There may not be a more difficult position in football to review and write about than a safety who plays almost exclusively in the back third of the field.
That may come as a surprise to some people. After all, quarterback is a considerably more nuanced position than safety. Offensive line review requires careful examination of hand technique (not the easiest thing to do amidst the scrum). Watching corners requires careful attention to the footwork of the defender in relation to the offensive player. Watching a running back forces you to watch the offensive line AND the defense. And so on, and so on.
So what's so tough about safety? After all, you're just talking about a guy running around on the back third of the field and preventing deep passes, right?
Well, kind of. As always, it's not really that simple.
Deep safety is a strange position in that you're very rarely watching the defender match up directly against an offensive player. Think about how unusual that is for a defensive player. Corners are covering a wide receiver in man the majority if the time (in the case of the Chiefs defense, at least). Defensive linemen (and often linebackers) are taking on offensive linemen. Linebackers have to track a runner in a way that's pretty easy to judge (it's either quick recognition and a good angle, or it isn't).
Deep safeties are rarely in coverage on individual players. They rarely have the ball thrown their way IF they do their job right. They rarely see a ball carrier make it to them if the rest of the defense does THEIR job right. Most deep safety snaps are spent, by all appearances, with a lot of running for no apparent reason.
There's not an "individual matchup" to watch. All there is is running. And if you don't know the assignment the safety has on that play, you have literally no way of really gauging how good a job he's doing with that assignment. You can make an educated guess based on what the rest of the defense does, sure. But you cannot be sure the majority of the time. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.
Both of those things combine to make safety a tough position to get a handle and adequately write about in a way that's even somewhat informative. But we march on, because if we don't try the terrorists win.
A deep safety (particularly one who is playing single high, as Parker often was) is the last line of defense at the very least. His job is to be sure a bad play doesn't turn into a worse one. That's what we always think of when we think of a single high safety.
That said, there's a great deal more to it. A very good deep safety, while he doesn't see the ball much or even make contact with opposing players often (during an ideal game, at least), has a MASSIVE effect on the game.
Earl Thomas is the most obvious example of this. Thomas impacts the game through his range. Quarterbacks rarely attempt to test the Seahawks deep in part because every throw carries a lower risk vs. reward calculation than against a normal team. Compared to a normal free safety, Thomas is more likely to force an incomplete pass (lowers the reward) and also more likely to pick off an errant throw (raises the risk).
So let's say a quarterback normally feels like a throw down the field is (just chucking out random numbers) has a 30 percent shot of a good result, a 60 percent chance of an incomplete pass, and a 10 percent chance of an interception. Against Thomas, maybe that calculation goes to 10 percent, 70 percent, and 20 percent (again, all numbers are completely made up. I'm just in the process of inventing a stat).
Suddenly an offense's game plan needs to be adjusted to find some better way of moving the ball and not risking a turnover. Now you've narrowed options, which helps the REST of your defense succeed
We'll call it "Deep Safety Impact" for lack of a better term. Ideally, your safety doesn't just affect the throws that are made. He prevents throws from BEING made.
So does Ron Parker bring that to the table?
Watching Parker's snaps (I viewed roughly eight games of his on All-22, focusing on games he was playing safety rather than corner), I very much believe he's a deep safety who can force quarterbacks to look elsewhere for options and make them at least think a little before throwing the ball deep.
Parker brings a great deal of speed to the table for his position. No one has ever doubted that. Well look at three plays where he demonstrates the "good" of what he brings to the table (which is more than just speed).
The circled player is Parker (duh). The player with an arrow on him is a WR (we don't name opposing players here. Unless we do. Here, we do not) who is about to run a deep corner route.
When the Chiefs were using Kendrick Lewis as their last line of defense, we'd call this route a "lost cause," at least as far as safety help is concerned. Lewis has some good qualities as a safety, but he's S-L-O-W.
Rather than do a play by play of each picture, we'll present the play in three consecutive snap shots. Because brevity (I've been told recently brevity is good. I remain skeptical).
So to start out, Parker is playing over the top on his own. This is how he was most often used by the Chiefs, a reflection of how comfortable they are with his ability to cover a lot of the field on his own. This play shows the reason for that confidence.
At the snap Parker immediately backpedals and gets some depth (which is Safety 101 if you're not on a defensive call that requires jumping a short route). I suppose now is as good a time as any to state that Parker has a very smooth backpedal with natural fluidity. It's funny, because you put him at corner he looks very different. But at safety, he moves very well backward and side to side while staying squared forward.
The protection is decent for the first few seconds of this play, and the coverage is pretty solid everywhere. Parker (correctly) recognizes there is only one deep route being run, which changes his responsibility (I would guess. It's important to note one more time that we don't know the specific play calls) to bracketing the deep receiver. It's worth noting the corner does a solid job staying with the receiver early in the route.
There are a few things to love about Parker's movement on this play. First, he takes a good angle going down the field to where a throw is going (rather than following the very natural instinct to move toward the receiver). This prevents the receiver from getting behind him, something we saw WAY too much of in 2013.
Second, Parker is able to transition from backpedaling to running down the field very smoothly, then keeps his head turns and tracks the ball while still closing very quickly and bracketing the receiver. If you think sprinting with your head turned around the other direction is easy, give it a shot. Then send me a picture of the building / car / child you ran into.
Parker shows good instincts (identifies where he needs to be quickly), good natural skills (backpedal into sprint with head turn, along with ball tracking), and God-given gifts (speed) on this play. The combination of the three allow him to beat the receiver to the ball and he gets a pick. A slower safety (like, say, Kendrick Lewis) or a safety without good instincts doesn't get a pick here and MAYBE the pass falls complete. A very nice play.
