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Seahawks' 4-3 Under Player Types: Safeties

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The next installment of the ongoing Field Gulls discussion of the Seahawks/Falcons defensive schemes. This is post # 8 in the series; you can find the other posts by searching for the tag "Field Gulls." I will sometimes post comments and/or corrections in Red.

Also, this first article is wrong in several aspects because the roles of the FS and SS have significantly evolved since this post was made. I'm posting it anyway since it will help show how their current roles are so very different from the FS/SS in some schemes.


By Danny Kelly @FieldGulls on Jun 27, 2011, 12:04p (4 years ago)

The safeties are key players in the Seahawks' 4-3 Under defense. The first main thing you may notice is that in Pete Carroll's defense, he'll typically use two 'free safety' type players and not the more traditional method which calls for one big, run stopping strong safety opposite a rangy, fleet-afoot free safety. (That statement is 100% completely wrong with how Seattle currently uses their safeties. They actually do use the big run stopping SS and the rangy FS now.) The free safety and the strong safety are pretty interchangeable in this defense and both need to have a versatile skill-set. In 2010, for example, Lawyer Milloy played the strong side safety position and at 6'0 211 was a bit smaller than you'd typically see there. (The author is a little bit off his rocker here. Milloy has always been the hard-hitting in the box SS type.) Opposite him was Earl Thomas at 5'10 202 pounds.

The safeties are responsible in pass protection deep and stopping the run when needed so they have to be instinctual and quick. On one play Earl Thomas could be up at the line playing man-to-man coverage on the slot receiver, the next be blitzing from the edge, and the next dropping back into the deep centerfield to protect against the deep pass. Same goes for Lawyer Milloy.

In general, as Pete Carroll describes, "the two Safeties are both fill-where-needed sort of players. All the players in this defense have to keep the blocks in their inside shoulder and force the ball carrier back inside to the next player. (Keep in mind that Carroll's descriptions are of his older USC college schemes and things have evolved a lot since then for certain positions. Safety probably more than any.)

The Free Safety is the force player to the open side or weak side of the ball. He works off the defensive end's play. The Defensive End works for leverage and force. The Free Safety works off of the Defensive End and fills where he is needed on run plays." (This was assuming the two safeties were in Cover-2 formation, and they rarely are anymore. One safety is always playing deep center field in Cover3/1, and it's most often the FS now. With the SS walked up in the box.)

So the free safety typically aligns himself to the weak side of the offense and either runs in pass coverage or helps against the run there. He's keyed into the defensive end, and helps him out if that player fails to control his gap or zone.

Carroll continues, "The defensive backs that are the best run defenders are our safeties. The Free Safety is a player who makes a lot of tackles for us. He has to have good instincts. He is what we call a natural player. You don't have to coach this player too much. He has to have a feel for the everything and understand the big picture."

Hence: Earl Thomas. Pete Carroll wasted no time in drafting an instinctual, ballhawking free safety when he took over in Seattle and this is the reason why.

There are two safety positions though, and the strong side safety is very important as well. In a Cover-1 or Cover-3, the strong free safety will sometimes be tasked with defending the middle deep part of the field and thus must be very quick, instinctual, ballhawking, and smart. Here's what a basic Cover-1 or Cover-3 can look like in Carroll's defense:


You can see that in this case, the free safety plays up in coverage on the slot receiver to his side and the strong safety is responsible for the deep third. You'll see the Hawks running this D pretty often and they like to match their corners up in man press or bump-and-run with the deep safety providing help over the top.

The deep safety is arguably one of the most important cogs in the wheel in this case, and the position is very familiar to Pete because it is the position he played in his youth.

As Pete put it, "the deep safety is a player that is close to my heart. That is what I played. The deep safety has to play two routes. He has to defend the seam route and the post route. That is all I ask him to play. He has to find the seam route from the number two receiver. If there are two of them then he has to get in the middle and play them both. On the post route he has to stay on top of that route. That is easy to do but it becomes harder as offenses do more of it and get better at it."

