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The NFL’s Invisible Men

While we get to see the occasional interception or big hit, most of what a safety does never gets shown on TV

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Safety is the most underappreciated and least understood position on the football field. Sure, offensive linemen or nose tackles rarely get the credit they deserve, but at least you can see those guys on every play.

With the restricted viewing angle of most NFL game broadcasts, fans often have no idea what’s going on deep in the secondary. Every Sunday, football fans become Chazz Reinhold: “What are the safeties doing? I never know what they’re doing back there!”

Safeties serve as the last line of defense, half keeper and half center fielder. They can’t get beat deep, but also must have the lateral range to cover the biggest part of the field. They need to know offensive schemes intimately, recognize route combinations instantly, and when they break on the ball, hit opposing receivers like a Mack truck.

Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout who now works with the NFL Network, once said this about what Patriots coach Bill Belichick looks for in a safety: “You can dominate from this position … You have to be a smart player. Take great angles. Not fooled by play-action. You cannot win with a dumb safety. They have to make all the calls.”

It’s clear that safeties are big factors in the run game, but when we see Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu, Seattle’s Earl Thomas, Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, or Oakland’s Reggie Nelson fly in from off-screen to break up a pass, make a tackle, or pick off a ball, it’s much more difficult to know why or how they were able to make such a big play. Despite the advent of NFL Sunday Ticket, RedZone, and Thursday, Sunday, and Monday Night Football, fans still miss out on some of the most important action every weekend — and the things deep safeties are doing off-screen is often the key to shutting down the league’s top passers.

Protecting Downfield

Throwing deep on the Bengals was a dangerous proposition in 2015, as free safety Reggie Nelson (who signed with the Raiders in the offseason) tied for the league lead with eight interceptions. He did so with sly deception, often goading quarterbacks into throws, and he was rarely beaten over the top. In the Bengals’ Week 14 loss to Pittsburgh, Nelson tracked down and intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass deep down the sideline, but the TV version only told part of the story.

After Nelson retreated to the deep middle of the field, Roethlisberger apparently saw a look he liked: single-high coverage. He changed the play, signaling to his receivers, and saw Nelson angled toward Antonio Brown on the offensive right. Before the snap, he knew that he was going to throw it to Martavis Bryant down the left sideline.

What we missed live is that Nelson baited Roethlisberger. As soon as Big Ben took the snap, Nelson reversed course and took off toward Bryant, a decision akin to guessing fastball on a 3–2 count. He guessed right, and that extra two- or three-step head start meant he had time to get under the pass and pick it off. Roethlisberger thought he’d be throwing into single coverage to one of the fastest guys in the NFL, but Nelson’s range and instincts allowed him make the play. Here’s the All-22 film:

Bradley McDougald’s game-sealing interception against the Cowboys in Week 10 came down to similar downfield instincts — and was similarly obscured by modern broadcasting. With Dallas trailing Tampa Bay, 10–6, with 28 seconds left, Matt Cassel heaved the ball into the end zone. While McDougald got away with a subtle push-off on Dez Bryant, his excellent coverage put him in the right place to make the play.

As Bryant ran into the second level, the Tampa cornerback dropped off into his underneath sideline zone, and McDougald was left one-on-one against one of the best jump-ball receivers in the league. As the All-22 tape shows: McDougald carried Bryant up the numbers, ran step for step into the end zone, and didn’t allow the bigger Bryant to box him out or bully him at the catch point.

Anticipating Routes

There are a lot of different route combinations an offense can employ, and one of the most difficult jobs for a safety is knowing when and how to react to the chaos happening in front of him. It’s easy to get fooled by one shallow route only to find you’ve been beaten deep over the top.

In Week 6 against Carolina, Seattle ran a two-high look on a third-and-13, and Earl Thomas picked off Cam Newton. But again, the TV angle didn’t tell us much beyond what we’d see on a play-by-play report.

Here’s what really happened: Thomas first looked to help out on a midrange hook route over the middle by tight end Greg Olsen, who stopped right at the sticks. But Thomas kept his head on a swivel and was aware of the surrounding routes that continued to develop, and when Jerricho Cotchery ran a drag route just behind Olsen, Thomas recognized that the receiver would be coming into the zone he was tasked with defending. Thomas changed course, circled around, and essentially ran Cotchery’s route for him, intercepting the pass when it came his way.

