The dominant box safety was once one of the most prized players in the recruiting game. 2001 Thorpe award winner Roy Williams epitomized the possibilities at the position from 2000 to 2001 at Oklahoma while the Sooners were going 24-2 thanks to his leadership over a dominant secondary.
At 6'1" 221 pounds, Roy had rare power for the position but he still possessed traditional defensive back quickness with a 4.53 40 time. With all that size and athleticism to play with the Sooners made it a point to keep him near the action as a box safety and in his 2001 Thorpe season he responded with 101 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two sacks, five interceptions, and 22 pass break-ups.
For Roy and players of his ilk, the problems came in the era of the spread offense. Although he was hell on wheels coming downhill, Williams struggled with difficult coverage assignments in the NFL that asked him to lock down better receivers or demonstrate deep range. The 220 pound safety slowly began to disappear in college as defenses had to focus on finding DBs that could afford them coverage flexibility rather than dominating around the line of scrimmage.
However, defenses facing spread offenses need great tacklers on the field more than ever and needed a way to get the most out of players with abilities like Roy Williams. There are players who can excel in traditional run support roles as well as in coverage but they are rare. Now, teams will still use a traditional "box safety" type player to help attack the offense but they will move him around the field in different positions based on what their other DBs will allow them to do in coverage. The Seattle Seahawks of the NFL are the ultimate example as their pairing of Kam Chancellor with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman allows them to drop the 6'3" 235 pound monster right where offenses don't want him.
Most every defense can find a use for the classic strong safety, it's just a matter of where he fits in a given defense:
The box safety as an inside linebacker
We've already covered this trend here and noted that players like Jaylon Smith, Ryan Shazier, and Malik Jefferson would traditionally have played as running backs or strong safeties but in today's game will often find their home inside.
This is an option for a team that wants mega-coverage versatility and will play DL techniques that protect the linebackers and allow them to line up just outside the box and run to the football without worrying about having to fill inside gaps regularly.
The advantage of having a box safety player here is that which the Chicago Bears found when they converted New Mexico rover Brian Urlacher into a Tampa-2 middle linebacker. Either in a quarters or tampa-2 defense, a box safety who has coverage ability but thrives being able to run to the football and blitz has great value for protecting the middle of the field against slots and tight ends in coverage:
When playing as an inside linebacker, a box safety can erase a troublesome slot or tight end either in man coverage or by dropping into the deep middle in Tampa-2. However, his impact is diminished as he now has to contend with blockers and different keys whereas a classic strong safety could run free to the ball.
The box safety in cover 3
Kam Chancellor has been putting on a free clinic for the last few years on how a traditional box safety can thrive in today's game if utilized in MOFC (middle of the field closed) coverages.
Either cover 3 buzz or cover 1 robber can make use of a safety who drops into the middle of the field to replace a linebacker in the "hook to curl" zones:
While traditional cover 3 generally asks a safety to drop into the "curl to flat" zone and potentially match up with a slot receiver, which can also be an effective way to get a strong safety near the action:
In either instance the strong safety can potentially avoid difficult coverage assignments as he's either in a role normally occupied by a linebacker or he can be dropped into the boundary flat where there's less space to navigate.
If a defense has a box safety at one of the two safety spots that they want to hide from tricky assignments or deep coverage they can protect him by having their strong safety position follow the fourth least dangerous receiver so that his coverage assignment isn't too difficult. This will either put him in the boundary curl to flat assignment or in a hook zone in a buzz coverage across from a player like an H-back or tight end:
With these types of rotations and adjustments it's not terribly difficult to hide a box safety in coverage with cover 3 as the worst case scenario would be covering a slot in the boundary or chasing a wheel route deep.
The really convenient aspect of having a box safety in a cover 3 defense comes with the Fire Zone/Man-1 blitzes that these teams regularly use. A team with a strong safety that regularly reps the middle hook drop in buzz or robber coverage can always bring their linebackers on the blitz with the peace of mind that the player replacing them in the box is almost like another linebacker himself. And of course, a team that plays these coverages and brings these types of blitzes can also easily blitz the box safety off the edge or up the middle.
The box safety in cover 4
Other than at inside linebacker, there are basically two positions where a quarters defense could put a big, traditional safety but to have any hope of surviving against spread passing formations they have to choose one or the other.
The first option is to use the player as a space-backer like Ohio State's Darron Lee and line him up over the slot receiver:
From this alignment the box safety can force the run, blitz the edge, and destroy perimeter screens. He'll have to cover a slot receiver at times but the defense can schemed in such a way that he can avoid chase slots on vertical routes.
Another option is to play a nickel back to the field and use the box safety on the boundary, where he could drop down as a run-force defender on the opposite edge:
The advantage here is that the defense has an eight man front with the nickel and strong safety playing run force to either edge. This is a very difficult front to run the ball on and it can allow either corner to be coverage specialists who don't have to excel as force players.
The problems tend to come in facing trip sets. If the box safety is playing the nickel/sam position then the defense could protect him by responding to trips formations with the "solo" coverage:
In this coverage the boundary corner has to be able to play man coverage without safety help while the weak safety behind him has to have the range to be able to play over the top of the #3 slot receiver on the other side of the field and yet also force runs that go to the boundary. Both of those are difficult assignments, but if the personnel can handle it then the strong safety is free to play the edge and avoid a difficult coverage alignment.
Another option is the quarters check known as "special" which could protect a box safety at the boundary safety position from a challenging coverage assignment but requires that the nickel be able to play man coverage without safety help against a slot receiver:
The defense could either have the strong safety play a deep half zone over the corner or else drop down to force the edge and help outnumber the run or even blitz the passer. In this scheme the defense needs two good cover corners, since potentially neither will have safety help, as well as what basically amounts to a third good corner in the nickel.
This is the coverage Kansas State favors these days although they don't have a Roy Williams type talent at any of the DB positions who can help them to dominate an opposing run game as a box safety. In fact, they often play linebackers at that size but they are unable to dominate because they are front-line players rather than roving, support players.
Every team still benefits from having a player who excels in a support role where he can line up close to the action and roam wild and free. Many teams are missing players like this either because they lack the surrounding talent to set them loose or because they simply can't find a great box player. Either way, you can be sure that a 220 pound player with speed, range, power, and mean intentions will always find a role on the football field. There are still ways to make sure that his role keeps him close to the action.