When Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson selected defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins with his first two picks in the 2015 draft, fans began to immediately wonder if they were safeties or cornerbacks.
Discussions quickly popped up that they would play cornerback. Then slot cornerback. Then back to safety. Then as hybrid cover players. And so on.
So, which is it?
In the end, it really doesn’t matter because the modern NFL needs its non-box safeties to cover like cornerbacks anyway, and Randall and Rollins aren’t the box type (think Landon Collins, who is a a box safety and struggles in deep coverage). Thompson undoubtedly selected players who can roam all over and cover receivers across the field.
That simple explanation seems to answer that question on the surface. However, it warrants a deeper investigation to understand what goes on in the war room and the defensive backs meetings.
And that answer may have popped up on Twitter the other day.
— Brian Carriveau (@BrianCarriveau) May 13, 2015
The answer may be the “mirror” defense.
The mirror defense in its most simple form calls for its defenders to do all the same things so they don’t have to switch sides of the field for different coverages.
In other words, whatever the offense throws at the defense, the defense can handle it without rotating players across the field. No matter which defensive backs are on the field, they must be able to do the same things on the right and left sides of the field, and they must be have the same coverage skills in shallow and deep pass defense.
Identifying good cover safeties in the draft is becoming increasingly important, and difficult, because many college coverage schemes have them playing deep and driving downhill to the ball, oftentimes assisting cornerbacks underneath them. They need to develop isolated, trailing coverage for NFL spread schemes.
To illustrate the mirroring concept (as an oversimplification), let’s take a look at some very basic tenets of pass defense against a 2×2 offensive formation. The 2×2 is a spread, which takes away safety help and requires the safeties to cover receivers one-one-one. These basic principles apply to most zone and man-to-man defenses.
In the formation above, that Randall and Rollins are the safeties. They could also be considered as slot cornerbacks against the 2×2 formation. It really doesn’t matter when it comes to pass coverage what you call them. At this point in the off-season, both Randall and Rollins are projected to play against the inside routes and receivers.
Pass defenses protect the field from the inside-out and deep-to-shallow, and therefore must always be prepared for all vertical routes with no safety help over the top. The picture below shows the basic coverage responsibilities for man-to-man and most zone concepts.
The receivers on both sides of the formation are labeled as “1” or “2.” The number 1 receivers are the outside and the number 2 receivers are the inside.
Both the cornerbacks and the safeties must read both the number 1 and number 2 receivers. Specifically, the cornerbacks read the number 1 receiver first and the number 2 receiver second; the safeties read the number 2 first and number 1 second. This is consistent with the inside-out coverage philosophy.
In the picture below, if all four receivers go vertical, the match ups stay the same. In the case of Randall and Rollins, they must be able to carry the number 2 receivers vertically down the field. Safeties sometimes have trouble carrying speedy receivers vertically in the all go packages, so coverage skills are a premium. In many coverage shells, safeties play over cornerbacks carrying receivers vertically in a bracket, so they don’t have much experience running the verticals.
However, if all four receivers do not go vertical, the cornerbacks and safeties must read the number 1 and number 2 receivers and adjust their routes accordingly. In other words, the safeties must be prepared to cover underneath or vertical routes, and they both must possess the skills to do so.
In the example below, if the right number 2 receiver runs a route towards the inside of the formation, the safety must drop down to cover the 2 because he’s responsible for the middle of the field and he has outside help from cornerback carrying the deep route. Even though the cornerback is shallower in coverage, the safety is still responsible for the inside. Due to the nature of coverage shells, many safeties are experienced and skilled at driving towards the ball, so this coverage is no problem for them.
In the example below, if the left number 1 receiver runs short and the left number 2 runs deep (this is the “smash” concept), the cornerback must cover the underneath route because he’s the closest to it and there is no one outside of him, while the safety must carry the number 2 vertically because he’s the deepest defender and responsible for the inside receiver, even he breaks outside on top of the cornerback.
Additionally, the picture above shows that if the right number 2 receiver runs a short out, while the right number 1 runs a vertical, the safety and cornerback must switch their coverage responsibilities. This is called pattern matching. The example above on the right side of the formation is sometimes called “palms” coverage.
In palms, the cornerback is the closest to the number 2, so he must cover him, vacating his outside responsibilities. The safety, since he’s deeper, is responsible for the number 1, vacating his inside responsibilities. This is why is called switching–because they switch both receivers and inside-out responsibilities.
The examples I discussed above are oversimplifications of pass coverages, but they do illustrate the skill sets necessary in today’s defensive backs. They must have the ability to cover short and long, and must be able to switch on the fly.
Also, the offense can roll out any pattern combinations on either the left or right side of the formation, so the defensive backs on both sides of the field must be able to rotate and cover inside, outside, short, and deep. Flip the pictures above around in mirror images, and the safeties must be able cover the same routes on either side.
Those skill sets are hard to find. That probably explains why Thompson selected versatile players with his first two picks.
So, if Brian Carriveau, Charles Davis, and Daniel Jeremiah are correct that Ted Thompson is looking for mirrors in Randall and Rollins, we can expect to see similar coverage concepts out of them in the future.——————