At safety, teams think outside the box

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan called the play and broke the huddle with the confidence of a man certain that big things were on the horizon. When the snap came, he glanced to his left and pumped his right arm quickly, a move that suggested a bubble screen was about to develop. The Falcons had run this play so often that they expected New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard to race upfield for a tackle. Once he did that, Ryan would loft a pass right over his head for an easy touchdown.

The only problem was that Leonhard -- a player Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine described as "a guy who looks like he should be doing your taxes" -- didn't bite. He didn't even hesitate when Ryan pump-faked. Instead, he pivoted and raced back to cover wide receiver Roddy White, who was just as flabbergasted when Leonhard deflected the pass for an incompletion.

"Before that play, I thought Jim Leonhard was an average guy," White said. "But I gained a lot of respect for him. We had run that play three or four times in the past and it always worked. There's a lot to be said for being in the right position."

Leonhard has been in the right position in more ways than just that moment in 2009. His success with the Jets is evidence that a major shift is happening at the back end of defenses all across the NFL. There was a time when Leonhard, 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, might have been watching that play from the comfort of his living room, given how many talent evaluators gave him a real chance to play in the league. Now he's a compelling example of what's really needed to compete at safety, a job that has become the second-hardest in the NFL, right after quarterback.

Other defenders haven't seen their roles affected as much by the league's offensive explosion. Pass-rushers still chase passers, linebackers still pursue backs and cornerbacks still cover. But today's safeties have to do it all. They need to be smart enough to dissect the spread offenses that are pervading the game. They have to be athletic enough to cover nimble receivers like New England's Wes Welker and stud tight ends like San Diego's Antonio Gates. They also need the toughness to tackle and blitz and the savvy to avoid the exorbitant penalties that now come from the league's crackdown on vicious hits.

The prototype for the job used to be the late Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor: big, fast and physical. Now teams are broadening their approach to the position because, as Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said, "You need players who are more athlete than intimidator."

"The job is absolutely harder," Leonhard said. "Offenses have morphed from using two-back, power-running formations to where they're always spreading you out. You used to be able to have a safety who could play in the box and one playing free but now that big safety is getting run out of the league."

Added New York Giants safety Deon Grant: "You have to be smart to control what's going on because they put so much in the playbooks today. There are tight ends running 4.4 40s, so you need to be able to cover them. You used to be able to run a 4.7 as a safety but now you have to run like a cornerback. And you need to be physical but you can't be too physical because they'll fine you. That's a lot to ask of anybody."

Prime targets

Most teams don't have players who equal the game's top two safeties -- Baltimore's Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu -- and defenses are paying a heavy price. Fourteen quarterbacks threw for at least 300 yards in Week 1, including one who set a rookie record for a career debut (Carolina's Cam Newton had 422 yards in a loss to Arizona). Eleven already have set career highs for passing yards in a game, and New England's Tom Brady compiled the fourth-highest total in league history (517). Finally, only two quarterbacks have surpassed the 5,000-yard mark in a season; after four weeks, six are on pace to do that.

Those numbers didn't just happen because some quarterbacks got hot. They happened because safeties are becoming prime targets in a league where, as Jets defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman said, "Receivers know they're not getting touched after five yards and nobody can really intimidate them."

Teams like the Giants respond to this challenge by asking Pro Bowl safety Antrel Rolle, who operated more as a run defender in 2010, to cover slot receivers this season. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick took a different approach. He dumped both his starting safeties from last season, including two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather.

Even the NFL draft has provided evidence of how hard it is to find talent at the position. Only three safeties have been selected in the first round since 2007 and only one -- New Orleans' Chip Vaughn -- was taken in the entire 2009 draft. In 2010, the two safeties taken in the first round (Kansas City's Eric Berry and Seattle's Earl Thomas), and both had exceptional coverage skills that made them so attractive. One who went in the second round after being projected as a first-round pick, San Francisco's Taylor Mays, was traded to Cincinnati after one season. As one AFC executive said, "You want to know the reason a specimen like that [Mays is 6-3, 230 pounds and has 4.3-speed] can't get on the field? He can't move."

"Safeties have to be able to cover today," Reed said. "That was the thing I heard when I came out school. People thought I was too small and might not be able to cover. They said it so much that I wound up being the 24th pick in the draft while another guy [former Dallas strong safety Roy Williams] went eighth."

Added Giants general manager Jerry Reese: "It used be that safety was a position where you could find anybody and put them back there. Now you have to find people who are skilled."

