Our divisional preview is winding down but there are still a couple of positions to cover including the defensive backfield. First up are the safeties and this is a young and talented group inside the division. The Arizona Cardinals are certainly content with their starting duo but how do Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle match up with the rest of the West?
Wilson's counterpart for the second consecutive season will be converted corner back Antrel Rolle. Rolle got off to a slow start last year after a high ankle sprain robbed him of valuable time in camp to learn the position. For the first half of the season he was often out of position or took terrible angles to the ball but as the season wore on, his play steadied. He began to understand the position and by season's end (and the playoff run) he was a reliable center fielder and a decent last line of defense. Rolle's athleticism sets him apart from most free safeties and many are expecting him to have a breakout year now that he's fully acclimated to the position.
The primary thing that makes Wilson and Rolle unique is that neither of them play a 'true safety' role on passing downs. Wilson becomes almost a nickel linebacker and Rolle often slides to play the corner against a slot receiver. Their versatility allows the Cardinals to throw different looks at opposing offenses but it also means that the Cardinals expect much more from their third and fourth safeties. After watching Aaron Francisco and Matt Ware struggle with the increase in playing time the Red Birds spent a third round pick on Alabama free safety Rashad Johnson. RJ isn't a great athlete but he has a nose for the ball and is a natural center fielder. He's expected to immediately step into the 'third safety' spot and see quite a bit of playing time on passing downs. His presence will allow Francisco, Ware and free agent acquisition Keith Lewis to battle for the backup strong safety spot, which better suits each of their skill sets. No one in that trio is considered to be much more than a glorified special teamer but as long as they're not forced into significant playing time, they can hold their own. Another depth option is second year UDFA Dennis Keyes, a free safety out of UCLA, who some consider a dark horse to make the team as a fifth safety.
The Cardinals safeties as a whole are talented, accomplished and have the potential to be even better than they were last year. Adrian Wilson is an A+ and no one else on the depth chart is bad enough to drop this group any lower than a solid A.
The 49ers safeties are a mix of production and potential. On the one hand you've got Michael Lewis and Mark Roman backing up at free safety. A pair of veterans who have done some good things in the past (for Roman a bit further in the past). On the other hand you've got the likes of Dashon Goldson, Reggie Smith and Curtis Taylor. Players teeming with potential, but nothing proven yet.
Barring injury (a very real possibility), the starters will be Dashon Goldson at free safety and Michael Lewis at strong safety. Goldson has as much unproven potential as anybody on this roster. He was an absolute ball hawk in training camp last year, but could not get past Mark Roman on the depth chart. Injuries throughout the season (as with the previous season) have kept him from making his mark. This season he was named the starting free safety shortly after the season ended and has had yet another impressive training camp performance. The 49ers have lacked a great free safety for quite some time and Goldson has the potential to be that turnover machine in center field. The question remains whether he can stay healthy.
At strong safety, the 49ers role out the extremely underrated Michael Lewis. Lewis signed as a free agent in 2007 and has been in the top 2 or 3 in tackles both seasons. While he does not force turnovers, he provides excellent run support. Lewis is 29 but is as established a veteran as any on this defense. Lewis won't be going anywhere anytime soon and will be an excellent role model in the defensive backfield for Goldson.
The primary backups at safety will be Mark Roman and Reggie Smith. At 32, Mark Roman has clearly come to the end of the road as a starter. The 49ers told him Goldson would be starting and let him speak with other teams about a trade. Nobody wanted him. So, Roman is back to provide a continued veteran presence for the team. His problem is that he can't force turnovers anymore. The last time he forced a turnover was in 2006. Reggie Smith was originally drafted by the 49ers to be a corner back, but most thought he'd end up at safety, which appears to have happened. It will be interesting to see how much playing time Smith actually gets. Even though he got banged up, Michael Lewis has managed to stay on the field. Smith will have to battle for playing time. The final backup at this point is Curtis Taylor. Taylor was a 7th round pick this year out of LSU. He was highly touted out of high school but was quite the under performer. Right now he's a practice squad candidate hoping to squeeze onto the roster.
The easiest grade for the safeties would be a C. Lewis is a very solid performer (certainly not spectacular), while Goldson is almost all potential. However, I'm gonna roll the dice on a healthy Goldson and give the team a B.
