Getting Beat Deep in the NFL

Nolan HackContributor ISeptember 29, 2009

MIAMI - SEPTEMBER 21:  Tight end Dallas Clark #44 of the Indianapolis Colts avoids a tackle by safety Gibril Wilson #28 of the Miami Dolphins on his way to a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage at Land Shark Stadium on September 21, 2009 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

If Andre or Calvin Johnson for that matter gets past you down the field, so be it, but if a 4th round rookie gets past you for a supposed go-ahead touchdown on Monday Night Football, just because you don't have a true free safety on your team—that is a problem and one that you should have taken care of either in the Draft or Free Agency.

This actually is becoming a serious epidemic for a small number of teams in the NFL.

That MNF game I bring up was a play in which veteran Chargers' strong safety Clinton Hart got beat by first year Oakland Raider Louis Murphy, who has a nice combo of size and speed, for a 57 yard touchdown pass on 4th and 15, no less. True, Hart is the actual strong safety, but the problem is and was that San Diego does not have a safety to cover deep. Football guided missle Eric Weddle is listed as their starting free safety, because he is the most athletic safety they have, but he has no deep speed, a must if you want to be a good free safety in the NFL.

The Chargers aren't the only ones with this problem of course. Nor are they the only ones to be embarrassed on SportsCenter because of it.  

If you are a sports fan you probably have heard the always ample voice of Gus Johnson.

Johnson is known for his fan like excitement and thunderous reactions to big plays either during his coverage of the NFL and March Madness, or select games when he fills in for Mike Breen calling New York Knick games.

Johnson had another one of his big play/big call specials, when he was doing the Bengal-Bronco game in Cincinatti during this NFL season's opening weekend. It was an otherwise lackluster game between AFC teams that have both missed the playoffs the previous two seasons. That was until the 4th quarter, when Carson Palmer drove the Bengals down the field to set up the only touchdown by either team with only 38 seconds left on the clock.

What followed was a botched return by usually poised Bronco receiver/return man Eddie Royal in which he slipped and only made it out to his own 13.  

It looked like the Bengals had won their opening game for their home fans, but after an incomplete deep ball by Denver QB Kyle Orton on first down (in which Orton was trying to hit ever talked about Bronco receiver Brandon Marshall), a supposed 'fluke' happened.

Orton took another shot down field to Marshall, but Orton's pass was tipped up in the air by Bengal corner Leon Hall and then caught by 33 year old possession receiver Brandon Stokley with nothing but green in front of him to the end-zone, giving the Bronco's a zany win to say the least.

So you say 'fluke' right? Nuh-uh. Stokley was left with nothing but Ohio green in front of him because Chris Crocker, who's natural position is strong safety (he's better at hitting guys over the middle and in the box, instead of covering anybody deep).

He was signed midway through the 2008 season, because ever since the '08 off-season the Bengals have had a void at the free safety spot, due to their letting a young and talented, no buts about it, free safety walk in free-agency (Madieu Williams), who now locks down centerfield for one of the league's better defenses in the Twin Cities.

On the alleged 'fluke' play Crocker was so busy worrying about big-play receiver Marshall (who Orton looked for on first down the play before), that he was behind the aging Stokley and still couldn't catch him. In fact the closest Bengal to Stokley, as he went down the sideline on the way to the endzone, was speedy second year linebacker Keith Rivers.

Last time I checked, linebackers aren't supposed to be faster than free safeties.

Another example of the lack of a true center field safety comes from another MNF game,  the very next week after the Raiders nearly shocked their inter-division rival.

This time we have two different plays (both going for long touchdowns) by another safety who is obviously not in his comfort zone, because again, he is a strong safety starting at free, playing out of position.

The man this time is Miami Dolphin safety Gibril Wilson. On the first play from scrimmage the Colts Peyton Manning threw a strike over the middle to one of the leagues faster tight ends Dallas Clark, and not only was Wilson beat by Clark on the play, Wilson missed the tackle and Clark went for an 80 yard touchdown to open the scoring. Even with that ultra-early setback, the Dolphins struck back with a touchdown of their own, on the very next drive going 75 yards on nine plays.

