At no time could it be more relevant to write a story about the role of safeties in the Colts defense than during a year which has seen five, FIVE!, strong safeties go out for the year or for a significant portion of the season. This rash of injuries puts the Colts in a position to put a player into a starting role for the first time in a meaningful regular season game not named Bullitt, Bethea, or Sanders for quite a few years.
Don't get me wrong, there have been occasional one game fill-ins in the past, but never a player who was expected to play somewhere between one-quarter, one-half of the season, or longer. Undrafted rookies Mike Newton and Brandon King will be competing against journeyman veterans DaJuan Morgan and Aaron Francicso for the responsibility. This story will discuss what these players will be asked to do, the role safeties play in the Colts defense, and how it is possible that so many players could get injured at one position in one season.
The safety position is arguably one of the most demanding positions to play on defense. Not unlike the middle linebacker, safeties generally have two roles that dominate their focus and require all of their physical abilities.
One role a safety plays is in pass support "over the top" of the cornerbacks who, in the Colts system, may not run the length of the field with the receiver they are matched up against. In a base Cover-2 zone defensive scheme, generally the safeties are responsible for sticking with receivers who are running deep routes to their side of the field, and occasionally draw a one-on-one assignment with an opponent's tight end (usually only in two-tight end sets).
An example of this can be seen during the Week 3, 2010, Denver Broncos game when quarterback Kyle Orton found receiver Brandon Lloyd for a long touchdown reception. At first glance, it appears as though cornerback Jerraud Powers failed to do his job, let Brandon Lloyd get behind him, and played catchup down the field in an attempt to bat the ball away.
A closer look will show that strong safety Melvin Bullitt was the deep safety in the formation. This meant it was Bullitt's job to be sure that no potential receiver got behind him on pass plays. But Bullitt bit on the "play-action fake," where Orton faked a hand-off to running back Laurence Maroney, only to set and release a long throw to Lloyd.
In the moment Bullitt committed his weight and momentum forward, toward the line of scrimmage to stop a potential run, Lloyd was past him and Powers had to try to make up for the mistake. It is not difficult to understand Bullitt's mindset. Melvin is a better run defender than pass defender, and the Colts defense was intent on not allowing the Broncos to get anything going on the ground. Moreover, safeties are highly active in run defense in the Colts system, which is their other primary responsibility.
As one can imagine, finding an athlete with all the right physical skills to pull off this two-faceted job well is not easy. Generally, safeties need to be bigger and stronger than cornerbacks because they will be asked to hit rushers head on in the middle of the field and make a lot of tackles. They also need to exhibit as much speed and agility as they can, as close to a cornerback as possible, so they can stay ahead of receivers running down field and have the finesse to make plays on the ball in the air.
More often than not, safeties in the NFL can play one role but not the other. Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed is the best "ball hawk" at safety in the league, meaning he plays pass defense from the safety position better than anyone else. In 2009, Darren Sharper also had a career year, creating turnovers, getting interceptions, and wreaking havoc in the passing lanes. Where Reed struggles is that he is not a great tackler, and not overly effective against the run. In Baltimore, that is okay as the Ravens generally have one of the best defensive lines and linebacker corps in the NFL. The Colts have solid units, but nothing like the Ravens.
The best all-around safety in the NFL right now is Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Polamalu is big enough, strong enough, and mean enough to lay big hits on ball carriers against the run. He is also fast enough, agile enough, and disciplined enough to make an impact for the Steelers pass defense.
Although he is a bit of an unsung hero in the league, and still vastly underrated, Antoine Bethea plays a similar game to Polamalu. When healthy, Bob Sanders is probably better than Polamalu in run support but not quite as talented in the passing lanes. When both are healthy, the Colts have the best one-two safety punch in the NFL. Bethea and Sanders are big enough, strong enough, and viscous enough to head-hunt running backs. They are also fast enough, athletic enough, and alert enough to make plays on the ball when it is in the air.
Bullitt was a bit better using his size and taking good angles to be effective against the run, but sometimes was undisciplined and lacked the agility to get back and cover receivers really well. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Brandon King would be a better pass defending safety, while Aaron Francisco, DaJuan Morgan, and Mike Newton are better suited physically to play up against the run.
Like the position name suggests, whoever fills the safety role in the Colts defense will be asked to assist and cover up any mistakes made by the players in front of them. If the linebackers and defensive linemen fail to stop the ball-carrier, the safety will need to come up and finish him off. If receivers decide to run deep routes and the quarterback drops back to pass, the safety will be asked to get behind the receiver to knock the ball down. It is a lot of responsibility and very important in the Colts defense.
The reason it is relatively easy and common for Colts safeties to get injured is primarily due to their heightened run stopping responsibility in the Colts defensive scheme. As discussed previously, Ed Reed is rarely asked to be a key component in stopping running backs on the ground. Melvin Bullitt, Bob Sanders, Jamie Silva, and other Colts safeties do not have that luxury.
Indy's safeties regularly absorb blocks from much larger offensive linemen, tight ends, and full backs. Even the half backs, who most often carry the ball, are usually larger than the Colts safeties, know where they are going, and have a full head of steam when the safeties arrive to make a tackle.
The result is no surprise, a physical toll is paid. Recall, if you will, all of the times Colts safeties have missed games or played with extra pads, braces, or even what looked like full replacement bionic arms. These guys take a regular beating in a system like the Colts. It's why paying guys like Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, and keeping Melvin Bullitt around was such an easy decision for the Colts in recent years.
Injuries, pads, braces, and missed games aside, finding players who can play the role of a Colts safety really well is no walk in the park.
*For a continued explanation of the role of safeties in the Colts defense, with a more historical approach to the position (written over the summer), visit The Role of Safeties in the Colts Defense.