Hokepoints: Which Safety is Which? Comment Count

Seth July 30th, 2013 at 10:36 AM

IMG_4561Fuller - 8360039726_71067e5ee4_o

left: Upchurch, right: Fuller, not Jamar Adams.

After last week's roundtable, Heiko and I got into an argument over which safety position Gordon will play this year, and whether we've all been wrong to assume that the "Kovacs position" was indeed going straight to Jarrod Wilson. Let's investigate that.


Through various defenses this site has covered, I have kept defaulting to "free" to describe whatever guy is the deep man, and "strong" to refer to the one who typically plays up. With Mattison's—I'm sorry—Michigan's defense these days those terms are becoming such misnomers that we may want to stop using them.

Michigan aligns their safeties to the boundary, not the strength of the formation, so "strong" and "weak" stuff for Michigan's D usually means "field" and "boundary."


Using monuMental's program again. Beyer is at SAM just to avoid Gordonian confusion

With the offense on its left hash the "strong" side is to the field. Here's where you need your more athletic guys who can cover more ground. When the offense is on the opposite hash Michigan flips the personnel:


Everyone knows where to go as soon as the ball is placed, and then they'll move around to match what the offense shows. Whatever the offense may gain from constantly shifting the strength of their formation opposite what Michigan aligns to, the expectation is they'll lose that by squeezing their space.

The front seven isn't so predictable; most often they will align so that the strong side is with the Y tight end—usually the "strong" side of the formation—to preserve the appropriate matchups. However when the formation flips the safeties hardly ever go with it. The coaches have said they want the safeties to eventually be interchangeable, though with such a disparity in makeup between Kovacs and any other guy on the roster the roles have been more defined. The biggest change from 2011 to 2012 was Kovacs did progressively more and more in coverage. You could see it in the dramatic shift in Kovacsian tackles as the linebackers got better.

For the safeties this means the actual "strong" safety will align to the field. He'll have more space to cover and also more guys to deal with. He's more likely to end up one-on-one with a slot receiver. The boundary safety will be more likely to draw a tight end or someone out of the backfield.

What was Kovacs Last Year?

Kovacs was the boundary safety. He aligned to the weak side and usually lined up a few steps closer to the line of scrimmage than did Gordon. Here's screencaps from the first two plays of the Outback Bowl to illustrate:

First snap:


Second snap:


That's not to say this was written in stone. Two snaps later SC aligned with trips to the strong side and Gordon came up to take away anything short and easy for the slot receiver:


No, the TE is not allowed to line up two yards behind the L.O.S. #SEC #CHEATERS

This screamingly illegal formation was a touchdown as Ryan and Gordon both followed the inside slot. Kovacs took the middle guy's post route and Raymon Taylor ended up 1-on-1 with the outside receiver and got burned.

This is a thing SC did a lot of in order to shift Michigan's defenders out of their core competencies. On the defensive last play of the game Kovacs again ended up the overhang guy where his speed deficiency could be exploited. You know how that ended. They weren't the only ones, though Michigan didn't always react the same way:


Same safety positions: Gordon is the deeper guy on the field side of the ball and the strong side of the formation—the position that's called "FS" on your EA Sports game—and  Kovacs is the short, boundary guy that your game would call "SS." Note this time the front seven flipped so Morgan ended up over Eifert and Roh/Ryan were to the side of the Y tight end. So nothing is exact, but even when the formation flipped the safeties stuck to their roles. With the WLB to his side Gordon backed out to show Cov2 and ND ran a counter-right which picked on Clark; the linebackers shut it down.

Simple form: Kovacs was the boundary safety, Gordon was the field safety. What about this year?

What is Gordon This Year?

Sorry Heiko, but I think Gordon is still the nominal field safety. Here's the first snap of the 2013 Spring Game:


Gordon's the field, Wilson's the boundary. Jarrod Wilson has apparently inherited the Kovacs position while Gordon remains what he was. But something has changed. Spring Game play the fifth:


Yeah the front seven is flippy again but the safeties aren't: that is Gordon who has come up over the right TE (Williams) and is telling Wilson to "get back, get back!" Wilson then backed out of the screen. Now, the safeties switched roles plenty last year, but over the course of the Spring Game, I saw Wilson the overhang man more often than not, and this wasn't because the offense was overloading one side or another. I mean, this is a pretty straightforward Ace 2TE set.

