Word of Muth: Box Safeties
by Ben Muth
After a week off, it wasn’t tough to find a game to write about for this week’s column. However, the best option was the San Francisco-Seattle game from two weeks ago: it featured one of the teams I normally write about, it was nationally televised, and I was genuinely surprised by the result. (Not just that Seattle won, but that it wasn’t close.)
Watching the game back again on tape, two things in particular stood out. Colin Kaepernick started to panic when things didn't go well. Trying to escape the pocket the second your first read isn’t open or you feel like there might be pressure is not a recipe for success in the NFL. The second thing that stood out was how good Seattle’s secondary is. I’ll get into Seattle’s secondary in a little bit, but let’s start with the 49ers' big five up front, since that's what this column is supposed to be about.
I thought San Francisco’s offensive line played well. They gave Kaepernick plenty of space and time to throw when he didn’t run into pressure, and did a reasonable job of blocking Seattle’s front seven in the ground game. It might sound crazy to think a team that was down 22 points at halftime had an offensive line that played well, but Kansas City's line pulled off similar results for an entire season.
Kaepernick was only pressured twice in the first half. The first play was a sack where the 49ers didn’t leave enough people back to fully block Seattle’s blitz. Rather than stepping up to minimize a loss, or just getting rid of it, Kaepernick decided to try to spin to the outside. It ended up being a 10-yard loss.
The other pressure came on a mental error by Mike Iupati. He didn’t sense a wide blitz coming until it was way too late, and as a result he couldn’t make it out there in time. Other than that one play though, San Francisco was very good in pass protection in the first half. The running game wasn’t as good, but there were outside factors at work in that regard.
The 49ers started the game off with three passes and didn’t complete a single one, but the offensive line protected well on all three dropbacks, particularly on the first snap of the game. San Francisco called a play-action half-rollout that would have been a long completion with a good throw. Instead, it became second-and-long and the 49ers couldn’t overcome getting off-schedule.
On the next drive, the 49ers started off with their first run of the game. It was a weakside outside zone concept with a pin-and-pull block on the inside. The 49ers originally lined up in an I-formation with both receivers split to the offense’s left. They then motioned Michael Crabtree to the right, leaving them in a traditional I-Formation when the ball was snapped.
When Crabtree motioned, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas came into the box over left tackle Joe Staley. With Thomas down, Seattle was essentially in a 4-4 defense. The thing that killed the play was that San Francisco somehow didn’t account for the Will linebacker K.J. Wright.
I’m not exactly sure who blew the assignment on this play. My guess is that either center Jonathan Goodwin didn’t see Thomas come into the box, or didn’t think he needed to be blocked. (Sometimes you just don’t account for certain defensive backs on running plays.) Either option would mean Goodwin could expect fullback Bruce Miller to block Wright, and it explains why Goodwin never looked at Wright and went right at Mike linebacker Bobby Wagner.
You may notice that I diagrammed right guard Alex Boone going to Wagner as well. That doesn’t mean that Goodwin is necessarily wrong, as a lot of times in zone schemes will end up with two linemen chasing the same linebacker -- particularly if the fullback is responsible for a different linebacker. Miller may have been meant to take on Wright; it’s impossible to tell without being in the meeting room. Hell, it could be that Kaepernick was supposed to check to a strongside run or a pass if the Seahawks had four defenders on the weak side.
As the play starts to unfold, it looks San Francisco is in good shape, mainly because they get good blocks from Staley and Iupati. Because Chris Clemons lined up so far outside, Staley doesn’t have the option to try reach him like he normally would on an outside zone behind him. All he can do is try to drive block him outside as far as possible. Inside, Iupati does a nice job blocking down on Red Bryant. He doesn’t give up any penetration and pins him inside.
If it wasn’t for the aggressiveness of both Wright and Thomas in attacking the hole as the play develops, the 49ers might have had a play despite not accounting for a second-level player right at the point of attack. Wright coming downhill to meet a lead blocker in the hole is expected -- he’s a linebacker and that’s how linebackers make their living. Thomas’ assertiveness is what stands out to me.
Look at where Thomas (circled) is above. He’s meeting a fullback on the line of scrimmage and keeping his outside arm free in the process. That’s a strong play for a two-down linebacker, so to see it from a safety that’s dynamic in coverage is pretty unreal. He’s even more aggressive downhill than Wright is on this play.
With Thomas occupying Miller and both Goodwin and Boone blocking Wagner, Wright is free to make the play. Obviously, there was an assignment error up front. No one has ever designed a weakside zone play that doesn’t account for the Will linebacker. But that doesn’t mean Seattle didn’t play it well.
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If Thomas wasn’t as aggressive as he was, it’s likely that Miller would have blocked Wright and Frank Gore would have been one-on-one against a defensive back with a full head of steam. If you want to see how that can go, I suggest you watch how Tramon Williams fared against Adrian Peterson last Sunday in simiar situations.
