It’s the inaugural preparation week for the 2016 season and as the team gets ready to go beat the New Orleans Saints, the first depth chart has been released. Notable because it indicates that prized rookie safety Karl Joseph has been listed as a backup, replaced in the starting lineup by 2nd year Raider Nate Allen.
For some it may have been a bit surprising, but in many ways it shouldn’t be. He was the 14th overall pick, but some had considered it a bit of a reach to take him there because he spent most of his final collegiate season sidelined by an ACL tear. While his recovery has been on track, he is still a recovering player and during the preseason he’s been eased into the playing time, seeing limited action with the first team unit early on and then getting a bit more extended time later on, eventually even showing up on special teams.
If we look a little bit more closely, Ken Norton may have given us an insight into how the demands on the safeties in his system are different and more expansive than in a traditional system and how much Karl Joseph may have on his plate.
Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary is anchored by its safety play, the explosive, rangy, and instinctive Earl Thomas (5’10", 205 lbs) who can cover sideline to sideline from the deep middle and the powerful, explosive, gargantuan 6’3″, 232 lbs Kam Chancellor who patrols the underneath area. Thomas is like the "Legion" because it seems like he’s everywhere downfield while Chancellor definitely lowers the "Boom" at every opportunity.
They each are both phenomenal players who are perfectly cast in their respective roles and it is very obvious that they each do play very specific roles that cater and augment their strengths while hiding their weaknesses. Neither player would be nearly as acclaimed if they were to reverse their roles. Kam Chancellor in the deep middle would open up some downfield opportunities and Earl Thomas would not put the same kind of fear into opposing receivers if he were regularly deployed in the box.
When Ken Norton Jr was hired away from Seattle as the Oakland defensive coordinator, a natural assumption was that he would be running the same defense that Pete Carroll implemented. This would mean that the Raiders would be in search of their own LOB-type safeties, maybe Woodson for deep middle and someone like Taylor Mays (6’3", 220 lbs) as the underneath intimidator.
Norton has schematically implemented much of what Seattle was doing defensively,but he has–presumably with an assist from Head Coach Jack Del Rio–clearly diverged in some meaningful ways. One of those ways shows up when we study he seems to be want to use his safeties.
It’s still just pre-season and obviously we will not get a true sense of the full defensive scheme. In fact, he’s used a variety of different alignments and schemes so he may still be defining exactly what he wants to do to best utilize his players and gets a further sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s an evaluation time, but part of the evaluation is to see how well the players execute plays that are part of the scheme.
In the first pre-season game at Arizona, the safeties scheme was really interesting. When studying the game, it jumps off the screen, but on casual viewing, it was easy to miss.
It started on the fourth series when the safeties were Dewey McDonald (who was signed to Practice Squad last year in December) and Nate Allen.
Here’s a closer look.
For the most part, Norton favored the Man-Free (man-to-man coverage underneath with a single free safety deep) or Cover-3 scheme, both of which use a single deep safety and a strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage. These are the primary coverages of the Seattle Seahawks.
Here are two Pre-snap shots where we can see the defensive backfield.
Pre-snap #1 :
#35 Dewey McDonald is playing the single high free safety position and #20 Nate Allen is down in the strong safety position.
Pre-snap #2 :
Here, we see their roles flipped with Allen deep and McDonald up. They did this repeatedly, swapping positions and roles based on the offensive alignment.
Nate Allen took the left side and McDonald was to the right; when the strength of the formation was to the defensive left side, Allen played the Strong Safety role and when the strength was to the right side, it was McDonald.
It’s no unusual for safeties to sometimes switch, but when it is done regularly and systematically, it becomes more interesting and worthy of attention.
A couple of things immediately come to mind.
- There’s quite an opportunity to create a dynamic and adaptable defense in this fashion.
- It is physically and mentally demanding of both safeties.
Here’s a look at some of what the Defense was showing out of these alignments.
Typically, when a TE motions from one side to another, one of two things happens :
- the safety follows, indicating man coverage
- the safety stays still and the LBs adjust, indicating zone coverage
On occasion, the Cardinals would motion the TE across the formation, which had the effect of changing the strength of the formation. Here’s what the Raiders did with McDonald and Allen :
The safety duo rotated like this :
Here we see the initial alignment with Dewey McDonald down low and Nate Allen playing the single deep Free Safety role.
Motion and Rotation :
When the TE motions, the safeties rotate and swap their roles on the fly.
New Alignment :
So here, Nate Allen is now the Strong Safety and Dewey McDonald is the single deep Free Safety.
The QB now needs to depend upon other indicators to determine whether it is man or zone coverage.
Seattle is famous for giving a Cover 1 look and then running Cover 3 with the corners playing press-bail technique and this is (generally) the extent of how they disguise their coverage. They are not diverse and are not exotic, rather they are so perfectly coached and supremely talented that this is enough to thwart most every QB that wants to throw against them.