Remember 800 words ago when I used the phrase "Deep Safety Impact?" Plays like this create said impact. Teams see plays like this on the field and are forced to change their risk vs. reward calculation on deep passes.You can envision the opposing offensive coordinator's conversation with the head coach and quarterback...
Head coach: "We can try to test their corners over the top. 21 doesn't have good long speed."
Offensive coordinator: "Yeah, but 38's got a lot of range. See that pick against St. Louis? If our QB overthrows it at all it's a big risk."
Quarterback: "I don't want to play. Have you watched 50? And 91? And 92? And 97? Please don't make me play."
Parker flashed those abilities (instincts, natural skills, and speed) on many other snaps. Here's an example of that combination having an effect in a different way during the same game.
As you can see, Parker is NOT in single high, instead sharing the back third with another safety. The play is a quick pass to the RB, with both WR's in good position to block their respective corners (Sean Smith particular has his hips turned to run, not ideal to engage a blocking WR). The linebacker is iffy despite recognizing what's happening, because... well, he's a 2014 Chiefs ILB. I'm not sure I need to explain the problem here.
In other words, the Rams have what appears to be a favorable situation to gain decent yardage. They do not, in part because of Parker.
Josh Mauga actually does a decent job running the play down, but he misses the tackle.
(pauses for a moment to give people time to stop nodding sadly)
Neither receiver for the Rams did a great job blocking their corners, but they did enough to where, with the missed tackle forced by the runner, there SHOULD be a lane for him to run through and gain good yardage.
That doesn't happen because of Ron Parker, who quickly recognizes the play and transitions from deep coverage guy to "hone in on the ball guy." Because of Parker's speed he's able to get to the play quickly and break down in space. The runner isn't able to take advantage of bad momentum because there is none. The runner freezes, help arrives, and the threat of a decent gain is averted.
As I've talked about when reviewing Eric Berry's film, this type of play is never going to make it on SportsCenter. However, preventing a play from turning into a disaster and cleaning up the mistake of another defender is what safeties are supposed to do (in part). Here, because of Parker's instincts and speed, he's able to do so.
One more play, this one against a quarterback we love to hate.
Once again, Parker is the lone deep safety. That's a ton of responsibility against a quarterback like Manning, who loves to fake safeties the wrong direction in order to create a window to throw into. One wrong move and you're dead.
Parker proves to be up to the task this particular snap, though. Manning fakes a quick throw right...
... and Parker doesn't bite. He keeps his hips open and his eyes on Manning rather than driving toward the receiver. Solid instincts to recognize a fake for what it was.
This proves valuable, as Manning turns left immediately and throws near the spot Parker was supposed to vacate in reaction to the fake.
Parker once again demonstrates the qualities I've been discussing.
1) Parker recognizes where the actual throw is going after not biting on the fake (instincts).
2) He then gets his hips turned and sprints down the field, watching the ball (natural fluidity).
3) He beats the receiver to the point where the ball is coming down (speed, ball skills).
4) He makes a nice play on the ball, knocking it down (ball skills again, ability to win in a contested situation).
A lot of safeties have some speed. A lot of safeties have some fluidity. A lot of safeties have decent instincts and a feel for the position. Not many have all three.
That combination of talent and instincts are absolutely why the Chiefs were willing to give Parker a fairly sizable contract despite his relative lack of time playing (and performing) at safety. They recognized the role he played in helping the Chiefs prevent big passing plays and the unique blend of talent and instincts he flashed.
Parker is not a perfect safety. His tackling needs a lot of work. Fortunately, it's not a matter of him being too timid to hit (a woeful trait on a safety). Instead, Parker tends to leave his feet and appears to be trying to go for a knockout when a simple wrap and drag will do the trick. Some safeties get away with being overly aggressive. Guys like Eric Berry and Kam Chancellor have a special gift to not only hit HARD but hit CORRECTLY. Not many can do it, and Parker hasn't consistently (yet).
Parker would be better off accepting his fate as a non-booming safety who wraps up and makes the safe play nine times out of 10. His glaring weakness as a defender as of this moment is his tackling and run support. It's by far the weakest part of his game, and it's a very fixable issue. That said, the tackling issues (particularly against the run) Parker demonstrated can be masked to a large extent by keeping him where he does his best work; the back third of the field.
Another issue for Parker I observed is man coverage. Parker, as stated, generally played deep zones when at safety. Occasionally, however, he was asked to play man. Generally it was against a tight end but he was asked to do it against receivers at times as well. And of course, Parker played corner in multiple games in 2014.
I cannot overstate how odd it is watching a guy who looks so fluid and natural at one position struggle so mightily at another. Outside the Buffalo game (where a hobbled Sammy Watkins didn't have his normal change-of-direction ability), Parker looked mostly out of place at corner. When he's asked to mirror a receiver rather than watch a quarterback's eyes and track the ball, he's a significantly worse player. Again, this issue is one that can be fixed by playing Parker where he's strongest; the deep zones.
Ron Parker has a very high ceiling as a deep safety, which is exciting for any Chiefs fan. He demonstrates a unique combination of talent and instincts, enough to make him a Pro Bowl caliber player at the position (please note I'm not saying he's there yet. He's not. But he's closer than you think). On the flip side of that, he has a pair of weaknesses that are very real, and SHOULD be addressed by simply playing him where he belongs.
The decision seems awfully simple. Hopefully Bob Sutton sees it that way. Parker, once played where he belongs, was a huge part of the Chiefs being one of the league's best pass defenses. His Deep Safety Impact is potentially huge, and that upside makes him well worth the contract he was given.
Now just KISS. Keep It Simple Sutton. Dorsey paid the man, now you play the man. At safety.