The Dolphins actually took the game hostage from then on, only allowing Manning's offense to get on the field for another 14 minutes and 41 seconds for the rest of the game, with Miami keeping the ball for literally three quarters of the game. The Dolphins didn't trail again till the 4th quarter, when Miami had everything going for them, a 3 point lead, and just under four minutes left—but then Manning and the Colts move the ball inside Dolphin territory to the the Miami 48. Manning throws a quick screen pass to untested receiver Pierre Garcon (who was only starting because the usual number two, Anthony Gonzalez, is out injured) with Wilson cheating up because he was trying to get a jump on the screen. Wilson loses his angle on the young wide out and once Garcon gets ahead of him Garcon is home free and scores on his only catch of the game.

So despite Miami's dominating ground game and time of possession, the two touchdowns Wilson gave up were so quick it didn't matter.

Wilson started his NFL career in his comfort zone at strong safety with the New York Giants, even winning a Super Bowl with the team in 2007. That success and steady play over four seasons (strictly as a strong safety) helped get Wilson get a huge (a 'lil too huge, to be perfectly honest) six year deal from Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

Davis cut Wilson the very next offseason. Wilson did total a career high in tackles, and was the starting strong safety for the Raiders, but at times played more deep safety then he should have in Oakland (in part because of 2006 7th overall pick Michael Huff's shortcomings). Teams took advantage of the fact Wilson doesn't have that turbo button in his arsenal and was part of the reason the Raiders secondary was susceptible to getting burned by the deep ball, so much so that Mr. Davis (Davis prides his Raiders having vertical speed in the first place) terminated the six year pact with Wilson, even though that deal included $16 million guaranteed.

The ironic thing about Miami is that they are the team that made Crocker available by cutting him in the mid-season of '08. Even though Dolphin Head Coach Tony Sparano was actually quoted as saying in training camp before the season, "I think Crocker probably has some of the best cover skills that we have back there at the safety position", after signing him that offseason.

It also shows you that some lessons need to be learned. Especially when a guy like Brian Dawkins was available in free agency this off-season. Dawkins has already improved Denver's pass defense and has given All-Pro corner Champ Bailey some much needed help, playing center field for Denver's defense.

The Carolina Panthers also proved you can snatch a capable player to step in and play free safety (or even to play in two deep safety coverages on 3rd and longs and what not), by drafting one. Carolina drafted Charles Godfrey out of Iowa in the 3rd round of the 2008 Draft, and took Carolina's No. 1 free safety spot immediately. Godfrey's combination of size at 205 pounds, and speed capable of running 4.4 40's, shows you it's not the hardest thing in the world to find a capable guy with solid vertical speed to step in and play free safety, in the National Football League.

The one exception to having a strong play free, is out of necessity, because of injury or in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers case, suspension.

The Bucs usual starting free safety is Tanard Jackson, who has decent speed and size, and can play the free safety position was suspended four games before the start of the season. The Bucs had to switch hard hitting strong safety Jermaine Phillips over to free. 

Though this case does fall under the category of players who are really strong safeties masquerading as a free safety because of necessity, the Bucs still managed to run Phillips into the ground as in the offseason they tried to make him into the next Derrick Brooks by trying him out as an outside linebacker. That experiment was scrubbed and Phillips was able to move back to his usual strong safety spot before the start of the season, but was forced into the free position with Jackson's suspension.

My point of running Phillips into the ground became even more costly for Tampa Bay when they lost Phillips for the season with a hand injury picked up in the Bucs second game of the season.  This makes Tampa even more likely to give up the big play, especially with special teamer Will Allen standing in for Jackson at the free, until week five.

So my point being, if you don't wanna get beat deep in the National Football League, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have a free safety who is actually a free safety.