In a flurry of moves this past week, the Kansas City Chiefs added two safeties to the squad: picking up free agent veteran Ron Parker and trading for Miami Dolphins safety Jordan Lucas. On the surface, the Chiefs are adding some more depth to a concerning position.
But it’s much deeper than that.
The Chiefs now boast an entire safety group that can play in all three phases that Bob Sutton asks of that position: deep coverage ability, apex/slot defender ability, and box/hook defender ability.
It’s no secret that the Chiefs prefer versatile safeties.
They’ve specifically targeted them in their acquisitions, even prior to this offseason. It’s why a safety like Tre Boston (a free agent this past offseason) would have been a tough fit into the Chiefs defense. While he could play the deep safety role that is one part of the Chiefs defense, he didn’t have the ability to play the other two phases of the game that Sutton employs.
However, after the acquisition of Parker and Lucas, I saw some confusion about the ways these players were deployed. So I took some time to head down to the Nerd Squad Lab, fired up the tape and crafted some examples from last year that show the flexibility and responsibilities that will once again be asked of the safety group in 2018.
Let’s take a look.
Here, a motion from a bunch 3x1 from the offense balances the formation at 2x2. Safety Ron Parker comes down as a hook defender mirroring the RB, and that shifts Dan Sorensen back to the deep safety. Meanwhile, Eric Berry is in man against Ron Gronkowski. pic.twitter.com/gWqsfNRiBy— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 4, 2018
Here’s a prime example of the safeties swapping roles for the 2017 Chiefs.
Initially, Daniel Sorensen is in the box opposite the trips side of the New England formation. As the running back is lined up to the same side as the bunch, Sorensen has the play-side B-gap if a run is called out of an RPO. Ron Parker starts off as the deep safety with Eric Berry playing in man against tight end Ron Gronkowski.
As the motion man comes across, the safeties shift to account for the balancing of the formation, and this moves Parker into the box as a hook defender/medium sideline zone and moves Sorensen into the deep safety role.
Another example of a switch in responsibility, this time out of the 3-4 defense. As the tight end motions across the formation, Ron Parker does not follow the receiver, instead dropping deep while Sorensen spins over to cover the motion TE's route. pic.twitter.com/sWBN8EaXQr— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 4, 2018
Here’s another example of a shift between the two deep safeties, changing their coverage responsibilities on the fly.
As the Chiefs are in their 3-4 defense, there are only two safeties on the field this play. It’s a simple thing, having Sorensen spin down to cover the motion tight end while Parker drops deep into coverage—but it’s not something that every team in the NFL does.
Knowing that Sorensen can hold his own against the TE and knows the coverage scheme from multiple positions allows the Chiefs to rotate, rather than forcing their safeties to follow.
Due to the safeties’ abilities to handle multiple different coverage responsibilities at an NFL level, the Chiefs can make that shift instead of having a linebacker in the zone or a safety chasing the offensive alignment all game. This flexibility allows them to not get caught in poor matchups as easily.
On this play, the roles are switched up, showing the versatility needed. Sorensen, this time, is matched up against Gronk while Berry and Parker are splitting the field. This means the hook to the strong side is empty, and when the route comes under, Parker collapses for the stop pic.twitter.com/ey6QuqkMg5— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 4, 2018
In this example, the Chiefs have their 2-3-6 personnel on the field. The Patriots are in a 3x1 alignment, and the Chiefs are showing a split safety look with Parker and Berry. Sorensen is matched up in man coverage against Ron Gronkowski. This means that there is an empty space at the strong side hook. Parker sits at the goal line, then closes on the slant attacking that empty space, making the stop for a short gain.
Against the Eagles here, we see Safety Eric Murray in press man coverage against slot WR Nelson Agholor. Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis splits out wide against the TE, and once again the hook to the strong side is empty. Parker shifts to the deep safety and Sorensen fills the hook pic.twitter.com/HgS7YHAseN— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 4, 2018
A similar example here, with Sorensen filling the hook role after the snap.
This is out of the Chiefs’ 4-2-5 nickel defense with three safeties, and safety Eric Murray is tasked with covering Philadelphia Eagles slot wide receiver Nelson Agholor while linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis is covering the tight end.
Parker shifts to the deep safety, and Sorensen comes down into the hook after linebacker Derrick Johnson moves out to cover the running back in the flat.
In both these examples, the Chiefs were able to utilize the personnel that was on the field to make a stop against up-tempo offenses. The ability to have a safety fill the hook role, have another safety line up as an apex defender and have a third safety able to play deep is crucial, but having the ability to interchange the three on a whim is invaluable.
The Chiefs pass defense has thrived with versatile safeties in Sutton’s tenure in Kansas City, only finishing once outside of the top 13 in DVOA (last year) and only twice outside of the top seven (both years Eric Berry was injured).
Berry, Parker, Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch have all found success as multi-faceted players from multiple safety positions. Another year of development from Murray, adding Lucas and Armani Watts, and the returning Parker should give the Chiefs’ secondary the desired flexibility on the back end, even with Sorensen starting the season on IR.
As NFL offenses find more and more ways to create mismatches by forcing the defense into specific personnel, having a group that can be flexible and play at multiple levels of the defense gives the Chiefs a leg up on more rigid defenses in those scenarios.
And if you didn’t know how the Chiefs used their versatile safeties before, you do now.