Monday, August 29, 2011

The Secondary: Safeties and Cornerbacks

We have already learned about the defensive players that battle the offense at or near the line of scrimmage (LOS):  the linebackers and defensive linemen.  Today’s lesson features those players who make up the last line of defense before the end zone:  the safeties and cornerbacks, known collectively as the secondary.

·         Safeties and cornerbacks make up the secondary
·         The secondary has primary responsibility for defending pass plays but must also recognize and defend against running plays
·         The secondary can disrupt passes by blocking receivers, preventing catches and intercepting passes
·         Players in the secondary can also be used to rush the quarterback
·         These players are most likely to commit pass interference, illegal use of hands and defensive holding penalties

TERMS TO KNOW AND LOVE:  safety, cornerback, strong safety, weak safety, man-to-man defense, zone defense, interception, YAC, sack and blitz


As we have discussed, a team’s defense aims to:  prevent the offense from scoring; cause turnovers; and score points for its own team.  The players on the secondary support these goals by:  (1) preventing offensive players from catching passes from their quarterback; (2) intercepting those passes; and (3) preventing a runner from catching a pass in the end zone or running into the end zone after catching a pass.


Cornerbacks: Before the play starts, the cornerbacks (or “corners”) usually line up opposite the offense’s receivers, within a few yards of the LOS.  Under the rules, defensive players can impede an offensive player’s ability to move down the field within 5 yards of the LOS.  However, once a receiver has advanced five yards past the LOS, a defensive player is no longer allowed to keep him from running downfield.  Therefore, the corners will meet the receivers as they cross the LOS and attempt to keep them from running those first five yards by bumping or pushing them. 

Safeties:  A team might have two different types of safeties on the field at once:  a “strong safety” and a “weak safety.”  These terms are not judgments on each player’s strength or talent.  A strong safety is generally responsible for the “strong side” of the offensive formation.  For example, an offense might have a tight end and two receivers lined up to the quarterback’s right-hand side, but only one or two receivers on his left-hand side.  The strong safety, then, will be responsible for defending plays that develop on that player-heavy side of the field (which in this case is his left, since he is facing the offense).  The weak safety will take care of the other side of the offense.


When the ball is snapped, the corners will bump, or block, the receivers at the LOS (within that 5-yard zone), then run with the receivers if they continue down the field.  On a running play, the receivers become blockers for the runner, so the corners attempt to fight off the receivers’ blocks so they can pursue and tackle the runner.  Once a run play is recognized, the safeties will also converge on the runner to tackle him.
On a passing play, the secondary tries to either keep the receivers from catching the ball or will try to catch, or intercept, the pass themselves.  Generally, the secondary has two ways to do this:  (1) each player in the secondary is assigned a specific offensive player to cover, called “man-to-man defense”; or (2) each player in the secondary is assigned an area of the field to cover, called “zone defense.”  In zone defense, once a player runs out of your zone, another player on the secondary is responsible for that receiver.  There are many variations on both types of defense, but we’ll leave these for another time.
To keep a receiver from catching the ball, the defender can try to prevent the receiver from running his designated route, thus leaving the quarterback without that target.  He can also be so close to the receiver physically that the quarterback will throw the ball to a different receiver so the pass isn’t intercepted.  If the quarterback does throw the ball to his receiver, the defender can knock the ball away as it comes to the receiver (called “breaking up the pass”).
The defensive player can get an interception by either catching the ball as it comes to his receiver, or he can “break on the ball,” and run to a different spot on the field where he thinks the pass is going.  Of course, he had better be right about where the ball is going because he runs the risk of his receiver catching the ball and running free to the end zone.
If a receiver catches a pass, the corners and safeties both want to keep the yards the runner gains after the catch (called “Yards After Catch” or “YAC”) to a minimum.  Therefore, they work together to tackle the receiver as soon as possible.
Finally, one or more members of the secondary may be called upon to rush the quarterback on a given play.  This is either intended to tackle the quarterback behind the LOS for a loss of yards (called a “sack”), or to disrupt the quarterback so he is unable to complete a pass.  The use of a player from the secondary in this capacity is one form of “blitz” play.  In general terms, a “blitz” is a play in which one or more players that are usually assigned to defend the run or pass (like a linebacker, safety or corner) is committed to rushing through the offensive line to rush the quarterback.  Blitzes come in different formations and are used in a variety of circumstances, so they merit a post of their own.
As you can see, the secondary has several jobs that they must be able to perform on any given play. Therefore, as a general rule, safeties and corners are the most athletic players on a team's defense; perhaps on the entire team.  This may be why these players in particular tend to be more arrogant and outspoken.  Some corners are so successful at dominating receivers that quarterbacks avoid targeting the receivers they are covering.  A great example of one of these so-called "shut down corners" was "Neon" Deion Sanders, a.k.a. "Prime Time" (both nicknames self-given), an incredibly talented cornerback who played for several NFL teams, most notably for the Dallas Cowboys.  Though he is known for his talent as a cornerback, he played other positions including receiver and kick returner.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, the first year he was eligible for that honor.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed in the preseason, players in the secondary run the risk of committing a variety of penalties in their defense of their end zone, which can be very costly for their team.  Such penalties include pass interference, illegal use of the hands and defensive holding.  Stay tuned to this blog for a full discussion of these and other exciting infractions.

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