The value of a safety is a constant moving target in the modern NFL. A few offseasons ago, they were all left in the bargain bin to be signed to cheap one-year deals. This past offseason, one was traded for two first-round picks. It’s a position where the ability of what a player can do matters just as much as what he’s asked to do in the defense.
This weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feature both sides of that coin. According to Over The Cap, the Chiefs have the third-most cap space used on safeties in the league for the 2020 season at just over $22 million. The Buccaneers have the fourth-lowest at just over $5 million.
Nearly 75% of that Kansas City cap allocation for safeties comes from the $16.3 million hit for Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu has been a do-it-all player for the Chiefs since he came over to Kansas City before the 2019 season. Mathieu was a key to last season’s Super Bowl run and an archetype for the modern versatile defensive back a number of teams tried to find this past offseason.
Again, Mathieu has been all over the field this season. He lined up in just about every spot on the defense, ranging from deep to on the line of scrimmage.
Once again, Tyrann Mathieu has been all over the field this season. Snaps played by alignment, via @NextGenStats:
* Safety: 508
* Slot CB: 303
* Outside LB: 115
* Edge: 48
* Inside LB: 43
* Left CB: 11
* Right CB: 5
* Interior DL: 3 (standing-up)
Such a movable chess piece.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) February 1, 2021
Even if Mathieu wasn’t lined up all over the field, he’d still find his way to the ball. His instincts in coverage routinely put him in the right place, regardless of his pre-snap alignment. Mathieu finished the season with six interceptions, which led the league among safeties, and he added one more in the Divisional Round against the Cleveland Browns. That interceptions against Cleveland was emblematic of what Mathieu has been able to do in coverage.
On a third-and-10 at the start of the second quarter, Mathieu lined up in a two-high look as the safety to the boundary. Just before the snap, Daniel Sorensen dropped back as he and Mathieu switched roles in the defense, with Mathieu responsible for the intermediate middle. Mathieu carried tight end Austin Hooper but as Mathieu saw Baker Mayfield scramble from the pocket, he drifted to play over the top of Jarvis Landry. When the ball was thrown, Mathieu had a path to jump in front of the pass for an interception.
The Next Gen Stats tracking dots illustrate Mathieu’s path to the ball.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Mathieu was one of the league’s best safeties in coverage during the 2020 season. Among 34 safeties who saw at least 30 targets during the regular season, Mathieu had the lowest targets per coverage snap and adjusted yards allowed (which adjusts for touchdowns and interceptions) per coverage snap. He also had the second-lowest completion percentage allowed on those targets.
He was one of 13 safeties in the league to see at least 30 pass targets and 30 pass rush snaps. Mathieu finished the year without a sack for just the second time in his career, but he was still able to generate pressure at a rate similar to what he put up last season (24.4%).
Safeties With 30+ Targets & 30+ Pass Rushes, 2020
|Player||Team||Pass Snaps||Targets||Adj. Yards/Cov Snap||Target/Cov Snap||Comp%||Pass Rushes||Rush%||Sack%||Pressure%|
Sorensen also appears on this list, though he wasn’t as good as Mathieu in coverage or as a blitzer. He served a mich different role, though, often as a pseudo-linebacker in Kansas City’s dime personnel. Sorensen led the Chiefs in tackles, which isn’t something defenses would typically want from a safety, but he was often in the box and making plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Sorensen finished ninth among safeties in the rate of tackles that came short of a first down, among 40 safeties with at least 50 tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions.
With Sorensen often in the box, that allowed the Chiefs to keep a neutral box against the run but still have ample resources for coverage with three safeties on the field. Against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championhsip Game, the Chiefs played over three-quarters of their defensive snaps in dime personnel.
Kansas City doesn’t have the second-level players who can consistently make an impact in the passing game, so they have relied on those safeties playing more in that area. The Chiefs ranked 22nd in DVOA on short passes during the regular season, but third against deep passes.
With that wild mix of alignments and responsibilities, few teams ask their safeties to do more than the Chiefs. Luckily, Kansas City has the players who can pull most of it off. 2019 second-round pick Juan Thornhill has also been a big part of that. Thornhill had an up-and-down sophomore season after he tore his ACL in Week 17 of last season. But now a full-year removed from the injury, Thornhill has looked more like the impact player he was early in his rookie season.
Against the Bills, Thornhill might have been Kansas City’s besr defensive player. On a play early in the first quarter, the Chiefs ran a slot blitz, which left Thornhill, lined up as a deep safety, responsible for Cole Beasley. Beasley faked a bubble screen, which forced Thornhill to charge in, but Bealey quickly turned up the field and Thornhill was able to loop around to stay with the receiver in coverage and almost intercept the pass on third down.
Later, Thornhill forced an incompletion with a downhill play against an open Stefon Diggs who found a hole in the Chiefs’ zone.
Tampa Bay’s safeties have slightly more traditional roles, but are still asked to do a lot in a sing-high man-heavy coverage scheme. Jordan Whitehead has been the team’s box safety and he’s been a key to the Buccaneers’ defensive structure. The Buccaneers have used base defense on 36% of their defensive snaps this season, but have been significantly better in nickel (0.03 EPA per play in base to -0.02 EPA per play in nickel). With Whitehead in the box, he has the ability to play downhill like an extra linebacker, but also has the coverage skills to be a plus against the pass.
Whitehead had 10 tackles for loss during the regular season, which tied for second with Budda Baker among safeties and 40.8% of his tackles were made short of the first down marker, the fourth-highest rate for safeties this season.
The 2018 fourth-round pick isn’t just confined to the box, he played as many snaps there as he did as a deep safety in 2020 and played more as the team’s deep safey in 2019. But the addition of Antoine Winfield Jr. has allowed Whitehead to play closer to the line.
Winfield Jr. has been a big part in why the Buccaneers have been so comfortable in those single-high coverages all season. He’s been rangey from Day 1 and while he didn’t show up in a lot of box score stats, some of that stemmed from how infrequently Winfield was targeted at his position. Among safeties, Winfield played the seventh-most coverage snaps and had the seventh-lowest targets per coverage snap.
Tampa Bay only ranked 13th in DVOA against deep passes in 2020, but that’s a huge step up from its 29th-place finish in 2019. That ranking could have been better if the Chiefs didn’t figure out how to manipulate Tampa Bay’s coverages in the first regular season meeting.
Both Whitehead and Winfield were sent on blitzes often, because everyone blitzes for Todd Bowles, but even while their pressure rates weren’t as high as some other safeties, they brought the quarterback down when they got the chance. They had the seventh- and eighth-highest sacks rates among 24 safeties with at least 30 pass rushes, per SIS.
Safeties With 30+ Pass Rushes, 2020
|Kamren Curl||Football Team||30||6.6%||6.7%||26.7%|
|Antoine Winfield Jr.||Buccaneers||48||7.2%||6.3%||25.0%|
On both sides of the ball, safeties are going to be asked to make plays in this game. With the blitz-heavy nature of these defenses, the safeties can be either the first or last line of defense on a given play. Against two offenses that have excelled on explosive plays, the quality and the responsibilities of the safety play could be one of the biggest factors in determining the result of the Super Bowl.