As the Detroit Lions head into training camp, I've been taking a look at each position. I did write a preview of the linebackers. It was a depressing piece to write and isn’t for the faint-of-heart. Suffice it to say that the LB corps is the unit most in need of attention in 2014.
I decided to tackle the safeties ahead of the cornerbacks because the safeties are the final piece of the Wide-9 puzzle.
You can check my latest guess as to what the Lions’ depth chart looks like as a reference.
Safeties Are Interchangeable Multitaskers
If the QB is the multitasker of the offense, the safeties are their defensive counterparts. They are the last bastion of defense. The outer edge of the defensive envelope. They put the double in double coverage.
However, the safeties are also the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) responsible for providing run-defense support in the blink of an eye, or storming the QB on an occasional blitz.
The safeties rely on instincts and reads. They have to keep one eye on the QB: “OMG! Is he looking my way?”
Safeties have to read routes instinctively: “OMG! Calvin Johnson is gonna run a post pattern at my zone!”
Safeties have to react immediately to developments: “OMG! PLAY ACTION!”
In today’s NFL, the roles of the strong safeties (SS) and free safeties (FS) have become blurred. They are largely interchangeable.
The Changing Role of Safeties in the NFL
Traditionally, the SS lined up just outside the “box” on the strong-side of the offensive alignment (where the TE lines up pre-snap). The box is loosely defined as an area eight yards deep from the line of scrimmage, mirroring the TE.
Meanwhile, the FS lined up 25-30 yards deep pre-snap and was the “center fielder” of the defense.
While there’s nothing really new in the NFL, the game has undergone some changes that had a direct and lasting impact upon the roles of NFL safeties and the way that they play the game.
This entertaining Sports Illustrated article I dusted off explains how, in 1972, the NFL Competition Committee moved the hash marks towards the center of the field to improve scoring.
As a faster, more open game emerged in the 1970s, the safety play became so brutally intimidating that the NFL was forced to step in. The league enacted tough new unnecessary roughness guidelines in 1979, according to NFLevolution.com.
The pure intimidation that was the cornerstone of safety play was legislated into irrelevance. Offenses became more diverse, more open and far deadlier.
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy is largely credited for changing the roles of safeties in today’s game while he was a defensive assistant in Pittsburgh.
Dungy gave the safeties a more meaningful role in a variety of zone coverage schemes, most notably the Cover-2, and later, the Tampa-2.
As NFL offenses entered a golden age, the defenses morphed. Nowhere was the transition more profound than for the safety positions. The safeties became more athletic and less of an intimidating physical presence.
The Lions’ Safety Roles and Defensive Schemes
Like the cornerbacks, the Lions use left and right safety (LS/RS) designations. The left safety loosely translates to SS, while the right safety can be likened to the FS nomenclature.
The Lions safeties can be interchangeable, depending upon how they match up on any given play.
For purposes of supporting the Wide-9, a safety will have linebacker-like gap responsibilities on running plays to his “half” of the defense. And that, my friends, completes my dilettante’s guide to the Wide-9.
The Lions play a Cover-2 almost exclusively. The safeties will line up 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, covering the deep “halves.”
In nickel or dime coverage, the Lions safeties will cover the deep “thirds” when the MLB drops into the middle zone: the classic Tampa-2.
Why the Cover-2? Because Detroit’s safeties (like most NFL teams) lack the elite speed and the man-cover skills required to press receivers closely.
The Troy Polamalus, Jairus Byrds and Eric Weddles are rare man-cover stud safeties.
We’ll examine the 2013 Lions safeties from the standpoints of closing speed, angles taken to their assignments, run support, ball skills and tackling skills. As usual, stats will be provided by ProFootballFocus.com’s Premium Stats (subscription required) unless stated otherwise.
Just as DT Ndamukong Suh is the heart of the Lions’ defense, Delmas is its soul.
A vocal leader on and off the field, Delmas is the captain of the secondary. He barks out coverages to the linebackers and corners pre-snap and delivers crushing highlight hits on his “targets.”
Delmas (5’11”, 202 pounds) is an instinctive play maker who has good closing speed (4.50 according to NFL.com) and the best transition quickness into run support on the team.
He’s not a wrap-up tackler, but rather what former Lions’ head coach Monte Clark would call “a deluxe hitter.”
For a player with such a reputation for big hits, Delmas misses an inordinately high number of tackles. It’s mostly poor angles that are to blame, plus his need to make a statement-style hit.
As a 2009 rookie, Delmas played 954 snaps at RS over 15 games. In 2010, he played 15 games again and played 936 snaps (all but 61 at LS).
