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What is a Safety in Football?

The word ‘safety’ is somewhat confusing in the sport of American football. Mainly because it can mean position safeties – which in itself has two different roles i.e strong and free,  and it can also mean the scoring play safety. 

In this article, I will largely cover the former definition.

What is a safety position in football?

The safety position is played by the players of the defensive team. There are two types of safeties – namely ‘free safety’ which most people are familiar with and talked about, which has a secondary role of cornerbacks. The other is the ‘strong safety’ whose role is more similar to that of a linebacker. 

Either which, safeties are the last line of defense. They are defensive backs, players behind the line, who line up at 6 to 7 yards (strong safety) or 10 to 15 yards (free safety) from the line of scrimmage. Being the deepest in the defensive backfield means that they have the best vision to react to whatever offensive scheme the offense throws at them. 

Similar to many roles in football, their key duties are dependent on the defensive scheme the team employs. Nonetheless, you can expect them to stop runs, cover passes, or make occasional attempts of bilzing when the offensive quarterback’s plays is least expected. 

Since the NFL has shifted to pass heavy plays, one can expect safeties to be more involved in covering pass receivers.

Free Safety vs Strong Safety 

Free SafetyStrong Safety
Known asdefensive quarterback
Alignment 10 to 15 yards behind the line positioning at the strong receiver side. 6 to 7 yards behind the line on the strong side with Tight End
Primary Assignment Cover passesStop runs 

Free Safety

Free safety is the safety most people refer to when they talk about safety. Free safeties are like the quarterback of the defensive team, and they observe the game unfold before deciding to make a move. Because of the nature of their position, they are often the only players who are unblocked. 

Quarterbacks are their main target of defense, but since quarterbacks usually move around the backfield, they are free to double cover any other player. They are trained to intercept passes from wide receivers or tackle him down with a block should that player receive the pass. 

They may also come to assist the linebackers in the event of running backs rushing across the line with the ball. Play-action pass is what the offense uses to lure free safety out of their positions – by making him think that the offense is making a dive, but turns out to be a deep forward pass. 


At the start of the game, free safety will need to read whether the offense is making a pass play or a running play. He will then pace himself accordingly and provide additional support to the strong side of the offense. 

Free safety has to ask himself what’s coming. Is that a play-action pass or real runs? If he reads it as a run play, he will move toward the line to anticipate a running back dive. If not, he will backpedal to anticipate a deep pass for wide receivers. 

Physical Built & Abilities  

Free safeties are smaller, quicker and nimbler. They process an acute sense of the game and are able to make snap judgement to attack the offense. 

A free safety must have open field speed to get close to the ball-carrying running backs fast and take him down to the floor from advancing further. Like the cornerbacks, he must also process the ability to jump high and intercept passes from wide receivers. 

Strong safeties 

The word ‘strong’ refers to the strong side of the offensive – usually the side with the tight ends. Strong safeties are larger and stronger, and they act as a secondary support to the linebackers. They play closer to the line at 6 to 7 yards behind, and are more tuned to running plays. 

Strong safeties do pass coverage as well, but not at the same level of depth the free safeties do on wide receivers. Running backs or any eligible receivers who attempt to come out of the field to receive a pass will be expected to stop by strong safeties over the line. 

Being one of the defensive backs means that the strong safety will always be able to provide whichever support the linebackers need. Although at times, that would mean he would have to move out of his designated zone. 


Strong safeties need to make reads as well. As he is closer to the linemens than free safeties, he would be able to make more accurate reads on running plays and position himself accordingly – moving toward the line if that’s the case, and backward to the zone coverage if it is not.

Physical Built & Abilities  

Strong safeties have the build of linebackers. Strong, big, and explosive. It is a highly physical role as they are expected to tackle any players down who attempt to advance the ball forward such as tight ends and running backs. 

Cornerback vs Free Safety 

The main duty of cornerbacks is to tackle and prevent wide receivers from catching deep passes either through man-to-man coverage or zone coverage. Whereas free safeties act as an insurance for the coverbacks in case he gets outran. Free safeties also stand at the center and run downhill to stop any ball carriers from advancing.[1]

Both positions have different starting alignments. Cornerbacks stand near the line of scrimmage and usually directly in front of the single receiver he is marking. Whereas free safeties stand 10 to 15 yards from the line.

In terms of changing roles, free safety can be converted to cornerback at any time. But cornerbacks will need more experience and understanding of the game before he can be converted into free safeties. 

How is a Safety Scored?

Never confuse ‘playing score safety’ as the safeties we covered above! 

For score safeties are points awarded to the defense when they have successfully pushed the offense back to its own end zone. Still, safety is worth two points.[2]

Here are the couple of ways safety is rewarded: 

  1. A ball carrier is tackled in his own own zone
  2. A foul is committed by the offense on its own end zone. 
  3. The ball became dead in the offensive end zone.

Although the points gained for the defense are only two, they may make a huge difference in a tiebreaker scenario.   

Final thoughts 

What do you think about strong safety and free safety? I hope the article has cleared some of the confusion between the two! Tell me what you think about the roles below!

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like our write up on the fastest running back of all time. Check it out here


[1]  “Difference Between a Cornerback & a Safety – SportsRec.” Accessed 12 Jul. 2020.
[2] “How Football Teams Can Score Points in Game Play – dummies.” Accessed 12 Jul. 2020.

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