Free Safety Vs Strong Safety In Football

free safety vs strong safety

In football, the positions of safety are crucial components of a team’s secondary, playing a significant role in both pass defense and run support. Both of these positions, while similar, have distinct responsibilities and characteristics. So let’s take a look at free safety vs strong safety in American football!

Free Safety Vs Strong Safety


Free Safety (FS)

  1. Coverage Skills: The free safety is often the team’s last line of defense against deep passes. They must excel in coverage, possessing the speed and agility to keep up with fast receivers.
  2. Field Vision: This player typically plays farther back from the line of scrimmage and must have excellent field vision to read the quarterback and anticipate plays.
  3. Ball-Hawking: Free safeties often are tasked with intercepting passes, requiring them to have good hands and an instinct for tracking the ball.
  4. Supporting the Cornerbacks: In passing situations, the free safety often provides help to cornerbacks, especially against deep threats.

Strong Safety (SS)

  1. Run Support: Strong safeties are generally more involved in stopping the run. They play closer to the line of scrimmage.
  2. Tackling Ability: These players must be effective tacklers, as they often have to bring down running backs and tight ends.
  3. Pass Coverage: While not as coverage-focused as free safeties, strong safeties still need to be competent in defending against short to medium passes.
  4. Versatility: A strong safety might be asked to cover tight ends or even slot receivers, requiring a balance of speed and strength.
  5. Blitzing: Strong safeties may also be called upon to blitz the quarterback more often than free safeties.

Physical Differences

  1. Build and Size:
    • Strong Safety (SS): Typically has a more robust, muscular build. They are often similar in size and strength to linebackers, which helps in their role in run support and tackling.
    • Free Safety (FS): Generally leaner and more agile than their strong safety counterparts. Their build is more suited for speed and quickness, essential for covering large areas of the field.
  2. Speed and Agility:
    • SS: While strong safeties need to be quick, their focus is less on outright speed and more on agility and the ability to make quick, decisive moves, especially close to the line of scrimmage.
    • FS: Free safeties are usually among the fastest players on the defense. Their speed is crucial for covering deep passes and providing help over the top against fast receivers.

Skill Differences

  1. Coverage Abilities:
    • SS: Strong safeties are required to have good coverage skills, especially when matched up against tight ends or running backs. However, their coverage responsibilities are usually shorter and less area-focused than those of a free safety.
    • FS: Excel in pass coverage, often tasked with covering the deepest part of the field. They must be able to read the quarterback and receivers effectively, making plays on the ball in the air.
  2. Tackling and Physicality:
    • SS: One of the primary responsibilities of a strong safety is run support, which requires excellent tackling skills and physicality. They need to be able to take on and bring down larger opponents, like tight ends and running backs.
    • FS: While tackling is still a necessary skill for a free safety, they are generally not as involved in direct physical confrontations as strong safeties. Their tackles are often made at higher speeds and in open space.
  3. Ball Skills:
    • SS: Adequate ball skills are needed, but their primary focus is on physicality and tackling.
    • FS: Often requires superior ball skills, including the ability to intercept passes and break up deep throws. They are usually the more adept ball hawks in the secondary.
  4. Football IQ and Instincts:
    • SS: Needs to be instinctual, especially in run support. They must quickly diagnose plays and react accordingly, often breaking through or around blocks to make tackles.
    • FS: Requires a high football IQ, particularly in understanding offensive strategies and quarterback tendencies. This knowledge helps them in positioning themselves effectively to defend against long passes or to intercept the ball.

How Free And Strong Safeties Are Used in Defensive Schemes?

1. Cover 2

  • Free Safety: Positioned deep, splitting the field in half with the strong safety. Responsible for covering deep passes on their side of the field.
  • Strong Safety: Also plays deep, mirroring the free safety’s responsibilities on the other half of the field. Both safeties in Cover 2 must excel in pass coverage and have the speed to cover a lot of ground.

