Xs and Os: Rolling Safety Defense

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First round selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an excellent rolling safety.
First round selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an excellent rolling safety.

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:

  1. He prefers to play a single-high safety coverage. I previously wrote about it here.
  2. 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:

  1. Roll to the strength of the formation (formation matching defense).
  2. 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.





Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


18 thoughts on “Xs and Os: Rolling Safety Defense

  1. Interesting article Jay. Gives a little insight as to the packers woes covering over the middle last year. Hopefully Dix will shore up some of the issues. I still wonder about the ILBs – are are they part of the problem unable to drop and help with coverage over the middle? No matter what, dix should be an improvement.

    1. The ILBs are part of the problem, but finding ones athletic enough to chase down running QBs and big TEs is hard to find. The traditional role of the ILB is to take on lead blockers and tackle RBs.

      As we know the league has shifted to more passing, so on some downs teams take ILBs off the field in favor of bigger CBs or more athletic pass rushers. The value of ILBs has decreased and I think the shift towards bigger DBs will continue.

      Another possibility is the traditional height/weight of ILBs may evolve over time if teams realize they must drop into coverage more and more.

      1. We can also link this factor to the Packers’ woes in run defense. To stop the pass, GB typically plays a 3-3-5 instead of a straight 3-4-4 substituting a DB for an ILB. That’s fine when the DB is Charles Woodson in his prime, but once Sir Charles slows down a step a DB who can cover probably can’t tackle the RB as well as an ILB can.

        Hence throwing draft picks at the issue over multiple seasons (Hayward, Hyde, and now Clinton-Dix).

  2. Great article! Breaks it down simple and with the video clips brings it to life. I was ecstatic when the Packers took HaHa Clinton-Dix. I think he’ll break the trend of our 1st rd picks doing little to nothing (i.e. Sherrod, Perry, Jones). Hopefully guys like Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy and Casey Heyward bounce back big time this year.

  3. Did you mean to say;
    “Usually, the defense’s best cover safety is assigned this role, and the offense knows this. So, the offense will do what it can to create mismatches and to stress the defense.” ?

  4. I knew there had to be a misprinted word in the book!!!…so there is a difference in ‘playing’ the roll over defense and ‘allowing’ a roll over on defense.

    I hope the edit department got that fixed before the scheme books were handed out.

  5. Can’t help it. Every time I see that photo with Clinton-Dix holding up the Packer uni, it appears to me how forced his smile is. Ha Haing on the outside, but crying on the inside.

  6. My question is if Packers safeties are required to play in sync with each other, how much of Burnett’s poor play can actually be attributed to him versus the failings of the other safety? Just looking at economics, the Packers think pretty highly of Burnett based on his contract while his two primary running mates at safety (McMillian and Jennings) are no longer on the team. Obviously Burnett missing a head on tackle is all on him, but if he’s put in a bad position and has to make a desperation tackle from an odd angle I don’t know if I would blame him for that. I almost wish Charlie Peprah was still around so we could see Burnett and Peprah play together, since Nick Collins made Peprah look like a great safety.

    1. MY VIEW IS THAT BURNETT WAS PLAYING OUT OF POSITION IN 2013 as a Free Safety, when his traditional position is Strong Safety. At least that’s what NFL.com listed his draft profile at when he came out of Georgia Tech and Packers.com mentions that SS has been his usual position.

      Of course, the Packers have had him play Free Safety in the past, but not with very good results. For example, when Nick Collins went down in 2011, Burnett started the first 2 games as the SS, then started the last 14 games at FS in place of Collins. We all know how that defense was in 2011 (of course it was a combination of factors, but the secondary was shredded).

      Aside from that, I never got a sense that Jennings nor McMillian were very good communicators back there while with Burnett. McMillian wouldn’t even take any ownership for his mistakes (just google his comments after the win over the Ravens last year) and Jennings was burned on plenty of occasions with Burnett in tandem.

      My point is that Clinton-Dix is a FS, and that moving Burnett back to SS would be the most reasonable move. I get that both safeties move interchangeably with the rolling safeties concept, but for whatever reason, Burnett does not seem to play as well in the FS role. Let’s hope the communication, tackling and turnover-generating plays improves back there too.

      1. I think the bigger distinction than FS/SS is who is responsible for calling the back-end defense. That was Nick Collins’ job for many years; don’t know that any of Burnett, Jennings, or MacMillian really were suited for it. If Burnett did learn how to do it, it would still be an issue if McMillian or Jennings didn’t (or couldn’t) play the defense that was called. All those ‘explanations’ about miscommunucation on plays . . .

      2. This article argues that there really isn’t a FS/SS dynamic, instead both safeties have be good at both aspects, or else rolling coverages doesn’t make much sense.

  7. Packers hoping all the out of position unproductive and lousy players on defense last year will all of a sudden snap out of it. Raji’s sucked for 3 years and now the move to NT will wake up his lazy ass. Same with the #63 rated safety in the NFL last year? Think there’s 64 so Jennings nose him out? Hawk and B Jones out of position? Perry? Worthy? Datone? Hoping for the best is not a good long term plan Ted. Either is counting strictly on rookies to step up if dreams don’t come true

    1. hey look – it’s the same old comment from Ol Bag. Save yourself some time and use copy and paste so you can just throw this into any article’s comment section – whether relevant or not.

      or, maybe, give a thoughtful comment once in a while to keep our interest.

  8. With a better S partner, who can play both up and back and communicate better, I believe Burnett will be better “rolling” back in the future. After all, he had an above average number of interceptions in college. We now need the same type of flexibility at ILB. We need to find two ILB’s who are more balanced at both stopping the run and dropping back in coverage. I hope next years draft has more depth at versatile ILB’s than this years did.

  9. Switch that Janis kid to FS if he shows any aptitude for tackling on special teams. We don’t need ten receivers but could use a guy with size and speed in the defensive backfield. Just need Jay to coach him up.

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