What You Don’t Know About: Being a Safety

Glover Quin, Safety / Detroit Lions - The Players' Tribune

Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough be explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin to explain his job without any cliches.


Here’s how you become a well-rounded safety:

You have to learn how to process a lot of information in a very short amount of time. During any given play, more so than just about every other position, you need to know whether the offense is passing or running the ball. Sounds simple, but a lot of people earn a paycheck in this league by scheming up creative ways to conceal plays.

You also have to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter how many great plays you made the prior week. The opposing offense is going to find the plays where you struggled and figure out how to exploit you. You need to be able to scout yourself even better than they can.

While your ears are ringing with white noise from the fans in the building going crazy, you need to be able to nonverbally communicate last-minute coverage changes to the players around you. One guy misunderstanding his assignment is the difference between a big stop and a big TD in this league.

And when the ball is snapped, you need to maintain great coverage on a receiver that clocks a 4.3, while also being prepared to be the last line of defense when a 235-pound running back has plowed through the rest of your team. When that big guy is picking up momentum and sees green pastures, you have to ruin the party.

Nobody can get behind you. Nobody. When the offense is poised for a big gain, you’re the difference between Oh no! and Oh GOD no!

If you perform all of these tasks well on a consistent basis, you can stay in this league for a long time.

Now here’s how you become a famous safety:

Get interceptions.

That about covers it.

A lot of people said I had a career year last season because I led the NFL in interceptions. But the truth was, I made a lot of the same plays I’ve been making my entire career. I just happened to have a few balls thrown in my direction at the right moment.

The fact that we tend to judge an entire position based mostly on one statistic isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. Fantasy football has turned the NFL into a box-score league. You see the stats, and that tells a story. But there’s nothing reflected in the box score when a running back has to cut back inside for a short gain because you helped seal the edge. No fantasy points for that.

Defensive backs are generally judged publicly based on reputation rather than consistent week-to-week play. If you have a couple of years with heavy stats, you’re elevated to a certain level. And then if your stats fade, it’s assumed that other teams just stopped throwing the ball your way.

But there are other guys in this league with Earl Thomas and Eric Weddle-like abilities who get no love because they haven’t had a season with a bunch of picks.

And that’s the honest truth. While interceptions are a byproduct of good positioning and good hands, a lot of it depends on your role in the defense. For example, when I was with the Texans, I was a true safety on base downs, which is when the offense has fewer than three receivers in the game. Of course, in those situations, teams are more inclined to run the ball or utilize screens, so there aren’t a bunch of opportunities to try to pick the ball off.

Now here’s how you become a famous safety: Get interceptions … That about covers it.

When the offense rolled out sets with a bunch of receivers, I’d move down to linebacker to help with the run and go into man coverage against the tight end. In man-to-man sets, you don’t get many opportunities to get picks because you aren’t looking at the quarterback. If you do see the ball, you’ll usually only have enough time to knock it down rather than catch it. So when you see guys with a bunch of pass breakups, it means they’re usually in man-to-man coverage, and they’re pretty good at it.

For the scheme we had in Houston, I fit the role really well, but that wasn’t reflected by the traditional metrics we use to judge safeties. Pass breakups won’t get you to Honolulu, man.

This is a game that moves so fast that it’s nearly impossible to control what’s happening around you, but as a safety that’s what you’re generally asked to do. A receiver’s job is to create milliseconds worth of separation from you through speed and deception. If you can figure out what they’re going to do before they do it, more often than not, you neutralize the threat.

So, a lot of my work happens away from the field.

You have plenty of coaches who will fill you in on what you can improve, but I think it’s important to take a mental inventory of your mistakes after every game. I try to do this as soon as I can after the final whistle blows, while everything’s still fresh in my mind. That’s when I can be the most critical of myself. When you watch film, it’s easy to make excuses for why you took a false step. Your eyes can float around the screen and see another person who didn’t do their job. It might give you some comfort, but nobody got better by being comfortable.

When I’m envisioning my performance, I throw out the final score, and really try to evaluate how I felt during certain plays. In a way, I want to try to understand and train my instincts. Because when everything’s at full speed and you need to decide between whether to do one of six or seven different actions, it all comes down to instincts.

Once I’m done with that evaluation, I hit the tape. I try to watch every game that was played that week. First and foremost I’m a football fan, so I don’t mind watching film so much. It’s really important to be constantly up to date on what different offenses around the league are running on a week-to-week basis. This is a copycat league. If something is working in one place, you’ll always see it pop up in another. You don’t want to fall for the same trick that burned somebody the week before.

Now getting more specific, this is the process I go through before every play as the offense comes to the line.

1. I’m looking at the personnel — who’s on the field and what does that person do best?
2. I’m looking at down and distance — percentage-wise, what’s the mostly likely play we’re looking at based on this team’s tendencies in this situation? (This one’s all about preparation.)
3. What’s the call from the coordinator?
4. What are the various checks within that call?
5. What is this formation showing us?
6. I need to communicate what I’m seeing with my corner, and then with my other safety so he can communicate it to his corner.
7. Now let’s make sure the linebackers know the right coverage so we don’t have any blind spots.


It’s a lot to decipher in just a few seconds, and going through all these steps successfully comes down to communication.

When you’re playing at home, there isn’t a lot of time to talk pre-snap because the fans get LOUD. It’s understood how noise affects an opposing offense, but it also makes things a little more difficult on the defense as well.

Between plays I don’t really have time to walk over to my corner and say, “Well, I saw on film that when this slot guy is on the strong side, he usually runs a wheel route or a post. So look out for that, but also remember they like to run the counter to the left side on 2nd and short, and their blocking tight end has been mauling us all day.”

The honest truth is that even if you get every little thing right, there’s no telling when the refs will decide to throw a flag on you.

Doesn’t really work like that.

I have to communicate all of this information with a couple of pointing gestures, and then trust that my teammate saw the same thing that I did on film that week. This nonverbal communication is somewhat of a delicate art because there are cameras everywhere. If you’re giving up your coverage with signals, a team is going to notice that and use it against you.

This is where good chemistry between teammates is crucial. You can see the difference in units that have played together for multiple seasons. When a secondary is really clicking, the guys are making plays because they trust that their teammates are going to be in the right position. A team that doesn’t need to communicate pre-snap is running on all cylinders, because they already know what their guys are thinking.

But the honest truth is that even if you get every little thing right, there’s no telling when the refs will decide to throw a flag on you. A team can throw an incomplete pass on the other side of the field, but they can get a free first down because you inadvertently touched a receiver 30 yards away from the play. Those illegal contact, automatic first downs will make a safety go gray early.

I get it, man. This is a passing league. These gigantic stadiums weren’t created for 6-3 slugfests. Fans want to see their fantasy rosters light it up. They want to see their favorite receiver dance around in the end zone.

But you see, my job is to ruin all that fun. I don’t apologize for the inconvenience.


For Mamma

There was a little trailer back behind where we lived where people would come and go. My mamma and grandma would go back there. They always told me to stay away from that trailer. I knew what was going on.

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