can be a single high safety look in a Cover 3, too. The corners can cover the outside zones while the deep safety covers the middle third up high. It’s a little bit challenging to see on the screen shot, so here’s another example:

Cover 3 Single High

In this look, we see one single high safety in the middle and two defensive backs deep outside. That makes this Cover 3 – 3 defensive backs playing zone deep – with a single high safety.


Isn’t this fun?

On Wednesday we’ll have even more fun in our Film Room post looking at how Seattle is effectively utilizing the single high safety look with the wonder that is Earl Thomas. Can’t wait!