Versatility is key

The advent of the spread offense over the past few years -- specifically as run by teams such as New England, Green Bay and New Orleans -- has made the need for cover safeties all the more vital. Pettine estimated that teams on average are throwing 60 percent of the time. That trend has made bigger, hard-hitting safeties (such as Roy Williams) obsolete and left personnel evaluators frustrated by a lack of versatility in younger players.

Said the Ravens' Newsome: "The spread is so big in college that most of the safeties play quarters coverage to deal with that. They only have to be responsible for a quarter of the field but they also only learn a quarter of what they need to play at this level."

When the Patriots opened up their offense in their record-setting 2007 season, Leonhard was a reserve safety who had the chance to start six games in Buffalo because of injuries. Before that point, he'd been a relative unknown: a walk-on at Wisconsin who started two seasons before going undrafted in 2005. "I used to hear that I wasn't big enough or fast enough to be an every-down safety in the league," said Leonhard, who returned punts in college and once won a campus slam-dunk contest. "People thought I didn't have the agility for the position."

What Leonhard had were skills scouts couldn't measure with a scale or a stopwatch. He had the ability to dissect plays quickly as they unfolded and the intelligence to understand best how to defend them. "He has good eyes," said Thurman. "People who don't know the game don't realize how much it helps when you can see things happening faster than the next guy. Jim's vision allows him to play bigger than his size."

The more Leonhard played in Buffalo, the more he opened doors for himself. When the Ravens invited him to a three-day minicamp in 2008, they were basically taking a flier on him. But he made enough plays to earn a contract, and he proved himself even more when replacing injured safety Dawan Landry for 13 games that season. Along with posting solid numbers -- 69 tackles, a sack and an interception return for a touchdown -- Leonhard was so savvy that during one game that he was calling out the opposing team's plays before they were run.

The Jets signed Leonhard to a three-year deal after that season. Jets coach (and former Ravens defensive coordinator) Rex Ryan primarily valued Leonhard's intelligence in a blitz-heavy scheme that has ranked among the league's top pass defenses since 2009.

"You have to be very cerebral back there," Pettine said. "Jimmy and Eric [Smith, the Jets' other safety] are prime examples of that. You need to be able to stay on top of things because the game is so complicated now. There are a lot of moving parts because teams don't just line up and run at you. There are stacks, bunches, shifts, motion and tight ends and running backs lining up in places they never did before. It's a lot to keep up with."

Dealing with mismatches

Offenses also are using weapons that give them a greater advantage. For example, the Patriots use two athletic tight ends (6-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski and 6-1, 245-pound Aaron Hernandez) to create mismatches. Newsome recently a watched a Green Bay game and was stunned by a back-shoulder catch that Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who's listed at 6-5 and 247 pounds, pulled off against perfect coverage by Saints strong safety Roman Harper. One thought filled Newsome's head on that play: How do you stop that?

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez joked that there are so many agile tight ends that teams may have to start scouting basketball games for safety talent. "Maybe they should find some 2-guard types, 6-foot-4 guys who can match up with tight ends," he said.

But defenders of any size face another disadvantage with the league's crackdown on violence. The possibility of taking a hefty fine for a vicious hit has hamstrung safeties to the point that, as Rolle said, "You feel like you're playing with both hands tied behind your back."

Many Giants players were especially upset when safety Kenny Phillips was fined $10,000 for a hit on Redskins tight end Fred Davis in Week 1. Phillips' shoulder did collide with Davis' head, but the contact resulted because another Giants defender was dragging Davis down on the pass play.

"The toughest thing about this position now is the physical part," said Denver Broncos safety and 16-year veteran Brian Dawkins. "Coaches tell you that you have to change your strike zone, but we don't play this game in slow-motion."

The crackdown on violence already has reached a point that one AFC coach said it has been discussed in his defensive meetings. "We've had people say that you'll see more low hits," the coach said. "The receivers won't like and it used to be taboo to go after a guy's legs, but that's where we're headed. Safeties have to get the ball out somehow."

Pettine said he wouldn't be surprised to see more small safeties, like Leonhard, finding playing time. That move has merit, even if durability might become a concern. Bob Sanders, a 5-8, 206-pound defender, was the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he has played in only 11 games in the past four years because of injuries.

"You will get to the point where you're playing with four cornerbacks out there," Pettine said. "The day of the true safety is about over because of the speed of the game. When we're looking at safeties in the draft, once you get past the no-brainer guys -- like Eric Berry -- we're looking at slower college cornerbacks. Because right now, safeties are becoming like fullbacks on offense. They're becoming extinct."

Until that day comes, Leonhard will embrace the opportunities that have come his way. "I think teams are getting smarter," Leonhard said. "People are now saying they don't care what the guy playing safety looks like. They just want him to get the job done."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.