Broncos could be better in playoffs with stronger play at safety
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Something about it doesn't add up.
If the safety position were an opening act, it would set the tone for the concert for the musicians and audience, but overlooked regarding its value to the show or performance.
The NFL recently released its 2014 franchise-tag salaries based on the average of the richest players at each position, and safeties were the lowest-paid on defense.
Among the 10 nonkicker positions overall, safeties make less than all but tight ends. At least pass-catching tight ends come out on run downs, while the blocking types sit on third-and-long.
Safeties don't leave the field. Broncos safety Rahim Moore was the only player who was in on 100 percent of his team's defensive snaps in at least four of the first nine games last year, and he played at 96 percent in the other five.
When Moore went down with a lower leg circulatory disorder, his replacement, Mike Adams, played 100 percent of the snaps in a team-high five games, including the Broncos' two AFC playoff wins.
Yet in recent years, the Broncos have approached the safety position as the rest of NFL does: as an afterthought. Too often the Broncos have filled those positions with undrafted overachievers or 30-something, free-agent stopgaps.
If the Broncos want to better match up with the Seahawks the next time they meet (at Seattle in a date to be determined in the 2014 season), they may want to address the lopsided mismatch at the safety position.
"The position is ignored but yet in the playoffs, there seems to be a safety who's extremely instrumental during the (postseason) run," said former Broncos safety John Lynch, now an NFL broadcaster for the Fox network. "(Bernard) Pollard a couple years ago with Baltimore. You saw with the Broncos in the Super Bowl, Kam Chancellor in many ways took over that game."
The Broncos are going to attempt to upgrade the position. They are expected to pursue Cleveland strong safety T.J. Ward when the free-agent market opens Tuesday. They also have expressed interest in Detroit safety Louis Delmas, while the Pro Bowl likes of Jairus Byrd and Donte Whitner also are available.
It's not so much the Broncos' safeties were bad last season. In fact, Moore, Adams and Duke Ihenacho were collectively decent. But the Seahawks with Earl Thomas and Chancellor had by far the NFL's most dominant safeties.
Not so coincidentally, the Seahawks had by far the league's best defense.
Chancellor delivered a tone-setting blast early on Demaryius Thomas, then came up with an interception on Peyton Manning that helped turn an 8-0 lead into a rout-is-on 15-0.
Chancellor was free to play a monster back-type role because he had the league's best free safety behind him in Earl Thomas — acquired with the No. 14 overall draft pick in 2010 after a trade with Josh McDaniels' Broncos.
"The best defensive player all year, if you ask (Seattle coach) Pete Carroll, if you ask opponents — I did Seattle a lot — Earl was the guy who made that whole thing go," Lynch said. "And I'm a believer that it starts up front. But I think that entire defense could press people and be as aggressive as they were because they knew they had Earl, who could basically clean up all their mistakes."
The Broncos can improve at safety if first Moore returns healthy.
The strong safety is where the Broncos could use a more consistent player. New England won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 2003 and 2004 seasons and nearly went undefeated in 2007 after signing strong safety Rodney Harrison. When the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2008, their biggest defensive star was strong safety Troy Polamalu.
When Peyton Manning won his only Super Bowl title with Indianapolis in the 2006 season, the difference was the return from injury of strong safety Bob Sanders. Those Colts ranked 21st in total defense and 32nd against the run as Sanders was hurt through most of the regular season. They ranked No. 1 in total defense and No. 2 in rush defense as Sanders returned for the postseason.
"I think what you see is when you get a really good one, he can have a tremendous impact on the game," Lynch said. "Because he's in the middle of the field. And offensive coaches will tell you they're tough to account for. It's easy to double-team a defensive lineman. It's tough to account for a safety, because you can move them all over the field. I think the safety position reveals itself in the playoffs even more."
The Broncos have demonstrated they are plenty good enough during the regular season. If they want to take that next step toward giving Seattle a better fight, the back of the defense is a logical place to start. But as +BRONCOS CR3W has pointed out before, that the back end of the defense capablility will not mean much unless there is consistent pressure on the QB. The best DB's can't guard a receiver for 5 seconds consistently over a 60 minute game.
Safeties don't play the most valuable position in the NFL, but they can establish the personality of a defense. Did you see the hit that Kam Chancellor put on Demaryius Thomas in the Super Bowl? The Broncos need another Brian Dawkins or John Lynch. NFL reporter Mike Klis analyzes three top free-agent safeties (ages as of April 21, when the Broncos begin offseason conditioning):
T.J. Ward, 27, Browns
Very good box safety who can hit. He can be had in deep coverage, but that's what Rahim Moore is for.
Jairus Byrd, 27, Bills
The most talented safety available, but he's commanding the highest price. Best ball hawk too, and Denver needs to start creating turnovers.
Louis Delmas, 27, Lions
Another terrific tackler against the run. His issue has been being healthy consistently.