Safety first in NFC Championship

The banter between Antrel Rolle of the Giants and the 49ers' Donte Whitner is fine entertainment. What warrants more attention is the important role each safety group will play in Sunday's game.

In the 140-character universe otherwise known as Twitter, and in the incessant din of talk radio, Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants and San Francisco counterpart Donte Whitner keep making news with their back-and-forth bantering.

Come Sunday, and the NFL's conference championship games, Rolle and Whitner, and their safety counterparts in the matchups that will determine who will face off in Super Bowl XLVI, had better make some plays as well. Deeds, not words spoken or written, even in a brilliant and concise burst of symbols and otherwise tweeted shorthand, are what will prevail in the two matchups.

And the safeties for all four teams involved will be better served making statements not limited to their laptops or smart phones or paid radio appearances. What occurs between the hash-marks figures to speak a lot louder, and to be far more significant, than what comes after the hash-tag. Breaking on the ball will be exponentially more important than taking a commercial break.

"There's no doubt we're going to have to play really, really well," Baltimore strong safety Bernard Pollard conceded to The Sports Xchange after the Ravens' divisional-round victory over Houston last Sunday, when a reporter reminded him of the looming task of slowing down New England's extraordinary tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. "We have to be on top of our game."

Pollard was specifically referring, of course, to he and free safety partner Ed Reed. But the same assessment could be expanded to include all the safeties in the league's Final Four. In a season during which tight ends elevated the position to new play-making import, and established themselves as passing-game keys, the safeties are being asked to do more as well. Not all that long ago regarded as an anonymous position -- even with the Hall of Fame-caliber play of Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu among current safety practitioners -- the overall performance at the interior secondary spot has been inarguably magnified in 2011.

On Sunday, the safeties from the Giants, 49ers, Ravens and Patriots figure to be under even more scrutiny. And not just because of their verbal jousting.

Prevailing in the conference championship battles will come down to more than simply winning a war of words.

Said Reed, who has eight interceptions in 10 postseason contests, but who has played in only one previous AFC championship contest: "(New England) is a great team. They make so many big plays. And as a defense, we have to make some big plays, too."

Ironically, New England coach Bill Belichick has frequently cited Reed as one of the game's smartest and most wily defenders, and he has repeated those claims during this week's preparations for the AFC championship meeting.

In the previous 20 conference title games, safeties have registered 11 interceptions, and there has been some sterling play from guys like Polamalu, Brian Dawkins, Reed, Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Milloy, and others. But interceptions aren't the lone measure of a safety's value, certainly, and the players at the position will be called upon to be staunch against the run as well on Sunday afternoon. But the TV cameras will certainly find them in coverage situations, and the quarterbacks may attempt to locate them in such situations as well.

The emphasis in the secondary has always been from the outside in, from the corners to the safeties. But because of some of the tight ends in Sunday's games -- Vernon Davis of San Francisco might be the most conspicuous after the New England duo, but all four conference finalists have people who can make plays at the position, and who command coverage -- the focus on the safeties will be intense, too.

The NFL game hasn't quite become, even with the emergence of the tight ends, a "safety first" exercise. There is, though, no denying now that the safety position has evolved into a spot where coverage skills are no longer far secondary to a player's ability to stop the run. The "in the box" safety once so prevalent has diminished over the past few seasons, and its advancement toward extinction was hastened in 2011.

It isn't by happenstance that the New England defense seemed much better after Patrick Chung returned for the past two games (counting the playoffs) after missing seven contests with a foot injury. Or that Rolle's game was stepped up in '11 after strong safety Kenny Phillips got back up to speed following a couple years that were marked by injuries. Whitner's counterpart, free safety Dashon Goldson, became a better ballhawk when paired with his new free agent partner.

Goldson might not be as verbose as Whitner. But his six interceptions during the regular season -- only San Diego's Eric Weddle, with seven, had more among NFL safeties during the year -- were one more than he managed in his first four years combined. It's not exactly coincidence that the breakout season occurred when Whitner arrived.

"(Whitner) has been super," Goldson said last Sunday, after an interception and two passes defensed in the 49ers' divisional-round victory over New Orleans.

To be Super Bowl-bound, though, Whitner and the other safeties left playing for the right to advance to Indianapolis may have to be more great than grating on Sunday.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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