He elaborates, "Teach your [safeties] to play the deep middle and forget about all the confusing rules. The guy who is playing in the middle of the field has to figure out who can get into the middle. We want our safety to play in the middle of the two receivers that can run the post route. He wants to split the relationship with anyone who can get down the middle." (having to split the difference between two potential recievers and then get to the actual target quickly is one of the many reasons speed is so vital for the FS in this scheme. There is no amount of instincts that can make up for a QB having you in a coin-flip situation and not having the speed to make it to the correct target once he makes his decision)

Pete Carroll's philosophy attempts to simplify roles. He said, "If you have a million reads for your secondary you are crazy. ...All they need to know is their primary responsibility and then secondary. At the highest level in the NFL, the pass game is as complex as you can imagine. However, if a defender can play the post and the seam route then they can learn to play at that level. The thing that kills and breaks down a defense is a ball being thrown over the defender's head for a touchdown."

(The following discussion about the Cover-2 is pretty much useless for us now. It is only every really used in this scheme against pass happy teams in 3rd and longs on occassion.)

Another scheme you will see the Seahawks run frequently is the Cover-2. In a Cover-2 scheme, you play two safeties deep, and similar coverage principles apply. In this defensive alignment, both of the safeties split the deep part of the field into two zones and each player is responsible for their zone. There are some weaknesses though, of course. Jene Bremel of FootballGuys.com provides a schematic diagram of it below:


As Jene puts it, "Cover-2 teams must have talented safeties and an elite pass rush. Each safety has to be able to cover an entire half of the field. They need range, closing speed, tackling skill and enough run-pass recognition ability not to get fooled by play-action. It's extremely difficult for one defensive back to handle the deep middle and the deep sideline. Having an average safety behind a poor pass rush that gives the quarterback time to wait for the deep routes to develop is a recipe for disaster."

So in a Cover-2, both safeties need 'range, closing speed, tackling skill, and enough run-pass recognition ability to not get fooled by play-action. Chancellor is known for his hard-hitting run support, but it gets forgotten that he played free safety and even cornerback as well while at Virginia Tech. Chancellor was drafted with versatility in this regard and with experience at multiple positions in mind (I would guess). He will be looking to showcase his ability this season.


I'm going to add part of another, more recent article to illustrate more about how the safeties are used currently.


How Earl Thomas and the Seahawks' defense use the Cover-3

By Mike Chan @karatemanchan37 on Dec 6, 2013 ( 1.5 years ago)

If you'd simply took at snapshot of any particular play on the Seahawks defense, chances are you'll see Earl Thomas roaming around deep in the secondary all by himself. Now, this may seem counter-intuitive, considering that NFL offenses have transitioned to a point where they want to beat you with the middle of the field, but consider that Pete Carroll's number one defensive philosophy is to stop the run. This aspect is so important to him that he's willing to frequently move the strong safety, Kam Chancellor, down inside to create an eight man box.

Of course, this creates a lot of potential open spaces for wide receivers to exploit, and thus it is just as important that Carroll implements a good scheme to play off of the run focus he emphasized early on. The funny thing, though, is that he manages to do this with one of the more basic defensive schemes in the field in the Cover 3 scheme, or as Matt Bowen puts it, "a defense taught at the high school level that is still prevalent on Sundays."

One of the outstanding features of the scheme besides its commitment to defend the run is its ability to remain balanced and defend big plays (sound familiar?). The short safety dropping down inside the box now plays more of a role as a linebacker, being able to defend the outside edge and force the RB to cutback at the same time he can drop back into coverage. Likewise, the Cover 3 also sends more players down to defend the pass than with its cousin Cover 2, and with three defensive backs rotating around the deep third of the field teams are hard pressed to make big passing plays down the field.

Let's look at how each section of the defense work in a technical level, starting with run containment and defense:


Observe how playing eight men in the box allows each defensive player to take care of each offensive run gap/lane. This is why Cover-3 works so well in this regard - practically every person has one gap assignment. You can also see that, with some two-gapping specifications, the 3-Tech and the 5-Tech can force a double team and leave the back four players free to contain the play and make the tackle. (Keep in mind that this is a 4-3 Over look instead of the 4-3 Under look we'll see more often. In this look the double team role switches from the 1-tech to the 3-tech. This is one reason the base defense is best with a big strong player like Hageman at 3-tech that will most often have single blocks to exploit, but can also stand up to the occassional double teams when required.) In the diagram above, any runs towards the TE side will let the SS force the run back in if he plays with outside leverage, and the WILL does the same thing accordingly.