The Rams have a really nice situation at both starting safety positions this season. At free safety, playing under a one-year franchise deal, Oshiomogho Atogwe is a former Pro Bowler with 13 INTs in his last two seasons. Obviously, he's what the kids like to call a "ball hawk." Rawwk, rawwwk! Last season he singlehandedly gave the Rams a faint glimmer of hope when he picked off Jason Campbell for a difference making touch down that started the Rams on a two game winning streak, their only two wins of the season. As he starts his age-28 season, the Rams are counting on him to become a more complete player. For that, he needs to get more consistent in coverage; of course, come of his problems in coverage over the last couple years have much to do with confusion among some of the weaker corner backs the Rams have employed, blowing assignments and leaving Atogwe to try and do two jobs. The new coaching staff should really benefit Atogwe's development, as Spagnuolo is a former defensive backs coach himself, having worked with someone names Brian Dawkins in Philly.
Corey Chavous was a good man and a team leader, but in his twilight years, he was a liability at strong safety. That contributed the Rams porous run defense last year...and the year before...and the year before that. He retired, and the Rams brought in James Butler as a free agent. Butler was a Spag's stable guy. Like Harry Carey, Jr. in the John Ford cavalry pictures, Butler's name isn't on the marquee, but he's essential in a supporting role. Much of the time, you'll Butler playing up, more like a LB, similar to his role with the Giants. His work against the run merits more praise than his ability in coverage, but he's more than adequate there too. This is a big upgrade that should make the front seven better as well as the backfield. Sorry, Rams opponents can't count on easy, highlight reel gains of 20, 30 and 40 yards for their running backs and receivers like they used to.
Behind Bulter and Atogwe, the Rams have very capable backup in Todd Johnson, also a special teams regular. He can play both safety positions. He's a true backup, i.e. you don't want to count on him as a starter for 16 games, though the supporting cast around him is improved enough that such as scenario wouldn't be a make or break deal. Next on the list is Eric Bassey, though a camp injury on Friday night may have changed that. Bassey is a special teams guy, pure and simple, who can play some backup work. Craig Dahl was another Spagnuolo discovery, undrafted like Butler, who filled in admirably for Butler a few times in 2007, before he tore his ACL in the regular season finale and got waived after the Super Bowl. Spagnuolo thought enough of him to resign him prior to the 2008 season, but that didn't pan out since the G-men drafted Kenny Phillips in the first round of 2008.
The Rams have lots of question marks on the roster, but safety is not one of them. They've got an straight A in that department.
For the eighth consecutive season, Deon Grant started all 16 games. On a superficial statistical level, Grant's season looked like his every other: 79 total tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions. He was played in the box or walked up to the line for much of the season following the Giant's 254 yard rushing assault in week five.
Grant was a leader in the real sense of the word making reads in the secondary and positioning Seattle's young and less aware defensive backs in place to make the play. When allowed to play deep safety, Grant again showed the recognition, quickness and ball skills that made him so valuable last season. His execution - especially his timing - on safety blitzes is remarkable.
Quintessential Game: Eagles at Seahawks
Philadelphia 17 - Seattle 7
3-4-SEA 4 (Qtr: 2:09)
Eagles break 2 WR, TE, Split Backs with McNabb in shotgun. Seattle in a 4-1 dime. Before the snap, Deon Grant directs Jordan Babineaux over right split back Lorenzo Booker. Brian Westbrook motions into the right slot. Grant gives Wilson a come here gesture and points him towards a spot opposite Westbrook. Grant looks back towards the endz--
McNabb snaps, Brent Celek shoots out wide right attempting a block, Westbrook quick-curls towards McNabb, McNabb delivers a perfect pass into his numbers and almost as soon as Grant can see the play has started Wilson is in Westbrook's frame finishing the no-doubt-about-it tackle for a loss of three.
What went wrong: Grant wasn't a good in-the-box safety in 2007 and removed all doubt in 2008. He's better against the run as a support tackler or a finisher. If a run is channeled to him or strung wide, he can put on a body on the rusher and record the stop. He's not a reliable open-field tackler and wont to bad angles and broken arm tackles.
Grant is uneven breaking from the line and engaging in man cover.
In week six, Grant collided with Packers' fullback Cory Hall on the first play from scrimmage. After the game he said, "I heard a pop, so it must be an MCL," and added, "Something happened with it. I didn't get any tests. I just put a brace on and went back out there."