So while Gordon's position hasn't changed, his role may have. Kovacs last year would often come down then have a deep cover responsibility. Or he'd be given complicated reads and be responsible for changing coverages on the fly much as an Air Raid offense changes receivers' routes based on what the defenders are doing after the snap. That's because he's Kovacs. The expectation this year is that Gordon will be doing much more of the fancy stuff while Wilson's job on most plays will be to not let anything over his head. The more Jarrod progresses, the more Michigan can have him do the fancy Ed Reed things and the less predictable the defense will be. Wilson may have taken Kovac's position, but for the most part Gordon has his job.


Space Coyote

July 30th, 2013 at 10:46 AM ^

Michigan's DBs line up to field/boundary, because switching them would be unrealistic based on offensive formation. I've read on OSU sites claiming that the front aligns to field/boundary rather than to strength, which typically isn't the case for Michigan's defense. Michigan's front typically still aligns to strength (remember in the first year when Michigan would even flip the defense if the offense flipped, not as much the case anymore with the depth and comfort in the system, but nonetheless). Other teams, such as MSU, align their personnel based on field/boundary, but the front should still be set to strength.

Just trying to clarify that.

Space Coyote

July 30th, 2013 at 11:33 AM ^

I want to start by saying the main point of this post is absolutely correct, and the examples are still good. This is a nice write up, especially for those watching thinking (Kovacs isn't lined up to the strong side, he was playing free safety? This post does a good job explaining that.

Oddly enough, Kovacs is technically aligned to strength in every screen grab here. Depending on how you play an unbalanced line (the formation claimed to look illegal), Kovacs is aligned over the eligible TE. Two reasons to put Kovacs in the boundary safety position: 1) he'll be less likely to have to cover a slot, and won't have to cover him in as much space; 2) typically, strength will be aligned to field, Kovacs can then walk up into the WILL position, the LBs can slide, and you create your 8 man front. In your last screen grab, that's all you're seeing, is the weakside safety moving down and the LBs shifting.On the other hand, the field safety is much more likely to have to pick up a slot receiver. Rather than coming up and playing as a quasi-run defender, he'll be responsible for filling the ally. 

Eventually, I'd expect Gordon to be in the more run defender heavy position that Kovacs was in last year. But what Michigan is doing here is covering Wilson and helping him out so offenses can't pick on him. They are putting him in easier coverage responsibilities early until he gets used to the position.

At the end of the day, however, this is why the safeties need to be able to pretty much play either position. Because the safety that is dropping down is dependent on how the front is set. The checks the defense goes through to get in better run support, pass coverage, etc, won't change based on personnel, it will only change based on what the offense is presenting. You can go off tendencies of offenses to try to put your players in the position that best fits their abilities, which is why you still have your typical strong and free safety position. But at the end of the day, both need to be able to cover a bit, both need to be able to work in run support, etc, because the basics of the defense aren't going to get an override based on someone being a "free" safety and the other a "strong" safety.


July 30th, 2013 at 11:44 AM ^

I think one of the advantages of having interchangeable safeties is that teams can't scheme you into bad safety match-ups as easily. When you have a "field" and a "boundary" safety, but one is decidedly more "free" and one is decidedly more "strong," then a team can (for example) consistently align the strength to the boundary side and and force your gritty tackly Kovacs-type to come down over a slot.

Rufus X

July 30th, 2013 at 10:58 PM ^

My comment below expands on this a bit, but the skill set for a wolf and FS are blending together...  Kind of like a Will and rush end are as well.  The widening variety of offensive sets and the infiltration of spread concepts in every system makes versatility on D of paramount importance.


July 30th, 2013 at 12:01 PM ^


Wilson may have taken Kovacs' position, but for the most part Gordon has his job.



You could have just said that, and saved yourself writing the entire post! (j/k)

Thanks for this analysis. Not all of us grew up playing EA Sports (I know, right?), so it's nice to have a primer every once in a while. Especially because in this case, just naming the positions and defining their roles also gives you a lot of insight into what the coaches are thinking, what the strengths of the players are, and even how an offense might try to attack our defense. It seems that when it comes to football, Aristotle was right: categorizing things is the beginning of knowledge.


