What's Up Who Dats? Coming to you today to discuss a topic that has recently been given a lot of attention recently - the responsibilities, comparisons, and expectations of Free Safeties and Strong safeties in the NFL. While we're at it, we will just make it a defensive back party and talk about the Cornerbacks as well. You see, there seems to be either a misunderstanding or lack of clarity in how each position should be viewed individually. As with almost anything in life, there are exceptions to the rule and we will address those also.
Where do we start? Oh yeah, we'll start with the basic textbook definition of each position!
Safety (according to Wikipedia):
The safeties are the last line of defense (farthest from the line of scrimmage) and usually help the corners with deep-pass coverage. The strong safety (SS) is usually the larger and stronger of the two, providing extra protection against run plays by standing closer to the line of scrimmage, usually on the strong (tight end) side of the field. The free safety (FS) is usually the smaller and faster of the two, and is usually the deepest player on the defense, providing help on long pass plays.
The free safety tends to watch the play unfold and follow the ball. The free safety is typically assigned to the quarterback in man coverage, but as the quarterback usually remains in the pocket, the free safety is "free" to double cover another player. On pass plays, the free safety is expected to assist the cornerback on his side and to close the distance to the receiver by the time the ball reaches him.
The strong safety tends to be somewhat larger and stronger than the free safety. However, the word strong is used because he is assigned to cover the "strong side" of the offense, the side on which the tight end, a usually big, powerful receiver-type player lines up on offensive plays. The strong safety tends to play closer to the line than the free safety does, and assists in stopping the run. He may also cover a player, such as a tight end, running back, fullback or H-back, who comes out of the backfield to receive a pass. A strong safety's duties are a hybrid of those belonging to a linebacker in a 46 or 3–4 defense and those of the other defensive backs, in that he both covers the pass and stops the run.
Typically two players primarily cover the wide receivers. Cornerbacks attempt to prevent successful quarterback passes by either swatting the airborne ball away from the receiver or by catching the pass themselves (interception). In rushing situations, their job is to contain the runner, either by directing him back to the middle of the field to be tackled, by tackling him themselves, or by forcing him out of bounds.
I chose Wikipedia to obtain the definitions because they were presented in a simplified way. This also helped to clearly define each player's role in the secondary by identifying their basic duties. Obviously, any of these positions can temporarily or permanently switch to another, but most are assigned to the position which matches their skills best! Also, many of the better CBs switch to S as they age and some of their coverage skills or speed begins to diminish. The ability to switch fluidly between these positions is uncommon due to the difference in how each is played.
With this being said, it would make sense to expect different results from each position's play and set different expectations from the onset. In an average to high quality defense, you could expect your CBs to have a higher number of INTs and passes defended than your FS and SS. It is reasonable to say that your FS would have more INTs than your SS, but significantly less tackles as well.
Occasionally, you get an exceptional player who can pretty much do it all at FS or SS. Players like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Earl Thomas, and the late Sean Taylor come to mind. Reed and Polamalu both had a knack for getting INTs while performing their duties as SS who frequently played near the line of scrimmage (LOS) and accumulated a lot of tackles. Thomas and Taylor offered an equally unique talent to the FS position by being excellent in deep coverage and showing great range combined with the ability to come down towards to the LOS and tackle frequently. It would be unreasonable to compare most players to these "super human-like" individuals.
What would be more unreasonable would be to compare most current FS against current SS based on one statistic or another solely. This is because they are asked to do different things within the design of different defenses. The same holds true for inside linebackers and outside linebackers. If we're going to freely compare FS such as Jairus Byrd to SS such as Kenny Vaccaro, then we might as well throw in an LB like Stephone Anthony and say Reid is the best because he has more INTs than both players. There really is not a reasonable way to compare them based on one statistic!
As always, Thanks for Reading and Be Cool Who Dats!