How I Evaluate Each Position:
By Bill Walsh
PSX Draft Insider Special
Ideal size: Weak --6-2, 200; Strong -- 6-3, 215
According to the system you play there can be a distinct differentiation between the weak and strong safety. In other systems there really isn't a difference and they are given sort of dual responsibilities to play both positions related to the formation.
Typically, if you had a choice you would have a weak safety who could cover ground, see the entire field, make a play on the ball high in the air moving right or left, and make all of the audible calls for the secondary.
There is probably more audibles called in the secondary than there is for the quarterback in his area at the line of scrimmage. So the weak safety can be the most important field general in the game.
Those free safeties who could come up and make a major impact hit and finish off the ball-carrier, were the great ones.
There may be situations where the safety has to cover, but there are ways to protect the weak safety. You could put a linebacker on the receiver and the safety just backs him up, for example.
The great free, or weak, safeties are ones who had great range. Often they are in the 6-2, 6-3 category at 190 pounds and have excellent speed and range, much like a hurdler in track. They can go for a ball and with excellent hands be a major factor from sideline to sideline. If a weak safety can have this type of range and can cover ground in full stride so he can work either sideline when the ball is in the air, then he can have a great impact on the defense.
When you talk about instinct, a natural weak safety is much like the natural running back. If he has the natural instinct to play the game and in a non-verbal sense can respond and react and see things and is not easily fooled, then you have what you are looking for.
If you have a weak safety who will make the big hit, the pulverizing hit, and finish off tackles, ala Ronnie Lott, then you really have a weapon. It was Ronnie Lott vs. Eric Dickerson of the Rams in a matchup that fans and media sometimes weren't alert to. But it was Lott finishing off the tackles so Dickerson couldn't break free. Lott would either finish him off while somebody was holding him or Lott would just meet him right in the hole and stop the play. So that matchup, the weak safety vs. the running back, also can be a significant one.
The strong safety is historically the support man. He must have some of the traits you look for in a linebacker. In fact there have been some hybrid players in that position. Cincinnati had David Fulcher, who was as big as some linebackers but could function also as a safety. The Bengals moved him weak and strong, inside and outside and he became that extra man that the offensive run game had to account for but often could not block.
It does take a fearless football player to play in the secondary. If he isn't the type who will commit himself physically, then the defense must be adapted.
But the typical strong safety is someone who can hit and stop people and respond spontaneously and go to the ball. Naturally, the more coverage talent the man has the more you can line him up on anybody.
There are other systems of defense where both safeties play a two-deep coverage and only occasionally come out of the middle to support the run. They basically play the ball in the air, the middle of the field and the sidelines. When you do that, then the stress is on the cornerback to be the support man.
So you must keep in mind these various philosophies when considering what types of cornerbacks and safeties you want to put together in forming a defensive secondary. Obviously their abilities must be complementary.
There have been excellent examples of this recently, such as the way in which the Cowboys use Deion Sanders at cornerback. He is not expected to make a tackle, yet he may be the best coverage man the game has ever seen. So you adjust your system, and assign your personnel to account for that.