One last thing I want to point out is just how good Staley was on this play. He has to kick out a guy who has outside leverage to start, and never has it threatened. That means it should be really easy for the defender to just anchor down and not get moved an inch. This doesn’t seem to concern Staley, since he kicked Clemons' ass anyway, leverage be damned. Clemons lined up on the inside half of the hash mark and ended up four yards outside of it. You shouldn’t be able to do that to Pro Bowlers.
Just look at all the space between Clemons and any of his teammates, and they are all either unblocked or playing with perfect leverage in their gaps. Clemons is the guy who isn’t where he’s supposed to be. Really impressive job by the best run-blocking tackle in football.
The 49ers picked up one first down on that second possession before punting it back to Seattle. After getting the ball back for a third time, San Francisco was already down 14-0. It was still too early to abandon the running game though, and knowing they needed to get points, the 49ers went to their bread-and-butter call: the Power play.
San Francisco was in 22-personnel and lined up in a Strong Left (Offset I) formation. Once again, the Seahawks had eight men in the box. But this time it was Kam Chancellor walked up instead of Thomas. The basic premise of the Power play is that everyone blocks down except for the fullback, who kicks out on the end man at the line, and that enables the backside guard to pull and lead into the hole.
Immediately after the snap, the 49ers are again in good shape. Staley, who probably has the toughest block, is doing a nice job of handling Bryant. Typically there is a double team on Power, but because Bryant is lined up as a 4i (inside shade of the offensive tackle) and Seattle's nose tackle is so far inside, Staley is on his own.
I was once listening to a coach who was giving a scouting report on USC. It went something like "Their fast guys are fast, their big guys are big, and their strong guys are strong." Well, San Francisco’s good run blockers are good at run blocking, and Joe Staley is one of their good run blockers.
The 49ers are doing a good job of sealing off the backside and a hole is developing. Exactly how big the hole will be depends on how good of a kick-out block Miller gets.
Of course, you may also notice that Chancellor (arrowed) is not accounted for and seems to be flowing pretty quickly to the ball. But he was a safety on the backside of the play, and you just don’t account for those guys since they typically don’t make those plays. (Ominous music plays and lightning strikes.)
Miller’s kick-out block isn’t very good: he doesn’t widen the edge defender at all. But, there’s still a hole right where the play is designed to go, and right guard Boone gets what turns out to be a helluva lead block on his pull (not only is "helluva" a word, it’s also the favorite adjective of many coaches). It’s hard to tell from the end zone camera angle, but Gore has a clear path outside and the only guy in front of him is Thomas, who was lined up 12 yards deep at the snap and hasn’t moved much closer.
The problem is that Chancellor is still unblocked, and he’s still flying to the football. He’s hard to make out on the picture above, but he’s right behind Staley.
That’s Chancellor making the tackle for a one-yard gain. Not only that, he forced a fumble. This is a ridiculous play for a safety to make. If Chancellor had done the exact same thing and made the play for a five-yard gain, it would have been a respectable play for a backside safety. To make it for a one-yard gain and force a fumble? That's beyond impressive.
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If I jog you back to the beginning of the column, you’ll remember I said that Seattle’s secondary was good, but all I’ve talked about so far are their safeties. Their corners are just as important to the two plays I’ve diagrammed as the safeties are, even though neither of them ever show up in the screen.
The reason both safeties are allowed to not only play in the box, but do so while playing the run first, is that both Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are good enough to play on islands outside the numbers. That means the deep safety just has to worry about the middle of the field, which both of Seattle’s safeties are capable of handling with very little help from the linebackers, so the box safety essentially gets to play like a linebacker.
When you think about great run defense, secondary play isn’t typically the first thing that jumps to mind, but it can be a huge advantage. Not to pick on Tramon Williams too much, but how many times did he miss a tackle that turned a five-yard gain into a first down last Sunday? Now imagine if the Packers had not one, but two defensive backs that could be in the same position, but four yards closer to the line of scrimmage and actually willing (and able) to make a tackle. Maybe Green Bay’s awful run defense suddenly isn’t so awful. To quote Lester Freeman (if they can steal Barnwell, we can steal their references), "All the pieces matter."
That’s why I’m so excited for Seattle’s defense against the Redskins running game this week. Against the zone read, the only defender anyone wants to talk about is the unblocked defender, but that guy is actually the least interesting guy on the field. In fact, if he does his job, he should only make a tackle if Robert Griffin messes up. The best way to stop that kind of offense is to have safeties that are active in the running game. That means Seattle’s corners need to be able to cover Washington’s receivers (who may not be great, but can get behind you) on the outside. Thanks to a combination of scheme and natural ability, the Seahawks have all the necessary pieces in the secondary to really test Washington’s offense.