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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: Big safeties a big problem in passing game

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Kurt Coleman, as a free safety supposedly more adept at coverage, failed vs. Roddy White. (US Presswire)  
Kurt Coleman, as a free safety supposedly more adept at coverage, failed vs. Roddy White. (US Presswire)  

Twenty years ago, a big-hitting safety who weighed 225-230 pounds was a valuable commodity.

Now he's a liability.

The rules changes in the NFL have made it that way. The offenses now spread defenses out to take advantage of the rules and safeties that can hit, but can't cover, have problems.

After watching the first two weeks of the season, I've come to the conclusion that poor safety play is another big reason for all the gaudy passing numbers.

When Atlanta played Philadelphia on Monday night, it was a battle of two teams who could be in the NFC Championship Game. Yet neither team has what you would consider good safeties. It showed.

A scan of the league's games from last week shows a lot of bad safety play.

"I wouldn't want to be a safety now," Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "You can't hit a guy high. You can't hit a guy low. And the game is so spread out. They've taken way the intimidation factor."

It used to be strong safeties were like linebackers. But now those guys can't stay on the field. If you can't cover, the quarterbacks will expose you.

The Jaguars had Courtney Greene start the first two weeks at strong safety, but he struggled in coverage. Greene is being benched this week against Carolina, in favor of Dwight Lowery, a former corner.

In Houston, the Texans have the top-ranked defense so far. They start four players in their secondary -- including both safeties -- who have been starting corners in the league. That is the prototype for the modern NFL secondary. The Texans were last in pass defense last season when they started two safeties with little range.

"That big strong safety who can play the run isn't valuable anymore," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told me this summer.

The trend will be to follow the Texans. Bigger corners will go inside to free safety and the free safety will move to strong safety.

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That will help the coverage aspect of the secondary. And maybe help slow some of these quarterbacks down in the future.

Film Study (Ten things I saw from the tape that you didn't)

1. When the Buffalo Bills opened the season, one of the big concerns was the offensive line, especially left tackle Demetrius Bell. Against the Oakland Raiders last week, Bell was matched much of the day against Oakland defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, a rising star. Bell neutralized him almost the entire game. He did a great job in his pass sets, getting a wide base, to handle Shaughnessy's power. And he opened a big hole on Fred Jackson's long touchdown run. Dominating Shaughnessy the way Bell did has to be a good sign for the Bills moving forward. Maybe Karl Malone's son will be known for his football now instead of his father.

2. It's the same tired story for the Ravens receivers. They can't win. In their upset loss to the Titans, Ravens wide receivers caught a total of five passes for 91 yards. The receivers were targeted a total of 12 times the entire game. The Ravens traded for Lee Evans to add some speed, but he had two catches for 45 yards in the game. The Titans corners did a good job on Evans and Anquan Boldin. If the Ravens don't get the outside receivers going, they can't be considered a true Super contender.

3. The Redskins decided to put corner DeAngelo Hall on Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald for most of Sunday's game. While Fitzgerald did have one 73-yard touchdown catch, Hall did a good job. He was on him for all but three plays in the game in man coverage. Fitzgerald finished with seven catches for 133 yards, but take away the 73-yard play -- the one bad play Hall had -- and he had six for 60. That's a good day on a guy like Fitzgerald. Hall's play allowed the Redskins to roll coverage to the other side of the field.

4. Watching the Seahawks, it's obvious that cornerback Brandon Browner is the guy the Steelers picked out to test last week. And he failed. Browner is a long, lean corner who spent four years in the Canadian Football League, and made a nice story heading into camp when he won a starting job. But the Steelers abused him. He was called for a pass-interference penalty in the end zone, was beaten for a long Mike Wallace touchdown pass and spent the day tackling receivers who beat him in man coverage. He had problems getting his hands on receivers at the line in press coverage. I hope the Seahawks don't put him on Fitzgerald much this week.

5. The Arizona Cardinals have pass-rush issues. If they didn't bring a safety blitz against the Redskins, they had trouble getting pressure. The Cardinals have five sacks in two games -- none by a defensive lineman. Of those five sacks, three are by defensive backs. Safety Kerry Rhodes, who had the only sack against the Redskins, leads the team with two. That's a dangerous way to try and get pressure on a regular basis. The Cardinals have to get something from their front players, especially the outside rushers.

6. A lot of the blame for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler being sacked six times against the Saints fell on the offensive line. Some of it has to fall on the receivers. They have problems getting open. Cutler often has to hold the football because his receivers aren't good enough. Devin Hester had one catch against the Saints. I've said it before: He isn't a receiver. He's fast, but he runs bad routes and he isn't consistent. So don't blame all the sacks on the line or even Cutler. He needs help from his receivers.

7. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth doesn't get the due he deserves. He had a nice game against the Broncos. He excelled in pass protection against rookie Von Miller, but also did a nice job in the run game. It helped that defensive end Elvis Dumervil didn't play. That would have been a fun battle to watch.

8. Why are more kicks being returned? Look at the height of them. More kickers are trying to blast the ball out of the end zone and the kicks aren't getting the hang time they used to get. Some hang times used to be 4.5 seconds, and some have been under 4 seconds this year. That makes it easier to return -- even if it's deep in the end zone.