In 2011, Delmas again played LS, seeing 769 snaps. He missed the final five games and the playoff game after suffering a knee injury.
Last season, he was healthy enough to play only eight games, where he played the LS position for 403 snaps and RS for 46 snaps against the Texans.
In 2012, Delmas’ PFF rankings (out of 88 NFL safeties who played over 291 snaps) were 51st overall, 65th in coverage, 43rd against the run and 30th rushing the QB.
This season, he continues his excruciatingly slow knee injury rehab.
A healthy Delmas will probably start at RS in 2013. His two-year contract is heavily laden with incentives, as well it should be after missing 15 games over four years.
The LS starting duties will belong to…..
Quin was drafted as a CB in the 2009 NFL draft’s fourth round. His NFL.com draft profile is here.
Quin checks in at 5’11”, 204 pounds (not the 6’0”, 207 pounds stated on the Lions roster).
Quin played left CB, right CB and slot CB during his 2009-2010 seasons with Houston but was moved to SS in 2011. Quin’s 4.50 speed probably dictated the position change.
As a strong safety, Quin has been a durable playmaker who has good ball skills (two INTs and seven passes defended in 2012).
Of the 43 NFL safeties who played over 868 snaps in 2012, Quin was PFF’s 22nd ranked overall, 31st in coverage, eighth against the run and 41st rushing the QB.
Like Delmas, Quin falls prey to taking poor angles to a receiver. Unlike Delmas, Quin is a run-stuffing machine who wraps up his tackles.
And that, my friends, makes Quin a perfect fit in the Wide-9.
Like Quin, Carey got his 2009 NFL baptism as a CB with Cleveland. The 5’11”, 192-pound sixth-round draft pick was waived injured (shoulder) by the Browns after the first 2009 preseason game.
Carey’s NFL combine results per NFL.com are here.
Carey was signed off waivers by Jacksonville in 2009 and promptly went on the IR for the remainder of the season.
In 2010, Carey played 671 snaps at RS for the Jaguars. Of 61 safeties who played over 631 snaps, he finished dead last in PFF’s overall safety rankings.
Carey was a camp cut by the Jags in 2011. In October, he was signed by the Lions and spent the remainder of the season on the practice squad.
He was waived after suffering a hamstring injury in last year’s training camp, but he was signed to the active roster in Week 9 after Delmas went down with a knee injury.
Carey acquitted himself decently in 2012. Of 88 safeties who played over 291 snaps, he ranked 28th overall, 21st in coverage, 41st against the run and 38th rushing the QB.
Carey was Detroit’s highest ranked safety by PFF in 2012. This is either disturbing or reason for hope depending on your blood to Kool-Aid level.
Carey wouldn’t be a Lion were it not for Delmas’ knee injury in 2012. Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com talked to Carey about his expanded role in 2013.
Carey is a solid zone Cover-2 safety who can play the nickel, or dime DB roles. He’s slow to transition into run support and takes questionable angles—two areas where some immediate improvement is indicated.
A 2010 third-round Lions draft pick, Spievey (5’11”, 195 pounds) is another converted CB. The position switch came after Spievey’s lackluster showing at CB during training camp. A change that saved Spievey's career.
What do you call a cornerback who can’t flip his hips?
Spievey has six career interceptions for the Lions. He plays a decent zone coverage but is hardly the instinctive player that the position demands. He’s been known to wander off reservation with respect to his zone responsibilities.
Spievey saw action in 12 games (starting eight) in 2010. He played 576 snaps (all but 88 at RS). He was PFF’s 35th ranked of 85 NFL safeties who played over 316 snaps.
In 2011, Spievey was the workhorse of the unit, logging 935 snaps at RS during the regular season. Of 36 NFL safeties who played over 893 snaps, he was ranked 31st by PFF.
In 2012, the Lions brought in free-agent safety Erik Coleman as insurance against further injury to Delmas. It was Spievey, however, who was limited to action in only five games, where he played 201 snaps.
A concussion ended Spievey’s 2012 season.
Like the rest of the Lions’ safeties, Spievey isn’t possessed of great speed (4.52 40 time), and his angles to contact are dubious, resulting in too many missed tackles.
Spievey can best be characterized as a wrap-and-drag-me tackler. You know, that irritating little terrier who won’t let go of your pant leg.
I’ll watch Spievey carefully to see if the game is slowing down at all for him and whether he has a better grasp of his assignments and responsibilities.
