Xs and Os: Rolling Safety Defense
When the Green Bay Packers selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 draft, they were hoping they found the last missing defensive back needed to bring defensive coordinator Dom Caper’s single-high safety defensive blueprint to life.
Last week on our No Huddle Radio podcast, Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq on Twitter) from Optimum Scouting briefly discussed how the Packers may use Clinton-Dix, particularly because he’s very good at rolling in coverage.
Clinton-Dix played in Nick Saban’s pro-style defense at the University of Alabama. The ability to roll safeties is one hallmark of a pro-style defense. Both schemes of Capers and Saban roll safeties, making Clinton-Dix a logical draft pick.
We now know two very important aspects of Capers’ defense:
- He prefers to play a single-high safety coverage. I previously wrote about it here.
- He, and Clinton-Dix’s University of Alabama, likes to roll the safeties in coverage.
For this article, we’ll look briefly look at what rolling safety coverage is.
What is rolling safety coverage?
As is par for the course in this column, we’ll approach this topic as an oversimplification for illustrative purposes.
Essentially, rolling safeties means they are not “locked” into playing one area of the field, one player, or one zone responsibility on defense. They must be able to move around the field and match the formation and/or the pass pattern deployment the offense runs.
In other words, they “roll” match some aspect of the offense.
We will use the cover 1 defense as our current example to discuss rolling safeties. Keep in mind, however, there are near-infinite ways a defense can roll their safeties. Since we’ve only previously broken down the cover 1, we’ll stick with that as our example.
In the cover 1, there are two main ways the defense can roll the safeties:
- Roll to the strength of the formation (formation matching defense).
- Roll to the depth of the pass patterns (pattern matching defense).
1. Roll to the Strength of the Formation
In the cover 1 defense, the deep safety (usually the free safety) is responsible for the deep half all by himself. He needs to cover anyone entering the zone and drive towards the ball once it is in flight.
Usually, the defense’s best cover safety is assigned this role, and the defense knows this. So, the offense will do what it can to create mismatches and to stress the defense.
One way they stress the defense is to motion the tight end from one side of the formation to the other. Pre-snap, the strong safety usually aligns to the tight end’s side and the free safety aligns in deep center field.
The strong safety is usually better at providing run support than the free safety, so it makes sense he plays close to the line of scrimmage. He can also cover the tight end if it is a pass play.
So, by motioning the tight end from one side of the formation to the other, the offense is changing the side of their strength. Accordingly, the defense must adjust.
Keys: the closest safety to the tight end rolls to him; the underneath safety plays the closed side of the formation and the other safety bails deep into the single-high position. While it is common for cornerbacks to follow their man in motion, safeties rarely do. They roll high or low to match the formation strength.
When the tight end motions to the other side, the previously deeper free safety collapses and plays near the box, whereas the strong safety rotates to cover the deep half.
As you can see, this type of adjustment requires that both safeties have similar skill sets. They both must be able to play in the box for run support and play deep in pass coverage.
2. Roll to the Depth of the Pass Patterns
Offenses (and defenses for that matter) don’t always like to tip their hands before the snap of the ball, so the defense has to react on the fly to what the offense is running.
So, if neither the offense nor the defense roll pre-snap, the defense may roll their safeties while the pass routes are unfolding.
If a defense, such as the Packers, prefers to run single-high looks, of course the opposing offense knows this and will attack it. There are many ways to attack the single-high coverage.
If the defense remains static in their zones, offenses can pick them apart. Therefore, the defense must switch responsibilities while the offense is running the play. This is often called pattern matching.
Perhaps the most common way to attack the single-high safety coverage is to use the high-low route concept.
The weak side (opposite the strong safety) receiver will run a dig route in front of the free safety to coax him into playing a shallower depth. Then, if the free safety bites on the underneath route, a deep receiver runs to the deep zone that was just vacated by the free safety. If the defense call in the huddle was cover 1, the strong safety is expecting the free safety to remain deep, so he does not drop deep. His specific responsibility is to remain shallow and apply leverage there.
This creates a major problem for the defense. Does the free safety ignore the dig route to maintain depth? If he does, that’s usually an easy pitch-and-catch every time to the dig because linebackers don’t get typically enough depth.
However, if he jumps the dig route, he leaves the back end vulnerable. So, should he stay back? But, what if no deep routes enter that zone? Was the a missed opportunity? A blown coverage?
Rather than playing guess all day, the defense will just roll the safeties. They will call for a roll in the defensive huddle. This means the free safety and strong safety have keys that work in combination to guard both shallow and deep routes. They must adapt on the fly as the routes are being run.
Keys: the closest safety to the shallow route rolls to it; the closet safety to the deep route rolls to that. This is pattern matching. The free safety matches the shallow pattern and the strong safety matches the deep pattern. To properly execute this switch, there must be excellent communication on the field between safeties.
In the example above, the free safety adjusts to the underneath dig route. When he rotates, the strong safety is now responsible for the deep half of the field. If a receiver enters that zone, he must cover him deep.
What This All Means
These examples are oversimplifications for illustrative purposes only. There are many scenarios and positions the safeties can and will roll.
However, this basic example illustrates key points for the safety play in Dom Capers’ defense.
The safeties must be virtually interchangeable and have similar skill sets. They both must be good at playing in the box for run support and playing deep in coverage.
Bottom line: rolling the safeties still maintains the cover 1 that Capers loves, but it changes who, and when, each individual is the single-high safety for any given play.
Last year, Morgan Burnett had almost no help from the other safety, so the opposing offense would intentionally attack the Packers’ other safety (M.D. Jennings).
Jennings was neither effective in run support nor pass coverage. So, the offense would force the Packers to roll into position in which they could torch him.
Now, the addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix fixes this. He’s very good in run support and is extremely fluid in coverage. He gives the Packers much more flexibility in rolling coverage, but perhaps more importantly, trust to do both.
I really like the video below. It’s the 2013 game between Alabama and Virginia Tech, and it shows how Alabama frequently rolled their two safeties. Vinnie Suneri (#3) is their usual strong safety and Clinton-Dix (#6) is their usual free safety. When watching the video, pay attention to how the safeties roll both to the formation and to the patterns.
He will undoubtedly upgrade the defense within Capers’ scheme. Here’s to a better 2014.
So, to not totally rag on M.D. Jennings, here’s an example of him mostly executing the defense correctly. Watch the video below, but particularly pay attention at time 1:10. At that time, the video switches to the view from behind the quarterback. If you want, you can click here to fast forward to 1:10 without watching the embedded video below.
The interception is the product of safety rolling. Morgan Burnett (you can see his long hair) lines up deeper than Jennings, but rolls close to the line of scrimmage. Jennings lines up closer than Burnett, but drops deep into coverage (follow the ball).
Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.