The play required Jason Kidd–like court/field vision by Thomas. Most players would lock on to Olsen and allow Cotchery to slip in behind, and that’s what Newton was counting on. But this kind of 360-degree awareness is why Thomas is a four-time All-Pro.

Reading the Quarterback’s Eyes

In Seattle’s Week 13 win over the Vikings, Thomas picked off Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater by reading his eyes — even though the broadcast made it look like he just snagged an overthrow.

As the deep-middle safety in Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme, Thomas is responsible for not getting beat over the top, and in that role, he has to defend two main routes: the seam and the post. If the offense runs both at him, he has to essentially guard two guys before committing to the quarterback’s intended target. Defending two NFL-caliber athletes at once would be impossible for most humans, and even for someone like Thomas, one step in the wrong direction means you’re out of position to make a play on either receiver.

Vikings receiver Adam Thielen ran up the hashes, eventually breaking his route back toward the right side of the field. Thomas kept Thielen in his sights for a moment but quickly passed him off to Richard Sherman. Thielen was the decoy; Stefon Diggs, running up the left sideline, was the target, and he cut his route inside. Thomas knew this by reading Bridgewater’s eyes from the snap. He broke on the pass and picked it off when it sailed over Diggs’s outstretched hands.

While it didn’t lead to a turnover, Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix locked in on Kirk Cousins in the wild-card round of the playoffs and nearly picked him off when Cousins tried to hit Jordan Reed on a post route.

What we couldn’t really see from the TV angle: At the snap, four Packers defenders split coverage duties in the end zone, which meant that with only so much field space to cover Clinton-Dix could essentially just sit back and read Cousins’s eyes. He casually backpedaled and then burst forward as Cousins locked on to Reed.

Disguising Coverage

Safeties don’t always just sit back in three-deep or four-deep zones. They’re moved around frequently before the snap in order to disguise coverages, but when the center hikes the ball, they have to react quickly to ensure they execute their coverage responsibilities. Sprinting into a new spot while keeping your focus both on route combinations and the quarterback’s eyes is no small task.

In Green Bay’s divisional-round playoff loss to Arizona, the Packers had some success with this, and using a zone blitz, Clinton-Dix picked off Carson Palmer when he tried throwing to Michael Floyd up the sideline.

What NBC didn’t show: The Packers rotated their coverage clockwise as the playside cornerback blitzed Palmer. The backside nickelback dropped back to play free safety, the free safety (Clinton-Dix) replaced the strong safety, and the strong safety replaced the cornerback. Palmer underestimated Clinton-Dix’s range as he ran from the back side toward Floyd, and by the time the ball arrived, Green Bay’s safety was waiting underneath it.

Getting Creative

Sometimes, coordinators and schemes allow safeties to freelance a little: that’s where the “robber” or “lurk” scheme comes in. While there are many ways to run it, the role of the “robber” or “lurk” safety is typically to come downhill (instead of dropping deep) and jump a route that would normally be open based on the pre-snap defensive look.

While everyone else on the defense has their man or zone responsibilities, the free safety robber has the opportunity to read the offense’s route combinations and the quarterback’s eyes.

The Seahawks employed Thomas in this role when he picked off Arizona backup Drew Stanton in Week 17.

When Larry Fitzgerald motioned from the right to the left, strong safety Kelcie McCray dropped back to take Thomas’s responsibility deep, leaving Thomas in the “lurk” role to the right. Thomas’s job here is to read the no. 2 receiver (Fitzgerald) and the tight end. If neither player runs a vertical route toward him, Thomas is free to improvise. In this case, he read Stanton’s eyes, realized that the ball was coming out to the wing, and jumped into that lane. When Stanton saw Bruce Irvin dropping into the “curl/flat” zone as the strongside linebacker, he didn’t see Thomas behind him because safeties don’t normally show up in that spot.

Safeties have a difficult and important job patrolling the secondary. Since a lot of what they do goes on off-screen, their impact never gets the attention it deserves, leaving them extremely underrated. Fans with access to NFL Game Rewind can go back during the week and watch the All-22, which shows everyone on the field, but during Sunday’s action, great plays like these go unappreciated or completely unnoticed.

So, when the season kicks off next Thursday, and you see a safety pick off a pass or break up a deep bomb, remember that there’s a lot more going on downfield than what you’re seeing on TV.