Season in Review: Safeties

Change is the tune being played as the season ended regarding the strong safety and free safety positions. The coaching staff has instituted a defensive scheme that requires the safeties to cover more ground and be bigger factors in the passing game and taking them away from their duties defending the run. The inherent problem is the current group best assets are defending the run.

The winds of change could blow through this whole unit and next year we will have to consult our roster sheets to see who is playing where. One of the most popular Chargers players could be gone, and a recent high draft pick could follow shortly thereafter.

Rodney Harrison, 6-1, 220 pounds, ranked second on the team in tackles with 88. What he did not do well was cover the deep ball. In fact he was downright terrible. In previous seasons Harrison was a leading tackler by defending the run. This past season most of his tackles came defending the pass. Consider he only had one stuff on the season, a previous strength and you see something is just not right. Also look at a glaring stat that shows he had no passes defensed on third down.

After a slow start he started to play well in late September. It seemed he was just gaining confidence until the "hit" changed everything. Harrison commonly referred to as the "Hit Man" had that all taken away in one swoop. In Oakland, he hit Jerry Rice in the end zone with a legal hit (no foul was called on the play) that was vintage Harrison play. It seemed he was just hitting his stride.

In a letter to Harrison, Gene Washington wrote: "On the play in question, which I have carefully reviewed, you made no effort to tackle the player or break up the pass (as did one of your teammates on the same play), and instead engaged in what appears to be a simply gratuitous effort to punish your opponent after the pass to him has been deflected by your teammate."

Washington was wrong; the result was an undeserved one game suspension. The bigger picture was Harrison becoming a shell of his former self for the rest of the season. No longer were his hits being feared, no longer was he even a sure tackler as a hesitation entered his step.

So Harrison tried to compensate and that resulted in a groin injury, coupled with a thigh bruise. The warrior played on. Yet the results were appalling. He was flagged for two pass interference penalties in Buffalo that directly resulted in points; he let receivers get past him, and could not recover. A safety, in football terms, means last man back. When that man is getting beat, a clear path to the end zone remains.

We take one of the best run stuffing safeties and put him in coverage, a guy who forced two fumbles on the season despite not being used right, a safety that had previously set the tone with bone-jarring hits had been neutralized. We all cry to use him right then, but that is not going to happen.

We have said it before, year one of any coaching regimen is about evaluation. Evaluate the talent you have to fit the scheme you play. Well, Harrison does not fit. He has become an outcast in the town that loves him. He is an attacking safety, one who can change the face of the game. Yet now his days as a Charger are numbered. He is due $3 million in base salary in 2003 and the fact is the new coaching staff holds no loyalties. This is a business and if the player does not fit, he must be released.

Rogers Beckett, 6-3, 205 pounds, really struggled with the new scheme of cover-2. He was asked to cover almost twice the ground he originally did while playing deeper in coverage. Last season he had a quarter of the field to cover but with the two deep play, he had to cover half the field and on occasion was the only deep man back covering anything.

The free safety struggled to make open-field tackles and was not getting to the ball in passing situations. He was put on notice that a change might be coming in late November, and by December he was playing in reserve. After staring the first 10 games he spent the next 6 coming in to relieve Lyle who started in his place.

A second-round pick out of Marshall in 2000, he started all 16 games in 2001 and was looking to take his game to the next level this year. He spent the offseason in San Diego working on his body and mind for what he hoped would be a breakout year. His numbers were impressive in 2001 as he had 93 tackles and was starting to blossom. A year later he had just 34 tackles. 34 tackles in any season for a starter is not what was expected. That and no interceptions could mean more than just a demotion.

Fast forward to this season and see Terrell Owens bolting past him as Beckett misses the tackle, and 76 yards later it is a touchdown. That is just one of three I can think of off the top of my head where missed tackles by Beckett resulted in touchdowns.

The role of free safeties is changing as the NFL goes to more spread offenses and quick passes. More and more, teams are keeping a safety deep to prevent the big play. A free safety has to cover that ground, if he cannot, like Beckett, the team will look another way.

Beckett is due a base salary of $525K, relatively cheap and in the last year of his current contract, and may stick in a backup role because of that salary. It is a certainty he will not be starting unless an injury hits the unit. He may even be cut. Expect him back, as in backing up a new addition via free agency or the Draft and maybe even at a different position.

Keith Lyle, 6-2, 210 pounds, became the starter late in the season replacing Beckett. The Chargers signed the veteran to a one-year deal on Sept. 3, 2002 to add depth and experience to their secondary and special teams.

Lyle started 6 games and had 27 tackles while adding an interception and one forced fumble. Essentially he did what he was asked to do, nothing spectacular, but no glaring deficiencies.

What Lyle remained was a solid addition that could play free safety in a pinch but is not starting material. He was a surer tackler than Beckett and his experience aided him in nabbing the interception against Kansas City, but other more viable options will be out there.

Vernon Fox, 5-9, 201 pounds does not have the prototypical height for a safety but remains a heavy hitter. His strength is defending the run and likely he will replace Harrison in that role as the hitter of the defense. Used in a reserve role Fox had 23 tackles, three passes defensed and one interception.

Fox had some trouble against the pass, as did the Chargers secondary, and was used less as the season wore on. The bulk of his playing time came on first and second downs, customary run downs.

Fox from Fresno State University was signed by the Chargers as a rookie free agent on April 23, 2002. He is signed through 2003 at a base rate of $300K. He will likely return into the same role he has now. Fox will remain a reserve that can start if injuries take out the unit and help defend the run.

The Chargers desperately need help at the safety spots if they plan to forge on with the cover-2 defense. A safety who can cover a lot of ground will free up the cornerbacks on short and intermediate routes, and the knowledge alone that they have adequate help will aid their moves on defense. Last year on defense no unit helped another unit. Major changes are in store and the Chargers will likely upgrade the position through the Draft and Free Agency which will begin in a little more than a month.


Denis Savage can be reached at: Denis Savage

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