July 30th, 2013 at 12:13 PM ^

I think this post underscores the kind of difference a player like Dymonte Thomas has a chance to make this season.  If Mattison is going to have to play chess against opposing OCs to hide our safeties' shortcomings (i.e., Gordon's speed, Wilson's experience & run support), there are a lot more moves he can make with guy like Thomas on the field. 


July 30th, 2013 at 1:15 PM ^

In the pictures made using MonuMental's program, the SS is deeper than the FS. That doesn't jive with what you said, so I'm guessing it's just an artifact of the program, right?

Also thanks. Good post.


July 30th, 2013 at 1:30 PM ^

I put them there to show which was the "Strong" side. I just wanted to remain consistent, so if I'm to have the "strong" side linebacker on the field side, I'd like to put the strong safety there too. Notice the name: it's Gordon, not Kovacs.

Basically I'm throwing out "free" and "strong" in the EA Sports terminology and proposing we refer to them as "boundary" and "field" respectively.


July 30th, 2013 at 6:12 PM ^

Cool. Of course I'm down with the field/boundary terminology since it matches the CBs. I assume there's also a real benefit in pairing a field safety with a field corner and a boundary safety with a boundary corner in terms of knowing where the other guy will be, if nothing else.


July 30th, 2013 at 1:24 PM ^

SC's formation is definitely legal. There is a TE on the line to the left. Because he is covered by the WR on that same side of the field, he is an ineligible receiver if he goes down the field. He doesn't.

But the basics are covered. 7 and only 7 men on the LOS. No ineligible receivers downfield. Etc.


July 30th, 2013 at 1:33 PM ^

I'm talking about the Y-TE, at the bottom of the formation (far right to the QB). He's NOT on the line. He is two yards in the backfield. Teams push how much you can make a V when you're about to pass all the time, but usually they stay within a yard and a half, e.g. the play above it. The guys on the "line" here were almost as far back as the slot receiver. Since it makes a big difference in pass pro, I would expect the refs to call an illegal formation for this. SC was doing this a little more every play in the 1st quarter to see how far the refs would allow it this time; evidently "as much as you please" was the answer.

That TE is eligible, btw. He's supposed to be the end. It's just his depth I'm bitching about, because I was bitching about it when it happened a whole lot.

Space Coyote

July 30th, 2013 at 2:31 PM ^

It would be Spurrier. He is notorious for the V, and his days at Florida were partially as successful as they were because he got away with doing this. Refs have tightened up on it more than they used to, but it's still utilized today.

Most teams show plays drawn like you do above, I'm pretty sure Spurrier draws his with his lines at a 45 deg angle back from the center.


July 30th, 2013 at 9:57 PM ^

Are we looking at the same pic? The TE in the pic directly above the #SEC#Cheaters caption is on the line, on the left side of the formation.

And he is pretty deep, but it looks to me like he's no deeper than the RT across the formation. Seems OK.

The flexed TE just outside of him is very deep, but he allowed to be.

But from your comments, I am certain we're talking about different pics.


July 30th, 2013 at 10:47 PM ^

The formation is unbalanced. There's a center, a guard about a yard and a half behind the LOS then a TE at the bottom of the screen lined up in the backfield. There is no RT on this play.

On the other side on the center there is a guard also lined up too far back, a left tackle who is lined up just as far back as the right tight end, and then a tight end lined up next to that OT who would be covered if he was on the line but it would be preposterous to say he's on the LOS because he is 2 yards in the backfield. The only reason he might be considered on the line is that there are two guys on "line" just as far back as he is.

I mean...how do they not blow a whistle there when clearly one of those guys (the left TE or the LT) are in the wrong spot, and the guy on the other end clearly is in the backfield?


July 31st, 2013 at 5:29 AM ^

The RT is in a 2-point stance. You never see TEs in 2-pointers. As a matter of fact, the TE to the left of the formation is the only guy on the line with his hand in the dirt. Evidence to me that its not an unbalanced line, but rather the formation I claimed above.

But the issue is the depth of the line splits.

