Defensive Scheme May Dictate Safety First

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune speculates as to what general manager Phil Emery’s first round pick will tell us about their plans on defense:

“It would be fascinating if, by some measure of good fortune, the Bears went on the clock in the first round of the NFL draft May 8 with Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert still available.”

“General manager Phil Emery’s choice in that scenario would teach us a bit about how he believes a defense should be built and the scheme in coordinator Mel Tucker’s second season.”

“One of the most intriguing mysteries of the Bears’ yet-to-be-revealed schematic tweaks is how they will use their safeties. Will Tucker want to play a safety closer to the line of scrimmage instead of the two-deep alignment for which the Bears were known under former coach Lovie Smith? That could depend on the talent at Tucker’s disposal.

“Clinton-Dix is known for his range in coverage, while Pryor earned a reputation for tackling and physical play closer to the line of scrimmage.”

Adam Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times takes the conversation a bit farther:

“The growing importance of safeties (see all the money they’ve received in free agency recently) can’t be ignored. Offenses are attacking defenses in many ways, and having do-everything safeties has become crucial.”

True.  But perhaps more to the point, defenses are attacking offenses in many ways.  In this respect, Dan Pompei’s excellent article on the importance of safeties points to the central issue:

“Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom said you don’t want safeties at the top of your salary pyramid. That wisdom is changing as the passing game is becoming more prominent. A safety who can cover can be an antidote for the new-age, athletic, pass-catching tight end, and he can allow a defensive coordinator freedom to use his cornerbacks and linebackers more aggressively.”

“‘When you went against [Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu], you had to give a guy on scout team a special-colored jersey so you knew where they were,’ [a] senior exec said.”

Despite the implications in my last post, who you line up at defensive end isn’t going to make the difference in a versatile scheme.  Its where you line up your linebackers and, to an extent, your defensive backs.  More and more, your safeties are the center of your defense, needing to be tough and big enough to play linebacker near the line of scrimmage, yet athletic enough to cover man-to-man in the slot, cover a tight end in the seam or cover ball to boundary deep.

Taking the ability of the safeties themselves out of the equation, being able to move other players around to confuse defenses and to take advantage of mismatches depends critically on being able to count on your safeties to plug the gaps that are left.  You can argue that their ability to do so almost completely determines what you can and can’t do.

It’s a fascinating problem and, as you look at it closely, you realize that its one the Bears haven’t solved.  More and more it looks like, all things being equal, safety will be where the Bears will go early in the draft.  It may be the key to everything they wish to do.

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