The safeties are basically the last line of defense. There was a time when most of their work was simply stopping runners, but the modern game sees the safety placing more emphasis on reading/intercepting the quarterback’s passes, in the same way a cornerback would.
There are two safety positions on the football field; the “strong safety” and the “free safety”. The strong safety is on the “strong side” of the offense, normally lining up to cover the opposition tight end. He plays closer to the line than the free safety and is first and foremost responsible for stopping the opposition running the ball. He also needs to watch out for a fullback or running back looking to receive passes in the backfield.
The free safety needs to be faster than the strong safety in order to be able to react to whichever play the offense calls. If there is a passing play then the free safety must get as close as possible to the receiver when they get the ball. They’re in a constant game of cat and mouse with the quarterback, who will do his best to deceive the safety. The quarterback may look in a different direction to where he intends to throw, or he may fake a throw in order to throw the free safety off the scent. If the quarterback steps out of the pocket, it’s up to the free safety to cover it too.
There’s a big incentive on safeties to deliver massive hits and put opposing players out of the game. Because of their position in the field they often have a fair amount of yards to run before making the hit, so the offenses need to brace themselves when they see a safety hurtling towards them.
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