2. Cover 3

  • Free Safety: Often the sole deep safety, covering the middle third of the field. Needs to read the quarterback and quickly react to deep passing threats.
  • Strong Safety: Plays closer to the line of scrimmage, often responsible for a flat zone or covering short to intermediate areas. This role requires a blend of coverage ability and run support skills.

3. Cover 1 (Man-Free)

  • Free Safety: The only safety in deep coverage, providing help over the top. This position demands excellent range and pass coverage skills, as the free safety must cover a large area.
  • Strong Safety: Typically moves closer to the line of scrimmage and may cover a tight end or running back in man coverage, or play in the box to support the run defense.

4. Tampa 2

  • Free Safety: Similar role to a traditional Cover 2, but may have more responsibilities in covering the deep middle of the field.
  • Strong Safety: Plays deep like in Cover 2, but also needs to be quick in supporting the run and covering intermediate zones, particularly the area underneath where the middle linebacker drops deep.

5. Quarters Coverage (Cover 4)

  • Both Safeties: Share deep coverage responsibilities, each covering one quarter of the field. This scheme demands that both safeties have good coverage skills, as they must defend against both the pass and support the run.

6. Blitz Packages

  • Free Safety: Sometimes used as an additional blitzer, taking advantage of their speed and unpredictability.
  • Strong Safety: More commonly utilized in blitz packages, where they can leverage their typically more physical style of play to pressure the quarterback.

Best Strong Safeties Of All Time

Troy Polamalu

Known for his ferocious playing style and distinctive hair, Polamalu was a key player in Pittsburgh’s defense. His ability to read offenses, combined with his physicality and agility, made him a formidable opponent. An 8-time Pro Bowler and 4-time First-Team All-Pro, he won two Super Bowls with the Steelers and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.

Ronnie Lott

Although Lott played both cornerback and safety during his career, his time as a safety was particularly impactful. Known for his hard-hitting style and excellent coverage skills, he was a key player for the 49ers’ dominant teams in the 1980s. Lott was a 10-time Pro Bowler and 6-time First-Team All-Pro, winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers.

Ken Houston

Houston was known for his incredible athleticism and playmaking ability. A 12-time Pro Bowler and 2-time First-Team All-Pro, he set an NFL record with nine defensive touchdowns. Houston was renowned for his ability to change the course of a game with his interceptions and return skills.

John Lynch

Lynch was a key part of the Buccaneers’ dominant defense in the late 1990s and early 2000s, known for his hard hits and leadership. He was a 9-time Pro Bowler and 2-time First-Team All-Pro, and he played a crucial role in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl XXXVII victory.

Steve Atwater

Atwater was famous for his bone-jarring hits and fearless playing style. An 8-time Pro Bowler and 2-time First-Team All-Pro, he was a key member of the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the late 1990s.

Best Free Safeties Of All Time

Ed Reed

Reed is often cited as one of the greatest safeties in NFL history. Known for his incredible ball-hawking skills and ability to read quarterbacks, Reed was a 9-time Pro Bowler and 5-time First-Team All-Pro. He was named the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens. His career interception return yards remain an NFL record.

Ronnie Lott

Although Lott is often remembered for his time as a cornerback and strong safety, his transition to free safety later in his career was seamless and impactful. Makes it to both lists because he is my all time favorite safety!

Paul Krause

Krause holds the NFL record for career interceptions, a testament to his incredible ball skills and anticipation. An 8-time Pro Bowler and 3-time First-Team All-Pro, his playmaking ability was a key component of the Vikings’ formidable defense during his tenure.

Larry Wilson

Wilson was known for his toughness and inventiveness on the field, particularly for popularizing the safety blitz. A 8-time Pro Bowler and 5-time First-Team All-Pro, he was one of the most feared defenders of his era.

Brian Dawkins

Dawkins was known for his emotional intensity and versatile skills. A 9-time Pro Bowler and 4-time First-Team All-Pro, he was effective both in coverage and as a blitzer, making him one of the most well-rounded safeties to play the game.

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