Most other teams don’t have that luxury and in the modern NFL, most teams use a variety of coverages and spend a great deal of time disguising them.
In the above examples, it’s obvious who is playing what role because the player “declares” himself when he moves into position. So when we see Dewey McDonald drop back 15 yards deep in the middle of the field, he’s telling the offense that he’s playing free safety. Similarly, Nate Allen lining up in the box opposite the tight end broadcasts his intent to the QB.
Naturally, players can "declare" their positions, wait for the QB to make his reads, and then shift to their intended, true position forcing the QB (as well as the receivers) to mentally adjust on the fly.
Switch Things Up
A “Cover 2 Shell” or “Two-Deep Shell” basically means that both the safeties are playing Split-Free safety positions. They each line up deep, but instead of being in the middle of the field, they split the field in half. They essentially have equivalent responsibilities, so when they are deployed like this, their skills and roles are more similar than not.
A Cover 2 Shell can have man or zone underneath and there are various strategies to attack either one; those approaches are naturally very different from the way they may try to exploit a Cover 3 or Man-Free coverage.
From that Two Deep look, the safeties could drop back and play Cover 2 or they could rotate just prior to the snap into a Cover 3 or Man-Free look. And even if the QB knows or expects a defensive rotation, the safeties could still add some confusion by the way they rotate.
Here’s an example :
Cover 2 Alignment :
Here’s the Cover 2 alignment with both Dewey and Nate playing deep and each covering half the field.
Expected Rotation :
From here, they could hold that position and play coverage, but instead they will rotate.
The Tight End is lined up on the right side so we would expect Dewey to drop back as the Free Safety and Nate to step up to be the Strong Safety.
Actual Rotation :
But in this case, the safeties will actually rotate in the opposite way. Nate drops back and Dewey comes up.
Position after snap :
And here is how they get into their coverage. Here, they are in a Cover 3 instead of the initial look of Cover 2.
Intentionally or not, Pete Carroll takes another page out of Al Davis’ defensive playbook. It’s no secret that Al never liked the blitz and the Seahawks are a team built on getting pressure predominantly with their four man rush without having to resort to a blitz.
Again, Ken Norton diverges a bit from his mentor.
A big reason to disguise coverage is to bring a corner or safety blitz. Cornerbacks and safeties are generally not going to be able to engage and fight thru a block to bring pressure on the QB; their best weapon on a pass rush is the element of surprise… and their speed… and ruthless efficiency. (Hat Tip to Monty Python and the Spanish Inquisition).
When using defensive backs to blitz, the defense really hopes to get a clear alley to the QB. Part of doing that is by disguising the coverage and hiding the intent to bring the blitzer (generally the slot CB). If the offense does not expect the CB, they may turn the protection away from him (probably towards Khalil Mack) which may allow for a free run at the QB.
Here are two examples, one from each side of the field :
Example 1 : Blitz from Dewey’s Side
Here’s a look at a CB blitz from Dewey McDonald’s side :
The safeties are lined up in a muddled, not-quite distinct alignment. Sort of 2 deep, but sort of looking like it wants to be Cover 1.
Blitz and Rotation :
The blitz will come from the slot CB and Dewey McDonald will step up and take over that coverage while Nate drops back as the deep free safety.
During the snap :
Example 2 : From Nate’s Side
Here’s a look at a CB blitz from Nate Allen’s side :
Cover 2 Alignment :
It begins with a Cover 2 Shell look with a slot CB. This time the slot receiver is in a relatively short split which puts the CB much closer to the QB.
Blitz and Rotation :
On the snap, the CB blitzes, Nate takes that coverage, and Dewey drops back to deep FS.
After the snap :
Scheme, approach, alignment are one thing. Execution and effectiveness are another.
The scheme itself allows for Ken Norton to do many inventive things to attack the QB, but it also requires great execution so that the blitz is effective and does not just allow for big plays.
What we see on these blitz plays is that either safety may be called upon to play man coverage on a wide receiver.
Back in 2015
One reason that the Dewey/Nate safety usage sparked my interest was because it harked back to the 2015 season. The approach of using the safeties as interchangeable SS/FS depending on the formation was precisely how Ken Norton used his safeties last year… sort of.
At the beginning of the 2015 season, the Raiders’ starting safety duo was Nate Allen and Charles Woodson.
Unfortunately, in 2015 this safety combination was only healthy for the first drive-and-a-half before an unexpected low-flying Ray Ray took out Nate Allen’s knee and put him out Nate Allen for a chunk of the season. Then later in that same game, Charles Woodson wrecked his shoulder making a tackle (on what was a meaningless play at the end of the game).
In 2015, Ken Norton had both his starting safeties at full strength for only 11 plays.
Here they are :
The totals work out like this :
It’s an equal split.
When Nate Allen was signed from Philadelphia, there was a little confusion among the Raiders’ fans about what position he would play. Some thought he would be a Strong safety since that was his position in Philadelphia while others thought his skills were more a fit for a Free. But that would be strange b/c Charles Woodson seemed more of a fit at Free Safety than Strong.
