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Kickoff safeties are employed by a kickoff coverage unit to create a small second line of defense in the event the primary coverage unit is beaten. Rather than tracking downfield with the rest of the kickoff team, two safeties typically fold inside and trail the coverage wave by 10-12 yards. If a return is to the side of the safety, his primary responsibility is to stack directly behind the gap of the return, while if the kick is away from the safety, he should take a pursuit angle that prevents a backside cutback.
The primary strategy utilized at the NCAA and NFL levels is Kickoff Cover 1. It is important to note that although this tactic shares a name with Cover 1 defense, this is in no way related to the scheme employed by a defense on a regular down. Rather, the number after the coverage refers to the initial position of the defenders used as safeties:
Defenders on kickoff units are numbered in increasing order from the outside-in. In Kickoff Cover 1, the L1 and R1, closest to the sideline on each side of the formation, are responsible for the safety role as shown below:
Aligned in 5×5 formation, the Bills kick off from the center of the field. The eight interior defenders are tasked with filling their coverage lanes to seek out and tackle the returner, while the L1, R1, and kicker form a safety net 10 yards behind:
As the play develops, the L1, R1, and kicker (blue circles) slowly fall behind the rest of the kickoff unit (yellow circles). As Chiefs returner De’Anthony Thomas brings the ball out of the end zone, their positioning becomes more pronounced:
While the return went for 38 yards due to a breakdown by the initial coverage wave, the safety played a critical role in minimizing the damage and giving the Bills defense a chance to force a change of possession.
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Chuck Zodda wrote this entry. Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.