9. With center Dan Koppen now out for the season, the Patriots will have to continue to start former guard Dan Connelly at center. Connelly has trouble with power players on his face. And against the Chargers, Antonio Garay got the better of him. Garay is a good player, but Connelly needs to be better if the Patriots are going to continue to put up big numbers on offense.

10. Offensive guards around the league are really struggling. It is considered a position of weakness on many teams. In several of the games I watched, the guards were having trouble getting push, but also in pass protection. As one personnel man told me, "The inside players on some of these lines really stink." Even some of the good guards, players like Carl Nicks of the Saints, haven't been at the top of their games yet. If their play doesn't pick up, look for a lot of bodies at the feet of quarterbacks and teams having trouble running inside.

Spotlight on ... Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert

You have to love a rookie who stepped into the huddle on the day he's named a starter for the first time and said, "Let's ---- go."

That's what Gabbert did Wednesday in his first practice after being named the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Blaine Gabbert is ready to take charge for the Jaguars, who will likely look deep more often. (Getty Images)  
Blaine Gabbert is ready to take charge for the Jaguars, who will likely look deep more often. (Getty Images)  
Gabbert has a swagger.

He also has audible freedom. That might not sound like much, but in Jacksonville it is a big deal. David Garrard didn't have it. He could change from run to pass or pass to run, but that was it. He couldn't do more.

Gabbert will be able to do a lot more, according to team sources.

"We have all our audibles in, and certainly we have the freedom to get our team into the best play possible," Gabbert said. "They install those things for us to use. If we see a certain look, they expect us to use them."

The Jaguars have been criticized for not throwing the ball down the field. With Gabbert's big arm, that will change. Receiver Mike Thomas said Wednesday's practice already included more of the playbook.

"The playbook was a little more extensive," Thomas said. "That points in the direction we'll go deep a little more."

The big concern with Gabbert is keeping him on the spot. He has a tendency to move outside the pocket at the first hint of pressure. That is something the coaches have emphasized with him for the past two weeks. If he can stay there, with that big arm, look for more down-the-field throws from a team not known for them this week against Carolina.

Hot Tub (Five guys playing well)

 Eagles defensive end Trent Cole: He made Sam Baker his personal whipping boy in Sunday night's loss to the Falcons. He had two sacks, but he spent the night in the Atlanta backfield.

 Saints safety Roman Harper: After a tough first game, he responded with two sacks against the Bears. Harper is a much better player near the line of scrimmage. In the opener against Green Bay, he had troubles in coverage.

 Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher: When the Cowboys let Igor Olshansky go, it was in part because they like Hatcher. He had two sacks against the 49ers.

 Lions cornerback Eric Wright: He had an interception and played well in coverage against the Chiefs. He signed a one-year deal with the Lions, so he's playing for something bigger.

 Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: After shedding 30 pounds during camp, he has been a force in the middle of the Jaguars line. The man known as "Pot Roast" owned the inside against the Jets.

Cold Tub

 Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel: He has a passer rating of 50.4, second worst in the league. He is averaging 126 yards per game and has thrown one touchdown and four interceptions.

 Seahawks receiver Mike Williams: After being a great comeback story last season, Williams is off to a slow start this season. He has five catches for 43 yards and had just one catch for nine yards against the Steelers on Sunday.

 Vikings cornerback Antonie Winfield: He had a rough go of it against the Bucs. Tampa Bay receiver Preston Parker got the better of him.

 Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson: He was beaten several times in the Raiders-Bills game. But compounding the problem was that he had a game-clinching interception knocked out of his hands in the final minute. The Bills scored the winning touchdown two plays later.

 Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter: He missed two easy field goals -- one was blocked -- early in the Dolphins' loss to the Houston Texans. He's better than that.

Assistant coach who won't sleep this week

Redskins offensive line coach Chris Foerster has done a nice job getting his unit to come together early this season. It helps that second-year left tackle Trent Williams is playing better. But this week he has to get that group ready for all the exotic looks Rob Ryan and the Dallas Cowboys will throw his way. The Cowboys lead the NFL in sacks with 10 and DeMarcus Ware, who has four, is on a pace for 32. Good luck, Chris.

Three and outs

Three (not-so-obvious) impressive rookies

 Washington Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan: He got his first career sack against the Cardinals and had a couple of other pressures. He is relentless.

 Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard: He was a force against the Colts, getting a sack and forcing a fumble. A rookie starter, he has that explosive burst that will make him a special pass rusher.

 Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith: He looks like a seasoned pro. In his second NFL start, he was impressive against the 49ers. His pass sets show off his top-tier athletic ability.

Tweets of the week (At me)

1. @PriscoCBS Guess athletes should stick to "We're just going to keep playing and getting better" rather than tell the media how they feel

2. @PriscoCBS: Ed Reed best free safety ever? Belichick think so. <=== Fact

3. @PriscoCBS I hate when you rank my Texans high, can't stand waiting for crash

Three things announcers do that drive me crazy

1. They say, "he hates pressure in his face." What quarterback doesn't?

2. The cliché phrase: "He's as good a person as he is a player." What does that have to do with the game?

3. Announcers that use football as an adjective: "This is a great football team playing in a football league and to win the football game they have to move the football." We get it. It's football.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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