As it turns out, it seems the intent was to NOT lock them down into a rigid, traditional role, but rather to have them effectively play part-time at both positions.
This can be great, but the big drawback is that it requires great all-around football ability from not one, but two players. Minnesota does something similar which allows the defense to take full advantage of Harrison Smith’s formidable skillset, but unfortunately their other safety Andrew Sendejo is more limited in his abilities and skills.
When Allen went out, either Larry Asante and Taylor Mays took over Nate’s spot and neither had the ability to play all of the field, so Norton reverted to the more traditional safety scheme. (note: this may have contributed to the Raiders’ problems with covering Tight End early in the season)
Even with Taylor Mays playing, this dual-role safety scheme showed up at times. Here are two examples from later in the year.
Week 14 v DEN :
Week 17 v KC :
To be sure the Raiders used a number of different defensive alignments over the course of last year’s regular season and in this year’s pre-season. Quite a bit of the 2015 season had safeties play traditional roles and in this year’s latter pre-season games, Ken Norton unveiled and experimented with the "Penny" defense where they lined up with one safety and 3 CBs (Smith, Amerson, and DJ Hayden).
Until the season starts, we won’t know a lot of things. This may be the primary safety scheme or it may not be. Right now, it’s hard to tell. From the study, though, it seems fair to say that at the very least, Ken Norton wants it to be a part of the defensive scheme.
From just a cursory look at the plays, it’s clear that it requires not just great physical abilities to play both roles, but a player has to have the mental capacity to absorb all the assignments for two positions.
And mistakes or failure by either safety could lead to some big plays.
Charles Woodson was a near ideal candidate to man one of those safety positions. He’s a unique player that has the perfect blend of all the needed physical skills, plus he’s a veritable football genius who has seen and done it all on the field.
When Nate Allen was signed in the 2015 offseason, there was some debate by fans as to which position he was going to play. Over his career, he’s been used in both positions and it was not immediately clear where his best spot was. Interestingly, it appears that his experience playing both roles was important in his signing.
At the end of the season, CWood retired and Nate Allen was cut.
While Woodson stayed retired, Nate Allen was subsequently re-signed to a cheaper contract and Reggie McKenzie went out and signed 8-year veteran Reggie Nelson from Cincinnati. Nelson has been primarily a Free Safety throughout his career and it remains to be seen how well he would take to being used as a "Box Safety" at times. Note that in the preseason, Reggie did get some playing time at the Strong position.
The jewel in the crown came in the draft.
With the #14 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Reggie McKenzie drafted West Virginia safety Karl Joseph presumably as a fit for Ken Norton’s defense. He’s a supremely gifted athlete and a down-and-dirty football player that loved putting his nose into the middle of the play.
Three key skills just jump off his game tape :
- His sideline to sideline range that raised comparisons to Earl Thomas
- His big hitting ability that raised comparisons to Bob Sanders
- His surprisingly good man coverage ability
The diverse physical skillset makes Joseph an ideal player for this scheme and if he can get fully healthy and fully acclimated to all the duties he’ll have to perform (effectively learning two positions) then he may quickly become an impact playmaker.
The only negatives are that physically he’s a bit smaller (5’8", 205 lbs) and that he’s coming off that injury.
Joseph has been playing in the pre-season and he’s flashed enough to be exciting but shown that also he’s a rookie. He’s definitely a dynamic presence and when he lets loose it’s really fun to watch, but it’s also clear that there’s a lot running thru his head and that the game is really fast for him right now.
His highlight so far may be the hit on Eddie Lacy at the goalline (with an assist from Jihad Ward) :
but there were also times when he was little slow to react like this :
The safety position in the NFL is very difficult and asking a rookie to step in right away and perform mistake-free at 100% speed is really asking a great deal. Putting Nate Allen as the starter and letting Karl sit for now was the safest move to make. He’s still working his way back to 100% from his ACL injury and as a rookie in a fairly complicated scheme, his head is probably swimming a bit.
The plan is clearly for him to work his way into the starting role as soon as he’s ready for it and the Raiders have the luxury to ease him in. But make no mistake, he’s the future. Reggie McKenzie saw that special combination of physical skills and (judging by his other picks), he’s assessed Karl’s work ethic and love of the game and found another True Raider.
I’m just a little disappointed though.
Not in Karl Joseph. I know that he’s going to do everything he can to get on the field and take that starter’s job. I’m just disappointed for my own impatient, selfish reasons; I want to see him wrecking offenses NOW!
Even more traditional NFL safety schemes have rookies’ heads swimming. Here in Oakland, we have something that looks like it’s about twice as complex and demanding so it’s no surprise that the rookie will not begin the year as the starter, especially with two veteran incumbents. But what is exciting is that this scheme seems to be ideal to take full advantage of Karl’s myriad talents and allow him to be a devastating player, a "Legion of Boom" packaged into a single player!