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The return of the box safety, part II

Facing spread offenses that push linebackers out, more defenses are using traditional box safeties to solve the problem of anti-spread run defense.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time when it appeared that the “box safety” was disappearing from the modern game. The prototype player of this ilk would seem to have obvious football value, we’re talking about a guy with the strength and size to involve himself in the scrum against the run but also the athleticism and range to avoid being a liability in coverage. Essentially a hybrid player and those are generally all the rage.

However, many of the defenses that have been designed to handle modern offenses don’t necessarily employ a guy of that skill set or else they just make him into a pure linebacker that isn’t really a hybrid at all. In part I of this series I noted that many linebackers of today would have been box safeties in another era.

But now teams are finding ways to use these guys in more traditional safety positions and they are having a major impact on behalf of their units. Here are a few of the more interesting and effective ways you see these guys deployed today.

The frontiersman

The North Dakota State Bison, who just won yet another FCS national championship and avenged their semifinal defeat of 2016 against the James Madison Dukes, are still clearly influenced by the defense installed by Craig Bohl who’s now at Wyoming. Both schools will use their strong safety in a particular fashion to bolster their run defense against spread sets. Here’s a glimpse of the two players and their 2017 seasons:

Robbie Grimsley: 6-0, 191. Junior from Minnesota. 69 tackles (3rd on the team), four tackles for loss, one sack, four INTs, eight pass break-ups.

Andrew Wingard: 6-0, 209. Junior from Colorado. 92 tackles (2nd on the team), eight tackles for loss, 14 run stuffs, five INTs, three pass break-ups, two forced fumbles.

Interestingly both of these guys were two-star prospects that played running back in high school. While neither may have had the kind of quickness you’d prefer to have at RB, that doesn’t mean they aren’t potentially plus athletes. The reason they played RB in high school was undoubtedly because that’s where the best athlete played in their respective programs.

Wingard actually ran a 10.91 100m in high school, which translates to about a 4.5, so he was a good deal faster than even many well rated running backs. Grimsley ran an 11.08 100m which puts him at 4.6 or so.

What has made them successful in college at safety is the ability to break down in space and make tackles, even when playing up in the box, and their respective teams have lots of defenses that utilize them in precisely this capacity. In particular, they like to use these guys to lure teams into running on a short-manned box only to see the strong safety fly in and involve himself in the run fit with violence and authority.

Both plays share common traits that reveal a similar design. The obvious one is that both teams are using their strong safety to trigger downhill quickly at the sign of OL run blocking and be an unaccounted for member of the run fit.

James Madison wideout Riley Stapleton (#10) tried to pick up Grimsley late but to no avail while no one came close to blocking Wingard. Both teams are also mixing cloud coverage to the field to get a “three over two” on the twin receivers and then having the linebackers key the RB and TE in the instance of the Bison clip or forcing the edge in the instance of the Wyoming play.

Here they are drawn up, starting with the Wyoming play:

This play is basically inside zone tweaked to recreate the classic “weak side Iso” downhill running play. Most of the OL zone blocks to the left looking to combo up to the play side linebacker while the backside tackle “solo” blocks the backside end to keep him outside and the H-back loops around to lead up to the backside linebacker. The play is intended to cutback behind the lead block but the zone steps make it hard for the play side LB to get back to help against the lead block because he’s thinking he needs to stay there to maintain a gap.

Most teams handle lead insert plays like this by sending their LBs to the ball and filling the backside with the dropping safety but Wyoming would often have their LBs play the blocks and trust Wingard to arrive in time to make a tackle in the hole rather than leaving the cutback to him. That’s how a safety in a scheme that makes heavy use of Tampa-2 ends up second on the team in tackles and with 14 run stuffs.

Here’s the Bison example:

I actually just barely updated a diagram I drew of the exact same play call from both JMU and North Dakota State from their battle in the 2016 playoffs. The idea is exactly the same, James Madison’s “smashmouth spread” is designed to create two points of conflict with the bubble screen in space and then the lead counter run opposite. The Bison cover down on the bubble with their sam linebacker (another box safety type athlete) while triggering Grimsley hard down field.

The brilliance of the counter play is that you get a really good angle on the backside linebacker from the climb of the double team, it’s not terribly difficult for the guard to kick out an aggressive DE, and the counter action often sets up the H-back to get a nice lead block on the play side linebacker. All of that works out pretty well here but there’s no accounting for Grimsley and a perfectly blocked play nets three yards.

The dime robber

One thing you notice about both plays above is that the boundary cornerback is all by his lonesome. Now both of those teams will mix in blitzes and safety help over the top (hence Wingard and Grimsley’s impressive numbers in pass defense) but anytime they want to involve their box safeties to outnumber and stuff the run they are typically leaving that guy isolated in man coverage.

That’s the tradeoff that many teams have chosen to make, but it’s one that other teams are starting to reconsider. Having a big, tackling-machine safety as an unaccounted for free hitter is valuable enough against the run that some teams have questioned whether it’s worth trading a DL in order to utilize him. Is it harder for the OL to block a safety in space or a DL on the line? The answer could be A.

For instance, the 3-3-5 dime structure look that Iowa State utilized last season:

Memphis looked at a team using 5-technique DEs, two undersized OLBs, and three safeties and reasonably concluded “let’s get into our double TE personnel and run these guys off the field.”

Iowa State played a lot of cloud quarters coverage with occasional sky coverages to the boundary and then traded having a DL for getting a robber safety in the middle of the field. Memphis went after them with A-gap power:

They actually had a blocker for everyone. The double team was intended to climb up to the weak side linebacker, the pulling guard was gunning for the mike, the play side TE was aiming for the sam linebacker out in space, and the backside TE was pulling and leading up for the robber safety. None of them connected.

Iowa State is in a conservative, double-cloud quarters coverage here with the safeties reading receivers and staying in position to be able to play over the top in cover 2 depending on the route distribution. It should have been an easy coverage to attack with the run game but the problem Memphis had was that the TEs gave quick and clear “downhill” reads to the safeties so they were always coming and it’s hard to block a good safety in wide open grass.

The bigger problem was that the Cyclones’ defenders are all very quick and hard targets in space and Memphis was struggling to control or effectively reach any of them. You’ll notice the tackle is made by the weak side linebacker whom the guard can’t block despite his favorable angle.

Beyond the strong play of Iowa State’s defenders up front though, the design of their defense meant that they could always get at least one and potentially two “free-hitters” involved in the run fit. So while they were undermanned up front, there was nothing to stop their athletic DEs, nose tackle, and LBs from using their speed to play aggressively knowing that the robber safety and perhaps the strong safety as well were going to be arriving shortly after them to clean up the mess.

This coming season the Cyclones have a big, JUCO safety named Greg Eisworth who’s already enrolled that they’ll no doubt use to help execute these evolving tactics. With the way that so many modern offenses are built around running the ball, quick passes, RPOs, and then throwing down the field only off play-action the use of four down linemen is starting to have decreasing value vs being able to utilize eight in coverage.

The fact that many run schemes fail to account for a big box safety hawking down from depth at the snap and fouling up the run scheme is a bonus for the defense. You can probably expect more and more defenses to look to take advantage of that fact in 2018.