There's no argument here that the league is quarterback driven, but in turn, signal-callers are often influenced by safety play.
Safeties impact a quarterback's decisions with the looks they give, the disguises they present and the plays they make. As one successful offensive coordinator said to me, "You can always go over the front seven if you have to, but those damn safeties can't be avoided."
Having one quality safety helps, but two is a luxury. When you look at the teams with the best safety tandems, it points to some of the best teams in the NFL.
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It doesn't matter whether your favorite team runs a 3-4 defensive front or a 4-3, there are still always two safeties on the field, and they must be compatible for the quarterback to feel stressed. "Compatible" is defined as a "matched set or mixable," and the ability for two safeties to mix coverage looks and complement each other is a prerequisite for great production.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher once told me that the matchup situations safeties face with vertical-threat tight ends and multiple wide receiver sets have forced teams to change how they view the position. The league now looks for safeties with better corner skills, and that usually means smaller, faster athletes who tend to break down from the physical pounding week to week.
A "matched" set of safeties used to mean a strong and a free safety. One of them would operate more like a linebacker in the box most of the time, while the other would handle the deep middle of the field. But offenses got smart and adjusted. We all witnessed the struggles that safety Roy Williams had with the Dallas Cowboys over the past few years. That's why versatility is needed in the defensive backfield.
A matched tandem in 2009 means two safeties capable of playing half-field coverage, with either one being able to drop into the box for run support or handling deep middle coverage. Either safety should also be comfortable lining up on a wide receiver or a fast tight end. It's too easy for smart quarterbacks to come to the line of scrimmage and have a plan of attack when they don't see a versatile safety tandem on the opposing side.
In judging the best safety tandems, there is a high standard: 150 tackles, 20 passes defensed and eight interceptions.
By the numbers, Tennessee, Baltimore and Pittsburgh had the top three safety tandems in the league last year. All three teams made the playoffs, they combined for a 36-12 regular-season mark and the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII.
The safeties had a lot to do with the success of all three teams, and each team made a commitment to the position with a high pick in past drafts. Tennessee's Michael Griffin, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Baltimore's Ed Reed were all first-round selections. On the flip side, all three of their counterparts were plucked from other teams -- Chris Hope came from the Steelers, Ryan Clark from the Redskins and Jim Leonhard from the Bills.
The Ravens' safety tandem doesn't actually hit the tackles threshold (see chart), but the number of tackles is the least important category. Consider that Gibril Wilson had the most tackles of any NFL safety last year with 129, yet he was released by the Raiders in the offseason. He now heads to Miami to team up with Yeremiah Bell, who had 120 tackles in 2008. Even though Wilson and Bell combined for 249 tackles, the duo tallied just 14 passes defensed and two interceptions. It looks like Miami may have two strong safety-types who excel in the box but will have to respond to open-field coverage situations.
The Ravens will also have an adjustment period after the departure of Leonhard, who followed former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets. Baltimore is hoping Dawan Landry can return to form after a spinal-cord injury. Landry, a fifth-round pick in 2006, missed most of the 2008 season but averaged six passes defensed and 2.5 interceptions from 2006-07.
There are other teams outside of the Titans, Steelers and Ravens that are also blessed with solid safety tandems. Indianapolis is especially dangerous when Bob Sanders is healthy and he teams up with Antoine Bethea or Melvin Bullitt. Arizona's Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson don't post gaudy pass defense numbers, but they're solid working together. The Eagles let Brian Dawkins go but are hoping free-agent addition Sean Jones can team up with Quintin Mikell to give Philadelphia an elite safety tandem. Based off last year's production of 149 tackles, 13 passes defensed and seven interceptions, Jones and Mikell should be in the top five in 2009.
One personnel director told me to keep an eye on the safety situations in New England and Kansas City, where he thought there was a chance for big improvement. The Chiefs got 183 tackles, 13 passes defensed and five interceptions from Jarrad Page and Bernard Pollard last season. Kansas City just added veteran Mike Brown, who recorded 73 tackles, eight passes defensed and two interceptions last season. The Patriots drafted Patrick Chung with their top pick, and he may team up with Brandon Meriweather, who had 83 tackles, nine passes defensed and four interceptions in his first full season as a starter.
A number of other teams turned to the draft in hopes of building better safety tandems, and the early reports were favorable. William Moore in Atlanta, Louis Delmas in Detroit, Derek Cox in Jacksonville, Mike Mitchell in Oakland and sixth-round selection Kevin Ellison in San Diego all look like they'll get a chance to start.
Teams are also looking to employ three-safety packages to combat the vertical-threat tight end -- a tight end who can line up as a wide receiver on one play and then move in next to an offensive tackle and run-block on the next play.
Some teams are taking safeties and trying to convert them into linebackers for added versatility. Tampa Bay is looking to turn former safety Jermaine Phillips into a linebacker, but really, they're just building a three-safety defense. Buffalo drafted Nic Harris, who is being labeled a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Great safety tandems eliminate the value of a quarterback's pre-snap reads and force the signal-caller to decipher everything after the snap. They neutralize what the quarterback had in mind when he called the play in the huddle.
If your team heads into July with questions and concerns surrounding its starting safety tandem, you should worry about its chance for success in 2009. There is a lot of optimism in Houston, Chicago and Seattle this offseason, just to name a few, but safety play has to improve for the playoffs to become a reality.