How Safeties Interact With Cornerbacks

2 Mar

By Steve Nichols
MHR University

First, let’s define the safety position.  While safeties vary in types, assignments, and uses, their primary job is to stop the big play.  They are primarily “goalies” in the hockey sense.

The free safety (FS) is often lined up on the weakside, and almost always plays a deep zone and plays his own assignment based on what he is seeing develop (we call this a “true free safety”).

The strong safety (SS) lines up on the strong side, and is often the “lesser” safety, though no less important.  A majority of his time is spent in deep zone, but he can also be used to cover a receiving TE.

Teams prefer to use a SAM linebacker to cover TEs to keep their safeties covering the deep field, but if a team has a slower, run blocking SAM, or if the TE is particulalry fast, the SS gets the assignment.  Because SSs are usually a little bigger (but not as fast), they have developed reputations as being the heavy hitters.

For a quick read on the difference between 2 deep safeties (the most common alignment for safeties), and the term “Cover Two”.


(Cover Two)

The key is understanding “over” and “under” coverages.  When a defensive back (a corner or safety) is between the QB and the receiver, he is said to be “underneath”.  This term comes about because, on a chalk board with Xs and Os where plays are diagramed, the defender is shown underneath (below) the receiver.  Conversly, a DB playing “over” is chalked in on above, or “over” the receiver (between the receiver and the endzone).


Playing “over” gives you less of a chance of a big play for the offense, and a better chance to tackle.  Playing “under” is high risk/high reward because you are in a great position to knock down or INT the ball, but in a poor position to tackle if the receiver gets the ball.

Another key is understanding how corners line up.  There are three (main) types of line ups.  Terms vary, so I’ll use the terms we used in our program.  The line up goes far in determining the way the CB will cover the play.  Each has advantages and disadvantages:

— Tight
— On
— Off

“Tight” coverage features the CB as close to the WR as the line of scrimmage allows.  It typicaly signals that the CB will “Bump and Run” the WR.  This means the CB will “jack” or hit the WR when the WR starts to move, then cover him closely when he recovers.


(Tight Coverage)

The advantage to this alignment is that timed offensive plays get disrupted.  It also slows a WR who is faster than his coverage.  The disadvatages are that the CB will get locked up in a run block if the play is a run, and if the bump is not well executed the WR will leave the CB in his dust.

“On” coverage features the CB a yard or two behind scrimmage.  This allows him time to react to pass or run, but keeps him close enough to cover his assignment.  Many zone CBs line up this way (relying on SAFs for deeper coverage), and this is the most common line-up for man coverage as well.


(On Coverage)

“Off” coverage is an interesting way to go.  The CB lines up far back from the line of scrimmage, perhaps ten yards “off”.  In most cases it signals that the CB is willing to give up short passes, but doesn’t want the WR to get away from him.  Big mismatches favoring speed for the WR will get this line up.  It is playing very cautiously, so as not to give up the big play.  Oddly, the best CB in the NFL (Champ) prefers to line up this way.  Most elite CBs do not.


(Off Coverage)

CBs rely on the front seven to hurry the QB into making mistakes.  A good pass rush makes the QB get rid of the ball faster, and makes the job of the CB easier.  Most folks know that.

What a lot of people don’t know about is the relationship between CBs and safeties.  Who do you blame when a QB gets sacked?  You can blame the OL for not protecting him, or you can blame the QB for holding the ball too long, or you can blame the WRs for not getting open.  But a lot of folks don’t realize that a blown play by a CB may actualy be the fault of the SAF(s).

CBs make a lot of decisions based on “situational awareness”.  In other words, the CB must know where his SAFs are before deciding to go for an INT, or to commit to an expected route.

A SS in the box may or may not help the run game, but it certainly helps to wreck a pass defense.  The natural look for a base formation will include 2 safeties.  Add one, and you are in a heavily skewed pass defense.

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