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Kevin Steele, the 3-4 Defense and LSU Personnel Part 5: Safety Prototypes

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What is Kevin Steele looking for in his safeties?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Part 1: The Scheme
Part 2: Defensive Line
Part 3: Linebackers
Part 4: Cornebacks

It's tough to quantify the safety play at LSU in recent years. There have been studs (Eric Reid), steady, quality hands (Brandon Taylor) and then a largely blue collar, non-stellar bunch of guys (Craig Loston and Ronald Martin). Only in 2013 was LSU ever truly "weak" at the position. Last season's group took a while to get their footing, but by season's end Jamal Adams emerged as one of the team's youngest budding stars. Ronald Martin even made AP 2nd team All SEC.

Chavis generally kept pretty traditional safety roles. The Free Safety served most heavily in coverage duties, but was also expected to be a clean up run defender, while playing on the weak side of the field. He was generally the more athletic player that was also responsible for making calls on the back end. The strong safety shaded to the strong side of the offense, and was typically a bigger, strong type. His coverage duties wouldn't extend beyond covering a TE or back from the backfield. Effectively he served as a fourth LB type on the field.

In the Under scheme, the roles won't shift that dramatically. In the LB piece we already covered that Steele likes his MIKE to be the "captain" of the defense in terms of calling the fronts and getting everyone properly aligned. One of Steele's mentors, Nick Saban, preferred that responsibility to fall on the Free Safety.

Carroll's defense in Seattle has gone through a few different incarnations, thought the centerpiece of it all is the free safety, Earl Thomas. Back in 2011, when Danny Kelly penned this piece, Carroll more often utilized two coverage-based safeties: the free safety (Earl Thomas) and the "deep safety," who only held two reads, the post and seam routes. Carroll believes heavily in keeping secondary reads as simple as possible. His current defense, however, deploys a more classic version of the safety dynamic, with Kam Chancellor serving as the big, thumping, run defender:

kamchancellor

Which then shifts Thomas into the deep safety role, where he excels.

Carroll emphasizes three main philosophies in the secondary:

  1. Eliminate the Big Play
  2. Out Hit the Opponent on All Plays
  3. Get the Ball
Pretty basic stuff here. Don't get beat deep or gashed on the ground. Once the ball is in motion, lay waste to the opponent. And create as many turnovers as possible. Carroll spends an inordinate amount of time in basic turnover type drills in practice (focusing on forcing fumbles).

Carroll and Saban are both former DBs, so they have a personal interest in building the defense around the position. But Steele will likely take a page from their books. For example, Seattle runs primarily man-to-man or Cover 3 and Cover 1 stuff. Precisely the type of thing Steele prefers.

Free Safety

Think Earl Thomas. He's probably the best safety in the NFL right now. He's the new Ed Reed. Fittingly, I think we have the next gen version of that in Jamal Adams. Adams is a truly special player. Time will tell if he turns himself into a turnover magnet like Thomas and Reed, but his skills should allow him to flourish.

This player needs to be a dynamic enough athlete to get down the seam in coverage and effectively take away the middle of the field (something Thomas excels at). But he should also be physical and active in the run game. As Carroll says:

The defensive backs that are the best run defenders are our safeties. The Free Safety is a player who makes a lot of tackles for us. He has to have good instincts. He is what we call a natural player. You don't have to coach this player too much. He has to have a feel for the everything and understand the big picture.

It's a huge role, maybe one of the most important in the entire defense. You need a ballhawking, dominant player here.

Potential Roster Fits: Jamal Adams, Rickey Jefferson, Xavier Lewis, Jeremy Cutrer

Strong Safety

Again, this is really about adapting to your personnel. Previously Carroll utilized a free safety and a deep safety, which is entirely different than what he does now, where Kam Chancellor plays almost exclusively in the box. Let's just assume Steele will continue with the classic version of a bigger, more physical run defending strong safety. The player still needs to be athletic enough to turn and cover TEs and backs out of the backfield, but he'll primarily be an extra wave of run defense and sometimes blitzer.

However, LSU's current set of safeties aren't really built in this manner. In fact, there's only one player who fits this prototype pretty well. Ed Paris would fit this role if moved to Safety.

Potential Roster Fits: Corey Thompson

Deep Safety

Now let's presume Steele opts to follow Carroll's old tactic of using a free and a deep safety. The deep safety has to have coverage skills. Here's what Carroll had to say about him:

The deep safety is a player that is close to my heart. That is what I played. The deep safety has to play two routes. He has to defend the seam route and the post route. That is all I ask him to play. He has to find the seam route from the number two receiver. If there are two of them then he has to get in the middle and play them both. On the post route he has to stay on top of that route. That is easy to do but it becomes harder as offenses do more of it and get better at it.

Again, this is the role that Earl Thomas now occupies for Seattle. More of a roving, coverage type. Thomas, dynamic as he is, is able to play deep and close down on run plays in hurry. He's special. Most aren't so dynamic. My guess is that LSU will let Jamal Adams be a sort of roving playmaker on the back end. That means this safety, at least for the next couple of years, will need to be a guy that can be sure in coverage on the back end.

Potential Roster Fits: Jalen Mills, John Battle

Summary

We've now covered all the basic player types for the 4-3 under. As you can see, LSU's roster isn't terribly far off from a switch in schemes from the Over to the Under fronts. What's next to review is how Steele will recruit, which is likely most telling about plans he has for the future. In the final piece, I will cover some of the current recruiting targets (commits and non-commits) to see if it gives a view of the path forward.