Silva was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and was the recipient of the prestigious “Randy” award for his outstanding showing in training camp.
He’d won an all-expense paid trip to the Lions’ practice squad in 2011, while the less-impressive veteran Coleman was added to the active roster on a one-year contract.
At 6’3”, 225 pounds, Silva is the biggest safety on the roster. He fits the latest trend in the NFL towards taller defensive backs.
Having 4.60 speed (according to NFL DraftScout.com) makes Silva somewhat of a S/LB hybrid. A “tweener.” A “big nickel.”
Courtesy of Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com, Silva’s underdog story is fascinating.
Silva’s shot in the NFL came during the injury-plagued 2012 season. He racked up 427 snaps at RS over eight games. He ranked 68th out of 88 NFL safeties who played more than 291 snaps.
Silva made one interception last year and broke up a couple of passes on 15 targets.
Silva might possess the best instincts among Lions safeties in coverage and is a wrap-up tackler. He’s extremely slow transitioning into run support, though, and can be too easily taken out of a play by blockers.
Silva was a contributor on special teams as a backup. This is a distinction that would be better forgotten on the NFL’s worst coverage units in recent memory.
Like the line on your resume that you’d rather skip.
Like Spievey, Silva is another player for whom the game has to slow down. He’ll have to once again prove his value in training camp while fighting off competition from veterans like…
Johnson (6’0”, 207 pounds) was acquired in December 2012 after the Lions secondary allowed an embarrassing six passing plays of over 20 yards to rookie Colts’ QB Andrew Luck.
Safety Erik Coleman got a bus ticket out of town just ahead of the lynch mob.
Johnson’s 4.41 speed is a team best among the safeties. He was the consensus top safety in the 2008 draft class and was a second-round selection by the Vikings.
His NFL.com pre-draft analysis can be found here.
In 2008, Johnson established himself as a run-stuffing safety of below-average coverage skills over 442 snaps.
Johnson’s high-water mark occurred in 2009, where he started 15 games at SS and played 887 snaps for the Vikings.
Opponents soon learned to treat Johnson as the soft spot in the Vikings' woeful 2009 secondary. Johnson was targeted relentlessly in opponent’s passing attacks.
Johnson continued to be abused in 2010. He saw only spot duties (79 snaps) as an emergency option for the Vikings.
Johnson was a Vikings’ draft bust but hung onto his roster spot until November of 2011, when he was placed on the IR with a knee injury. The Vikings wasted no time releasing Johnson, who was subsequently signed by Miami in 2012.
He didn’t make the cut in Miami’s 2012 preseason due to hamstring problems and sat idle until being picked up by the Lions.
Johnson’s half-skill set has had the Lions’ coaching staff working feverishly to improve his ball skills, per DetroitLions.com’s Tim Twentyman.
My guess is that Johnson will not make the cut in Detroit. Once stigmatized as a soft target, a safety usually finds himself in need of a new career.
Johnson reminds me of the old cartoon: “The floggings will continue until morale improves!”
The 11-year veteran is 6’0”, 208 pounds of Wide-9 experience. Hope excelled as a SS for the Titans, earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2008.
Hope had productive 2009-2010 seasons but was relegated to a depth role in 2011. He had lost a step.
Hope continued his depth and mentoring roles for the Falcons in 2012 as a SS. He was released following the 2012 season as a presumed salary cap casualty.
I subscribe to Kevin Seifert’s analysis for ESPN.com. Hope will be a depth piece who has a familiarity with the Wide-9 scheme at both safety positions.
Unfortunately, Hope’s best days are well behind him.
Wendling (6’1”, 222 pounds) is primarily a special teams contributor who is sparingly used as a safety and only in an emergency.
Considering how poorly the Lions special teams performed last season, Wendling should be looking over his shoulder in 2013.
The Lions will likely keep five safeties on the roster. Two (Delmas and Carey) will man the RS position while Quin and Spievey will likely hold down the LS spot.
Spievey’s roster spot isn’t a foregone conclusion. His 2012 concussion has to be an ongoing concern. He’ll be challenged by Ricardo Silva for a roster spot.
While the Lions made an obvious upgrade by signing Glover (rhymes with rover) Quin, the group as a whole is rather pedestrian, especially from a speed standpoint.
The NFL is trending towards bigger safeties. This could make smaller players like Delmas, Carey and Spievy obsolete sooner rather than later.
Durability among safeties is a league-wide concern. Size and durability will become sought after traits by NFL teams.
The Lions have a glut of decent CB prospects. Could one of them be converted to safety?
Next Up: The Cornerbacks