Defenses Are Countering Offensive Ingenuity With The Combo Safety

Football hasn’t really changed much since Princeton and Rutgers decided to partake in a physical discussion in Central New Jersey back in 1869. 

The game is still a physical one, made up of a series of 11 individual battles on a play, combining to accomplish one goal. Sure, we’ve seen adjustments and changes to the game from both a rules perspective and many technological advances in equipment, but the core principles have remained unchanged. 

It’s still about winning, domination and gaining a competitive edge on your opponent. 

Over the years, a lot of the ‘gaining of the competitive edge’ part has been heavily weighted toward the offensive side of the ball—hich has led to the fun evolution of the game. From Walter Camp’s invention of the T-Formation, to Clark Shaughnessy’s revolutionizing of it, to Jake Gaither’s advancement of it, finding creative ways to gain an advantage over your opponent has always been the focal point. 

Even more modern examples include Mouse Davis’ run-and-shoot, to current Air Raid offenses; from Sam Wyche’s 'attack' to Ted Marchibroda’s K-Gun; from Gus Malzahn’s uptempo to Joe Moorhead’s pace to Brennan Marion’s 'Go-Go-Offense,' it’s been all about, well, the offense.

Defenses have been forced to adjust to these competitive changes in offense, finding ways to morph and match up over time. 

Former Dallas Cowboys and University of Miami Head Coach Jimmy Johnson was ahead of his time back in the 1980s at Miami. In an effort to better matchup against offenses, he had to get more speed onto the field. Johnson took capable corners and made them deep safeties, took speedy strong safeties and made them outside linebackers, and took quick-twitch outside linebackers and made them defensive ends. Those moves allowed the Hurricanes to match up and, in a way, begin to dictate the terms on game day. 

I said all of that to say this: It is still a game of matchups. It has almost always been about matchups. 


As we fast forward to today’s game, defenses have began to evolve once again, especially on the backend. In the last decade we’ve seen the growth of the “money backer," which is a strong safety who can also play as the nickel in your standard 4-2-5. Current Tampa Bay Buccaneers defender Deone Bucannon made that position famous with the Arizona Cardinals. 

This was an adjustment made by defensive coaches to put themselves in better position verses offenses who were spreading the field and taking advantage of the two inside backers in the passing game. 

The adjustment became to sub out one backer and use a strong safety. Thus, allowing the defense to remain good versus the run, while also being a bit better versus the pass. And we’ve seen other players who have been able to serve in this capacity, like Mark Barron and Ray Ray Armstrong. Both guys have even made full-time moves to linebacker. The Los Angeles Chargers’ Kyzir White would be another example of a money backer.

Also within the last decade, we’ve seen defenses move towards adding an integral part to the defense: the combo safety. These are guys that have the capability to play either safety spot, match up 1-on-1 against receivers and tight ends, play well in the alley or as an overhang defender, and good verses the run and the pass. 

Guys like Tyrann Mathieu (Chiefs), Kenny Vaccaro (Titans) and Justin Reid (Texans) immediately come to mind. 

From a scouting perspective, we’re seeing more and more of these types of players being developed at the collegiate level. Partly because of the growth of the passing game, guys that are on the field have to be able to cover. You can actually credit this boom in skill set by safeties to the amount of 7-on-7 they’re exposed to coming up through the high school ranks—and the same goes for the sudden increase in three-down running backs who can contribute in the passing game.

The combo safety has become the ultimate defensive chess piece thanks to a combination of everything that you’d want in a back seven defender: speed, athleticism, blitzing ability, run support, and the ability to match up with opposing personnel. 

With this level of versatility, it’s no surprise that you’re seeing the NFL become more interested in investing premier capital into players that can provide this. And to be completely fair to our friends up north in the CFL, they’ve been ahead of this curve with their defensive halfback position  

The 2019 NFL Draft class features a strong crop of combo safeties, a few of them could hear their name called on day one and very early on day two. 

Here’s Football Gameplan Scouting’s list of the top combo safeties in the draft:

  1. Taylor Rapp - 6’0 200, Washington
  2. Darnell Savage Jr. - 5’11 199, Maryland
  3. Amani Hooker - 5’11 210, Iowa
  4. Juan Thornhill - 6’0 210, Virginia
  5. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson - 6’0 205, Florida
  6. Aaron Williams - 5’11 190, Nebraska
  7. Marquise Blair - 6’1 180, Utah
  8. Kurron Ramsey - 6’3 203, Alabama State
  9. Delvon Randall - 6’1 215, Temple
  10. Rob Rolle - 6’1 190, Villanova 
  11. Marvin Conley - 5’9 185, West Florida
  12. Mister Harriel - 6’1 200, Sacramento State
  13. Mike Bell - 6’3 203, Fresno State
  14. Ugo Amari - 5’10 201, Oregon

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