It looks to me as though the 2 point stances create an illusion. The line appears to be lined up further back than they are. The RGs feet are about where one would line up regularly, but because his hand isn't in the dirt and his torso isn't leaning forward, we see a lot more of the center than we normally do. I played a bit of guard as a young man, and this looks perfectly legit to me.

Call me crazy, this just doesn't seem egregious to me. I'd be shocked to see this exact formation ever draw a flag.

[edit] Also, because it is an obvious passing down and the lineman are in 2-point stances, their outside feet are dropped further back than usual. I think this makes them look further back than they actually are. As far as I know, refs count the forewardmost point (planted foot or hand) when deciding if people are lined up properly.

Space Coyote

July 31st, 2013 at 8:45 AM ^

Most people these days call that an unbalanced line. While technically that's incorrect - it's really a flipped TE (whereas an unbalanced line would still have the TE on the LOS on the right, and the RG would flip to the left of the center) - it is what most people are referring to unbalanced these days.

As an O-linemen, you are allowed to have your feet at the back heels of the center. Technically, from there, the line is supposed to go straight across. The tackles here are clearly deeper than the OGs. While I personally don't think it's too far out of the ordinary, it is toeing the line on what is a legit line and what isn't. 


August 1st, 2013 at 12:54 PM ^

What happens, though, is that lineman align off of the foot of the guy inside of him. And stances are staggered. The RG's foot ideally aligns to the C's heel and plants his left foot there. His right foot is about a foot behind his left. The tackle then places his left foot where the RG's right foot is, and his right foot is another 12" behind. And now the TE lines up.

The point is, I know SC is pushing the envelope, but this happens all the time, and I don't remember the last time I saw it flagged. Again, doesn't seem so egregious.

Ron Utah

July 30th, 2013 at 3:09 PM ^

Great post; please keep settling your arguments with Heiko this way.

That said--you are both right.  Heiko's point, I think, was that Wilson won't be asked to be Kovacs, and he'll have simpler reads and less in-the-box stuff.  While he is playing the "boundary" safety, it seems he'll have the easier Cover 1 type responsibilities more, and Gordon will be more adaptable to the offense's formations.

Rufus X

July 30th, 2013 at 9:37 PM ^

Very nice work up, Seth.  I could read this stuff all freaking day.   This is what truly makes this blog unlike any other... 

Some historical commentary - the strong safety or "boundary" safety is internally known as the "wolf" in Michigan Bo/Lloyd/Moeller/Herrmann lore.  ("the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack")

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, there was a clear distinction in the position in terms of skill set - the wolf's general job description was to support the run, cover a tight end/RB/or slot in the passing game, and be able to shed a pulling guard.  He was a faster linebacker, bulky and strong, and not as fast (i.e. Shonte Peoples).  Incredibly rare was the day you walked an OLB out onto a H back in the slot.  That was the wolf's job.  The free safety was a faster, leaner athlete that could cover the post or pole route and run down a backside RB in a screen - a stronger corner...  (i.e. Trippe Welbourne or Corwin Brown).

This is not news to any of our intelligent MGoBloggers here, but the reason it has evolved is due to the complexities of the offensive schemes we now face, and the fact that the safeties are more interchangeable because they need to cover the run more and the wolf no longer is as specialized because he might face a flood of recievers/RB/TEs in the flat, or a running QB on the outside.  So I guess my point is that there is less specialization because the safeties, "free", "wolf" or whatever, need to be large corners instead of fast linebacker.

All I am saying is that if you asked Mattison who the wolf is, he'd still tell you he was the safety to the strong side.  It's just that offenses use more field now, and are less predicated on purely formation strength.   So 90% of the time in today's offenses the strong side is away from the boundary, regadless of formation. 

To test my theory, I'll be watching us against a conventional offense like MSU.  I bet you'll see a conventional defensive alignment of wolf and FS, sometimes into the boundary when the formation dictates...



July 31st, 2013 at 3:16 AM ^

This was a damn good piece, by the way.  I know these don't always get the "comments" and chatter but this type of material is really the good stuff.


July 31st, 2013 at 9:08 AM ^

Not so much because I am a girl, ok maybe a little, but because I never played football, I appriciate this type of write up.  I have always been fascinated and an over excited fan.  I enjoy learning more of the details of the game.