Quintessential Game: Seahawks at 49ers
Deon Grant makes a wonderful free safety: Four plays after pick two, Niners at the two. Both teams are in classic goal line formations. Grant is wide-right playing contain. At the snap, Frank Gore runs into an impenetrable pile but escapes, breaks right and runs unabated for the score. Grant is 100% to blame. At the snap, Frank Gore runs into an impenetrable pile, but when he begins breaking right, Grant can be seen staring into the pile, at the center of the field, away from Gore, unaware of Gore and out of the play as soon as Gore hits the corner. Just a terrible play by a player I really like.
Outlook: Grant didn't miss a game or even the rest of week six. He looked broken on the trainer's table and was indisputably in terrible pain, but was back by the second quarter. Grant may just be lucky or abnormally resilient. Whatever the case, he appeared on the week seven injury report as "probable", played and nothing more was reported about the injury.
A cover 2 shell would suite Grant nicely. He could read and react to plays and tackle or attack passes running downhill. He's not a prototypical Tampa 2 safety, but as he ages and slows, it will soften his decline. What he adds as a pass defender should more than overcome his weaknesses in run support.
Brian Russell started 16 games in 2008. He did not appear on the injury report and missed only one snap all season. His statistics were in line with his career numbers: 72 tackles, one sack and three passes defended. It was his fourth season in six seasons starting he had three or fewer passes defended. He turned 31 on February 5, 2009.
Russell had a couple good stops against Philadelphia and headed off a couple long plays.
Russell is a bad player, perhaps below replacement level, that's schematic use has negative utility in the modern NFL. He ensures swearing is present and persistent at Field Gulls, because swearing is a healthy release from extreme physical pain.
Negative utility is the operative phrase there. Russell is played to reduce the greatest amount of harm, neglecting the fact that a team can prevent scoring passes without being a successful pass defense. Russell sometimes stops a 30 yard play from going for 50 and the score. That leaves the opposing team in the red zone with a new set of downs. In 2007, Seattle parlayed that strategy into an improbable mix of a high number of opposing pass attempts, a below average number of yards allowed, but the league's best touchdown's allowed*. At the time, I accepted it as the hallmark of a bend but don't break defense, but I've become ever more skeptical of the bend but don't break phenomenon. Seattle flexed the other way in 2008, allowing more relative attempts - an extraordinarily high number of pass attempts for a 4-12 team - the worst pass yards in football, and the 27th ranked touchdown passes allowed.
Opponents provided compelling evidence that neither the strategy nor Russell work. Seattle allowed ten touchdown passes of ten or fewer yards. Proving the Seahawks couldn't cede field position and then toughen in the red zone. It also allowed ten touchdowns of 20 or more yards. Proving that as a deep cover safety, Russell wasn't covering s--t.
Seattle didn't draft a safety until the seventh and Courtney Greene is a project Seattle hopes to develop. Jamar Adams hasn't received much pub. However cringe worthy, Russell is the presumptive and almost uncontested starter at free safety. Seattle could mitigate that some by making Russell just a safety. That is, a cover 2 safety and therefore not truly a strong or free safety. It absolutely must avoid putting Russell on an island and hoping his savvy and field marshalship overcomes his broken wheels, bad compass, terrible technique and leather-helmet athleticism.
Tim Ruskell added a wild card into the mix by saying longtime utility defensive back Jordan Babineaux will contend for Russell's job. Babineaux is a read and react zone defender that struggles to keep the play in front of him. He struggled as a nickel corner in 2007 and didn't so much improve in 2008 as have less responsibility. In a more structured role, say in a cover-2 where he starts deep and keeps the play in front of him by default, he's faster than Russell, more agile than Russell, more athletic than Russell, stronger than Russell, a better tackler than Russell and has better ball skills than Russell. Defensive backs coach Tim Lewis stated Russell is the starter, so I will assume Russell is the starter, and since Russell doesn't participate enough to injure himself, and since he's swayed the coaching staff, Seattle's starting safeties earn a D. Dress it up how you'd like, rationalize if you must, denial's been attempted by a few, but Deon Grant is good, Brian Russell is awful, and awful swallows good like paper swallows rock.
So outside of one safety, most of the NFC West is content with their starting free and strong safety. Where you rank the Cardinals amongst these four? Should we be confident in Rolle's ability to become an above average safety this season?