First-half impact from safeties cannot be ignored

It's easy to become mesmerized by all of the gaudy numbers that several quarterbacks have posted through the first half of the NFL season.

All of those 300-yard passing games. All of those touchdown throws. And, especially, all of those victories.

Davis: Sharper a perfect fit

Darren Sharper has been a perfect fit for Gregg Williams' defense because he's ball-hawking and tackling this season. If you don't tackle, Gregg Williams doesn't play you.

Sharper plays one of the deeper safeties in the league, sometimes 20 yards off the ball at the snap. He reads plays very well, and likes to play the game moving forward. He can play deep in any scheme, and because he's smart about reading his keys, it allows him to be there and make plays on the ball.

Sharper is really tackling well this year. It hasn't been the case the last few years, which is unusual because he'd been a tackler most of his career. It's a big, big deal. He's involved in stopping the run, and he makes tackles in the passing game after the catch.

-- Charles Davis

But when you take a closer look at the players who have made the biggest impact after nine weeks, it's impossible to ignore the quarterbacks of the defense.

Safeties have done their share to merit plenty of recognition of their own -- some for their production and some for gaping holes created by their absences.

"We all know you go as your quarterback goes," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "I also believe that you go as your safety play goes as well in the National Football League."

Consider:

» Free safety Darren Sharper, who joined the New Orleans Saints as a free agent from the Minnesota Vikings, shares the NFL lead with seven interceptions. He also leads the league with three interception returns for touchdowns. He's the top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors and joins quarterback Drew Brees among the primary reasons the Saints are 8-0.

» Buffalo Bills rookie free safety Jairus Byrd is the NFL's co-leader in interceptions with seven. He's the lone bright spot of the Bills' 3-5 season, and in strong contention to become the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

» The addition free safety Brian Dawkins, a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles, has had a tremendous impact on the Denver Broncos' dramatic improvement on defense.

» The knee injury that strong safety Troy Polamalu suffered in the first half of the season-opener against the Tennessee Titans was mainly responsible for the defensive struggles the Pittsburgh Steelers experienced during the four games he missed, including back-to-back losses to Chicago and Cincinnati. In the three games since his return, Polamalu has two interceptions, giving him three in 3 1/2 games.

» The knee injury that ended the season of second-year free safety Kenny Phillips after only two games has gone a long way toward sinking the once-dominant defense of the New York Giants, who are in the throes of a four-game losing streak. Phillips had two interceptions, both in the Giants' Week 2 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Martz: The impact of Polamalu

The play of elite players stands on its own. What they do is obvious to everyone. The impact they can have on their side of the ball is both substantial and recognizable.

A guy like Troy Polamalu, there's no question he'll make play after play for the Steelers. But what it does when he's in the huddle -- his presence, his energy, and the way he plays the game -- it makes all the other players in the huddle reflect on how they play. What they do with it, or whether they're conscience of it or not, it forces them to raise their level of play to try to match him.

It's not unusual. Great players and how they play the game, how they carry themselves and the passion they have for playing the game, that comes through. It's how Polamalu plays and how he approaches the game, and it impacts the whole team.

-- Mike Martz

"It's an underrated position," Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "So much (emphasis) on defense is placed on the defensive ends and the corners, and even your middle linebacker. But in most schemes, those safeties, a lot of times, are an extension of your coordinator in regards to helping to set the defense and make some of the coverage checks for the secondary. They are a vital cog of your defense."

It's only natural to admire the impressive interception totals by Sharper, Byrd, and other safeties because defensive backs, as a rule, don't always have the most gifted hands. If they did, they'd be playing receiver.

However, that is only one component of the safety position. The challenges posed by offenses that throw frequently to tight ends and running backs have forced teams to seek hybrid safeties who are as adept at defending the pass as they are the run.

"They've got to have cover ability to be able to cover good tight ends and cover good running backs, like Reggie Bush, out of the backfield," Frazier said. "You can't just be a 'box' safety, like 10 or 15 years ago where you could be just an extra linebacker (to help stop the run). The game has changed so much now, the way people are throwing the football, so that position has increased as far as the value to your defense."

Said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, "With so many formations and motions and shifts, defenses can turn a strong safety into a free safety just by alignment. So, really, you're looking for a lot of the same qualities in both positions."

A perfect example is Steelers veteran Tyrone Carter, who filled in for Polamalu at strong safety for four games and then took over at free safety when Ryan Clark was held out of last Monday night's game at Denver because of a rare sickle-cell trait that can trigger life-threatening complications when he's playing at a high altitude. Carter made two interceptions against the Broncos, returning the first 48 yards for a touchdown.

"They have to be able to track the ball in the air, and a lot of guys are not able to do that," Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "They have to have range; can they go from the middle of the field to the top of the numbers or to the bottom of the numbers? If they can get to the bottom of the numbers with their range, they can really help their cornerbacks out if we're playing in a deep-third type of coverage. If they're playing a half-field type of coverage, can they come from three yards from the top of the numbers and then get all the way to the boundary to track the football? And can they support, coming from a deep-third position up to the line of scrimmage to make an open-field tackle on a running back that's running almost full-speed ahead like Polamalu does?

"If a safety can do those types of things, you've got a winner."

In many cases, personnel evaluators target cornerbacks who, because they are a bit larger and stronger than the typical players for that spot, are projected as safeties in the NFL because they are better suited physically to play inside, yet have more natural coverage skills than most collegiate safeties. Byrd was a cornerback at Oregon, from where the Bills made him a second-round draft pick.

Given his draft status, the Bills clearly anticipated that Byrd would eventually have a significant impact on the defense. But given that he was changing positions and missed all of the Bills' OTAs and mandatory minicamps because of Oregon's graduation rules and large portions of training camp because of a holdout and recovery from sports-hernia surgery, Byrd's contribution has been nothing short of incredible. Coach Dick Jauron, a former NFL safety, describes Byrd's hand-eye coordination and concentration as "very unusual" for a defensive back. The rookie has had two interceptions in each of the Bills' last three games -- victories against the New York Jets and Carolina, and a loss to Houston.

Byrd -- whose father, Gill Byrd, was a standout cornerback for the San Diego Chargers and currently works as an assistant defensive backs/safeties coach for the Chicago Bears -- is constantly seeking to learn as much as he can from the best safeties in the league. That's why, in addition to studying videotape of each opponent, he makes a point of watching additional tape of standout veterans such as Sharper, Polamalu, and Baltimore's Ed Reed.

"Any great player that's successful, I'm always looking and trying to figure out what they're doing that's making them successful," Byrd said. "Some of the (Bills) veterans that are in the room and know (Sharper) personally, say his study habits are very good, and you can see it on film. You'll know they'll be in a (particular) coverage, but sometimes he'll jump a route just because he knows the tendency of the quarterback."

It's all part of what makes Sharper and other safeties so vital to their teams.

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