St. Louis Rams: Free Safety vs Strong Safety

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

In my time here at TST, I have always done far more reading than posting. I can tell you, the staff and members of TST have taught me a bunch! In this, my inaugural article as a contributor, I wish to take a moment to thank the entire TST community for the insights, research and passion that are routinely displayed here and have penetrated my thick skull, enabling me to learn so much about this game and the team that we all love. This article was inspired by you, both in the general and directly.

After the maelstrom of free agency, and with the crucible of the draft fast approaching, everyone is aware the Rams have a need or needs in the secondary. Our front four are beasts, our linebackers solid, we have two young and talented corner backs(CB). It's widely agreed we need another corner back - with the departure of Cortland Finnegan -and a safety. Drafting the corner back position is pretty straightforward: Dennard? Gilbert? Verrett? Others? In short, we need one. We may argue the virtues and vices of this one or that, but just get one. A good one.

Safety a whole other story.....

The terms, "Strong" and "Free" are applied to the safety position for a reason; and while related, have quite different roles on the defensive side of the ball. Which of these positions do we actually need?

First, a caveat. Things get a bit fuzzy with these positions for a variety of reasons. It was my own hazy notions that got me to do the research and educate myself on the respective roles of these vitally important positions. How safeties are used will depend on the vision of the head coach, as well as the direction and scheme of the defensive coordinator, not to mention the immediate needs of the individual play. Whew! You follow me? In other words, they can be sort of interchangeable...but not.

With players like Khalil Mack and Jadevon Clowney in the draft, there's been a great deal of talk about the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker(OLB) position. Strong safety(SS) is in many ways a hybrid outside linebacker/corner back. His position is on the ‘strong’ side of the line where the tight ends line up or where a running back(RB) may come out of the backfield. In man coverage, he'll most likely be assigned a tight end, with running back as a secondary coverage. He maybe tasked with double coverage of a top receiver. Only very rarely, will he ever be asked to cover a wide receiver(WR) by himself. The strong safety is also critical to run support, being tasked with stuffing the run much like a linebacker. With the heavy use of the ‘play action pass’ this becomes very real part of the SS’s job. In short, the strong safety is the Swiss army knife of the defense.

Speed! Speed! Speed! Is the current mantra of the NFL. Everywhere, everyone wants it. The more the better. With a strong safety though, it is not necessarily the greatest attribute. There is room to fudge a bit...sort of. Since his role is on the strong side of the line, he has to be large enough to successfully tackle tight ends and running backs as well as shed potential blocks. This is one busy guy! The ability to read the offense, tackling/hitting, quickness, strength and ball skills are the skill sets coaches look for in a strong safety. More or less...

So, what about Free Safeties(FS)?

Glad you asked. If a SS is a hybrid OLB/CB, a free safety is kind of like a "Free Range" corner back. He's the absolute last line of defense, and his territory is wherever the ball goes (yes, in general that applies to all defensive positions, but it is very specific to FS). The free safety is assigned to the weak side of the line. Here he will most likely find smaller, sleeker opponents, and not bruising tight ends. His role is pretty straight forward: find the ball and make a play on it. That may mean a tackle or an interception, either way so long as he does one of those, he has done his job. His role in run defense is lessened to a degree. Generally, if your FS makes the stop on a run, something went horribly wrong.

As his domain is almost exclusively the pass, his key attributes are tuned to SPEED! This time, like WRs, CBs and RBs, speed is paramount in a free safety. With the amount of territory they have to cover on any potential play, speed is an absolute must. After that, it's his balls skills - the ability to diagnose a play quickly - plus sound tackling/hitting .

What can be said with certainty is this: Free Safeties, tend to be smaller, faster and pass oriented, while Strong Safeties are larger, more powerful and run/pass oriented.

The question is: Which one do the Rams need?

In 10 games last season, T.J. McDonald proved himself to be a scrappy and productive strong safety - and you got to love the 'penis tackle'! Maybe he isn't Kenny Vaccaro, but he showed a lot of promise. He had 53 combined tackles, 5 passes defensed, 1 interception and a sack in an injury shortened, rookie year. At 6' 2" and 217 lbs, he is near ideal size for a strong safety. The Rams can consider themselves set at SS.

Which brings us to Rodney McLeod and the position of free safety. Considering that he was an undrafted free agent, he has done quite well, but after two seasons, it is apparent that the job of free safety could use an upgrade.

Enter, Gregg Williams........

Rams fans everywhere are excited about Gregg Williams taking over the defense and look forward to his signature style - PRESSURE! He is notorious for the relentless pressure he likes to put on opposing quarterbacks. Beyond an already fantastic front four, it's safe to assume Mr. Williams will be dialing in the blitz on a regular basis. This places a premium on the safety position in general, and the free safety in particular. Under pressure, especially from a properly executed blitz, a quarterback has little option but to go "over the top" and hope his receiver can make a play. In a scheme such as this, the free safety is entrusted with huge responsibility and must, rather literally, have the defense's back.

And so it was in those days that the football gods conferred and bestowed their blessing upon Gregg Williams and upon the Rams. And it was good. For they aligned the stars and a Draft Pick was begat by Need... And so it was that Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was given unto St. Louis and his pick was three and ten and there was great rejoicing.

Hyperbole aside, HaSean (Ha Ha) Clinton-Dix is what a Gregg Williams defense needs in a free safety. Rangy, smart, solid and dependable. While Deone Bucannon and Calvin Pryor are known for their aggressive, punishing tackles and run stopping, these traits are better for the strong safety; a position both of them might find themselves in once drafted. Ed Reynolds then becomes Ha Ha's only real rival as a true free safety and in this writer's opinion, Clinton-Dix comes out substantially ahead.

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