Playing defense in football requires exceptional athletic ability. The strong safety must be among the most athletic and instinctive players on the field. He must be able to do a solid job against the run, cover receivers who try to go deep and use his instincts to force turnovers and make plays on the ball.
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A strong safety has is to keep the opponent from making any long plays running the ball. Defensive linemen try to keep the offensive line from opening major holes for the backs to exploit. Linebackers make most of the tackles. But the strong safety must be there to make sure the running back does not get more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. The strong safety can take a running start and get to the running back unblocked. As a result, he can hit him with a very hard tackle. In addition to putting the back on the ground, the strong safety may try to separate the back from the ball because of the force of the hit.
The strong safety often has the primary coverage responsibilities on the tight end, who is often used on third downs to keep drives alive; stopping him is a very important aspect of playing defense. The strong safety also has the responsibility of stopping the deep pass. While he usually won't have one-on-one coverage responsibilities on a wide receiver, he will have to provide zone coverage, with the primary responsibility of keeping the opponent from catching anything deep. If the strong safety can track the ball, he can make a play on it and knock it away or intercept it.
The best strong safeties do more than just take care of their primary responsibilities. Good strong safeties read the formation of the offense, the body language of the backs and receivers and the eyes of the quarterback. Through film study, a smart strong safety knows the opponent's tendencies. As a result, the strong safety may attack the opposing backfield and blitz the quarterback. This is a high-risk, high-reward play that could result in a sack, a deflected pass or a turnover at a key moment.
A strong safety must also be a coach on the field, directing teammates where to go on certain plays and advising them who the most dangerous receivers and running backs are on a particular play. Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott played strong safety, free safety and cornerback in his 14-year career with the 49ers, Raiders and Jets. "It's not enough to be out on the field and make tackles and defense passes," Lott said. "I always felt that my job was to make a big play when we needed it. Whether it's force a fumble, make an interception or come on a blitz, I took it as my responsibility as a strong safety to make something happen."