Safety is one of the more challenging positions to play in football.
The position can in many ways be considered a hybrid between a linebacker and a cornerback.
As such, it requires a varied skillset and body type unlike that of many other positions.
While there used to be a significant delineation between the type of player that was a good fit for a free safety and a good fit for a strong safety, that isn't so much the case anymore.
Especially at upper levels of the game, both safeties are expected to be able to stop the run and be strong in coverage, with the proliferation of high-powered spread offensive formations.
This makes it easier to determine what type of player would make for a good safety and gives coaches flexibility to move a player from strong safety to free safety, and vice versa.
At the same time, though, offenses of today's game have made playing safety even more difficult.
No longer can a player be really good at coverage and not so good at tackling, or really good at tackling but not so good in coverage.
It has forced safeties to be more well-rounded players overall.
So, what exactly does it take to be a great safety in today's game of football?
Let's take a closer look at all the traits, roles and responsibilities, as well as some tips for players who want to be safeties.
If you pay close attention when watching professional football, you'll often notice safeties running all over the field.
They’ll generally start each play lined up roughly 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.
While this gives them more time to read the play and then react, it also requires them to run a lot farther than other positions to get in the correct spot.
When the safety reads a play as run, he must attack the ball carrier as quickly as possible.
When he reads the play as pass, he must pick up his receiver (in man-to-man coverage) or get to his coverage area (in zone coverage).
The only way he's able to do any of this is if he's fast.
If he's not, then he'll likely get to the spot on the field he needs to late, which will result in the offense potentially gaining big yardage.
Unlike wide receivers, safeties don't run in pre-determined routes.
Because they’re reading the play and then reacting, they’re not running at full speed from the moment the ball is snapped.
They’re often changing direction, and stopping and starting. Because of this, safeties need to have what’s generally referred to as "burst."
In plain terms, it means safeties need to be able to get to top speed quickly and do so after changing direction or from a complete stop.
Similar "burst" is needed from running backs, who are often doing the same thing as safeties do.
They’re changing direction, reading plays as they develop, and then bursting forward at a high rate of speed.
Safeties don't have one singular goal like defensive linemen do.
Their general duties are much more akin to a linebacker. They need to see plays develop, read them, and then react.
The challenge, of course, is that football is a fast game. If safeties take too long to react, then the play may already be by them.
So while a safety needs to be able to read and identify the proper play first before reacting, they must do so before actually seeing what's going to happen.
In other words, safeties must have great instincts for the game.
A safety needs to be able to recognize a run play before the quarterback actually hands the ball off.
A safety must be able to identify a pass play, and then identify his specific coverage responsibility quickly.
A safety must be able to see the entire field, recognizing what’s going on in front of him.
And he must do this while sometimes looking over or around all his teammates as well as opponents in front of him.
To do this, a safety must have great vision.
He must be able to see clearly at a distance and up close.
He must have great peripheral vision as well, so that he can see players coming toward him and plays developing off to his sides.
The best safeties have the coverage skills that cornerbacks do with the toughness that linebackers have.
Put more simply, they must be agile and athletic enough to cover receivers, but strong and tough enough to get in the trenches and make tackles.
Safeties can't shy away from contact.
They need to be able to take on blocks as they get closer to the line of scrimmage, shed those blocks, and then make tackles.
Safeties often need to make tackles in the open field, which requires strength that players their size normally don't have.
In this regard, we don't mean that safeties need to be big like defensive linemen are big. They don't even need to be as big as linebackers.
The ideal safety, though, will be roughly 6 feet tall and close to, if not a little heavier than, 200 pounds.
Of course, we’re talking about safeties at the highest level of the game. Youth football players will obviously not have that body size at a young age.
This size will help a safety do all the things he needs to do consistently.
The height will allow him to cover taller wide receivers and tight ends.
It’ll help prevent the quarterback from simply lobbing passes high to these taller players, who may have a few inches on the safety.
The weight will help a safety absorb the contact that comes with playing "in the mix," and give him the needed strength to also make tackles.
If he's on the smaller side, offensive players can more easily block him. Ball carriers would also have an easier time shedding tackle attempts.
A safety has a wide range of roles and responsibilities.
Here are a few of them:
A safety is the last level of defense before the end zone.
The position is called "safety" for this reason - he's like a defense's safety valve.
A safety's primary responsibility, then, is to do everything in his power to make sure a ball carrier doesn’t get behind him.
On passing plays, this means he needs to prevent receivers on his side of the field from running behind him.
On running plays, this means he needs to either successfully tackle all ball carriers or force them to move horizontally.
If he can't make the tackle himself, the safety either must run the ball carrier out of bounds or force him to the middle of the field where other defenders can make the tackle.
Safeties will often approach the line of scrimmage before a play begins.
In obvious running situations, the safety will act as a fourth linebacker in run support.
He’ll often have a freer path to the ball carrier than linebackers do, as it’s much easier for offensive linemen to key blocking schemes to linebackers.
When he lines up deep, a safety must also quickly approach the line of scrimmage when he reads a run play.
His main duty here is one of two things - either make the tackle himself or guide the ball carrier to another teammate to make the tackle.
A safety's role in tackling and run support is crucial.
In passing plays, a safety's primary job is to keep the play in front of him.
In man-to-man coverage schemes, he again can't let his assignment run behind him for a deep pass completion.
If a pass is completed to his coverage assignment in front of him, he must turn into a tackler and handle the situation the same way he does on running plays.
In zone coverage, the safety's job is to cover an area of the field and make sure that any receiver who enters that area is covered.
He provides over-the-top support to cornerbacks in these situations.
Again, he must make sure that he quickly gets to the coverage zone on these plays.
If a receiver runs free from the cornerback, then the safety becomes the primary coverage man.
The safety may also serve to support coverage as a double team tandem with the cornerback for a very skilled receiver.
Here are some tips for players who want to be a good safety:
While it’s impossible to work on getting taller, it's very possible to get stronger.
If you want to be a great safety, the first step is making sure that you hit the weight room and get as strong as you can be.
You want to particularly work on your lower-body strength as well as strengthening your "core."
A safety can't do his job properly if he isn't fast and if he isn't able to get that burst.
The best way to get that is by having a very strong lower body and core to be able to handle the change of direction and still get plenty of power behind the lunges.
Since a major part of a safety's job is to read offensive plays, know what's going to happen, and then quickly react, then a safety must know how typical offensive plays are run.
In this way, a safety must actually learn offensive playbooks, including what the roles and responsibilities of each offensive player are.
By learning this part of the game, a safety can more easily anticipate what’s going to happen based on how certain offensive players are acting.
This will make his job a lot easier, as it’ll allow him to react to plays before they actually develop, thereby cutting down on the time he takes to react.
Tackling is such an important part of a safety's game.
But because he'll be flying around the field at high rates of speed and attaching ball carriers from all directions and not just head-on, tackling for him will be tougher than for other players.
That's why it's even more important for a safety to have sound fundamentals when it comes to tackling.
Constantly practice how to properly wrap, lunge, and take down a tackler, and you'll be more successful in taking a ball carrier to the ground.
By focusing on these fundamentals, you'll be ensuring you do your job well, no matter what angle you're coming from.
Football safeties have that rare combination of speed and coverage skill of traditional cornerbacks, with the strength, vision, and tackling ability of traditional linebackers.
For this reason, great safeties don't come along every day.
If you want to be a great safety in football, you need to work hard on getting strong, building your speed, learning offenses, and making sure you’re a sound tackler.