However, this also makes it just as important that each player stay disciplined and remain in their gap. If one person gets trapped or over-pursues, for example, he probably only has the lone free safety to beat for the touchdown. This is why a superb front line is necessary to run the Cover 3 effectively, and why PC/JS have worked so hard to improve that unit overall.

Now let's look over on how Cover 3 is schemed to defense against the pass:


On the technical level, it's a very basic play coverage: the two defensive backs and the free safety each cover a third of the deep field. The short safety, dropped down to near the linebacker level, has to take care of the middle of the field with checkdowns to the running back. The middle linebacker has the exact same thing on the other side. Remember, both the linebackers and the short safety's primary objective in the Cover 3 is defend the run, so they aren't as emphasized in pass coverage, although the short safety, as mentioned earlier, needs to be a hybrid player.

Rounding out the rest of the scheme, the outside linebacker and the nickel defensive back have the short middle zones, ranging from the outside, and like the DB's and FS, they play with leverage towards the sideline as well. Their focus is on the short routes - the curls, the flats, the screens, etc.

Of course, as Scott Enyeart said, "there is no perfect defense", and one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Cover 3 is that it's easy to get beat over the middle. Remember, Seattle sacrificed one safety in coverage by running him down inside the box, so it leaves our free safety as the lone man to defend the entire zone. This is why play-action with multiple deep routes down the field is a perfect attack to Cover 3.

If the free safety bites hard on the run, then a wide receiver can get a good jump on the defensive back. Similarly, if two receivers run verticals, the free safety can be baited to help one offensive player, leaving the other with a one-on-one coverage that the quarterback will take every time.

I altered the terminology of Cover 3 "Zone" to Cover 3 "Press". That's because the Seahawks variant requires a lot of physicality up front, even if the defensive backs are playing zone. So for example, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell are all lined up as if they are playing man coverage. At the snap, each of them will at least press the guy (maybe do a little of hand-fighting) they are in front of before moving to their respective zones. This is so that the rhythm of many quick gain routes - slants inside, hitches, can be disrupted. A well-run West Coast Offense is kryptonite to any zone defense, so by being physical at the line of scrimmage the defensive backfield can alleviate some of the pressure and weakness.

Does the scheme make the player or does the player make the scheme? This is a question that has haunted the game of football, and like the chicken vs. the egg argument, there's compelling evidence for both. We saw how Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha struggled when they switched from man to zone coverage respectively, and neither the Jets nor the Raiders have ever been the same since both players left.

Of course, what this article shows - and what Earl Thomas, Pete Carroll and the rest of the Seahawks believe - is that you need a bit of both to succeed. Thomas is arguably the centerpiece of the defense, and his pure speed and athleticism allows him to travel large stretches of the field at the speed of light. When you combine this with a Cover 3 - which gives him the opportunity to use those skills to his advantage, well - you don't really need to do much to shut down one of the best offenses in the NFL today.

Edited by RandomFan
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Still plenty to take from these articles, even the older ones. I think Moore will actually enjoy his role in this defense a lot more. Also much of how they describe the free safety in this coincides with what Quinn must see in Ricardo. Ultimately it's going to come down to Ricardo and how much he can handle. If we can get some consistency out of that single high and/or middle third our defense as a result will be much better off.

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Why did you change strong to free on the first diagram? The illustration shows the SS drop back and the commentary states that the other safety(SS) has to do that sometimes if the FS(up on slot) is at the LOS.

It's because the picture is a bit of an outdated concept for them. Sure, the SS is occasionally the deep safety, but overwhelmingly it is now the FS that is playing center field in this scheme. But the main reason I changed it is because the sentence is describing what type of safety fits that player profile of a deep safety; and it's more a profile of their FS, not their SS.

Edited by RandomFan
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The more I read about this Defense, the more I realize that this is going to be a several year project for us to build a top-level defense.

Yep, it is. Just look at Seattle, they didn't do it overnight either. They had to build what they have now since the 2010 season. However, that doesn't mean we can't greatly improve while we hopefully build to something great. Just like Seattle, even though they didn't have the finished product yet, they improved on defense every year since Carroll arrived there until they took the top spot in the NFL starting in 2013.

And our offense is far better than any they ever had. We just need our D to keep making significant increases while trying to maintain our offense over the next few years.

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