How to Dominate the Strong Safety Position

How to Dominate the Strong Safety Position like Eric Berry
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When we think about the sport of football, characteristics like tough and physical often come to the forefront of our thoughts. Along with being adequate at the technical aspects, if a player can’t take the punishment of the football game, that player may very well lose interest in the game. One of the primary positions that exemplifies this is the strong safety. Tasked with various roles across the field, I’ll breakdown the essential elements needed to dominate this position.

1. Closer to the Line

Extra Linebacker: Even though a strong safety is grouped with the defensive backs, he does have differing responsibilities on the gridiron. While corners and free safeties may occasionally help in run coverage, assisting in run support is a critical role for strong safeties. Defensive linemen control the offensive linemen to open up holes for linebackers to make the majority of tackles. However, more and more teams are bringing their strong safety up to serve as an additional linebacker. In these cases, strong safeties can’t be hesitant to play closer to the line of scrimmage. They must also possess the ability to perform in these scenarios. This requires a number of traits of which include technique, size, and speed.

2. Strongest and Biggest Defensive Back

As I mentioned above, the strong safety isn’t your typical defensive back. With this fact comes positives and negatives.

They won’t have to cover elite receivers 1-on-1 on the outside, but they will need to cover big athletic tight ends across the middle. They won’t be allowed to hang back ten yards behind the line to prevent breakaway runs, rather they’ll sometimes be forced to hover around the line of scrimmage to prevent any carries over five yards.

For these reasons, size is often on a coach’s mind when evaluating potential starters at the strong safety position. To give you an idea of what a NFL-caliber safety resembles, set 6’0” and 200lb as minimum requirement that most teams go by. In short, you’re dealing with some highly athletic and physical specimens.

3. Instincts

No Miscues: NFL cornerback Reshean Mathis once said, “It was just football instincts and help from my other teammates. I told them I was going to do something and they had my back if I was wrong. We didn’t blink, we stopped them and then a big play happened for us.” While this quote is discussing a past game, certain words pop out to me, such as “instincts” and “didn’t blink.” Any play can make or break a game just as most plays are over in seconds. With this being the case, a strong safety needs to be an instinctive player. He must read and react to each play, whether it is accurately reading a pass or making the proper first step to help in run defense. One miscue can lead to a safety being out-of-position and that is almost never a positive sign. A safety can be the fastest player north-to-south on the football field, but without the right instincts, chances are he’ll get caught out of position more often than not.

4. Speed

Despite all of these strong attributes, the strong safety is grouped with defensive backs for a reason. This is where speed comes into play. Due to the versatility needed at the strong safety position, this speed can be utilized on a variety of plays. As I mentioned before, the strong safety will often inch his way closer to the line of scrimmage. Upon the snap, he must shoot the gap and pursue the runner before the play gets through the initial lines of defense. This burst must also be effective in moving backwards in pass coverage. Strong safeties will often be tasked with covering tight ends, which are becoming more athletic by the day, as well as running backs coming out of the backfield. Although speed is only speed and technical skills are still needed, high-end speed isn’t something you can teach.

5. Technique

Flip the Hips: Just like nearly every position on the gridiron, technique is vital. Without proper technique, all of the physical talents can only take you so far. Strong safeties must be technically sound in moving in pass coverage for zone or man coverages. An article from Bleacher Report discusses some of these vital techniques. “When evaluating game film, I want to see a safety who can flip his hips and run. What does this mean? A pro-level safety must be agile enough to turn his hips and run with receivers when they make cuts in their routes. This can be summed up as a player’s ability to go from a backpedal to a run at an angle, and it’s vital to the success of a safety prospect once in the NFL.”

6. Tackling Ability

There’s no way getting around the requirement for tackling skills when evaluating a football player. Simply put, it’s part of the game. Strong safeties are usually counted on to serve as an additional linebacker. As a result, they need to be as tough as a linebacker and able to wrap up consistently to make tackles. Just being tough is only part of the puzzle. They need to be a sure tackler that makes efficient tackles. Just laying a hit on the runner doesn’t always work; broken tackles can quickly become a coach’s pet peeve.

(Master the fundamentals of making tackles and increase the potential for turnovers with these unique drills: Tackling and Turnover Circuits)

7. Freelance Player

High Risk, High Reward: If you’ve ever watched the Seattle Seahawks’ hard-hitting strong safety, Kam Chancellor, you know the amount of ground strong safeties cover on the football field. Sometimes they’ll be dropping back in coverage to pick up a tight end 15 yards down the field, while other times they’ll look more like a linebacker than a defensive back. This is why many see them as a freelance player or a jack-of-all-trades. As a result of this title, often times they may find themselves in situations where they make high risk, high reward choices. Whether it be deciding to approach the line or serving as the vocal leader of the defense, teammates often look to their strong safety to make the right call on any given play.

8. Best Current Strong Safeties

When you see the big hits on ESPN each Monday, it is usually the strong safeties laying the wood. The current NFL is loaded with elite strong safeties that have perfected all aspects of the position. Here are a few that stand out:

T.J. Ward – The former Oregon Ducks standout has resembled the perfect strong safety at the NFL level. He possesses the ability to pick off a pass when the opportunity presents itself, while also being known as an efficient tackler in the run game. With 2 Pro Bowl selections already under his belt, expect Ward to continue make a name for himself at the top of the strong safety class.

Kam Chancellor – Together with his free safety, Earl Thomas, the two comprise one of the best safety pairings in the game. Despite not being a high draft pick (5th Rounder in 2010), Chancellor has silenced the doubters with his hard hits. One key word I use for describing Kam is consistency. He’s only missed 3 games over his 5-year NFL career and rarely lets runners loose after getting his hands on them. At 6’3” and 235lb, he also fits the mold of a strong safety perfectly.

Man Up!

As seen numerous times throughout this article, the strong safety position is not for those who despise contact. You have to be willing to enforce punishment on the opposition. At the same time, you need to be disciplined enough to avoid penalties and understand what the offense is planning to do. In the end, it’s an instinctive, physical position perfect for a mentally strong character.