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Film Study: Safeties in Jim Knowles’ defense must provide versatility to have success

The safety position is a versatile group in a Knowles defense and today we take a look at why

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

As we move past the early signing period and get into that final stretch leading into the bowl season, I wanted to keep looking at Jim Knowles’ defense. After we looked at the basic principles last week, we’re going to take a deeper look at the roles of the safety looking at a few clips of them in varying roles and alignments. This is by no means all intensive and will not show every single way Knowles likes his safeties to be in his defense, but this will be a start.

In the 4-2-5 look that Knowles runs, his defenses utilize three safeties with two strong safeties, and a free safety. Ohio State has utilized a 4-2-5 as well, going with a single high free safety, a bigger strong safety (the Bullet), and a nickel/cover safety which is more of a corner body type. Overall the defenses have the same structure, but the personnel is much different. This is because Knowles wants all three of his safeties to be able to play all safety responsibilities. By doing this, they are able to match personnel and check to shifts/motions much easier.

With the first film reviews we touched on alignment of the entire defense, but the safeties were by far the most interesting. Knowles lines them up at the same level, in different shells, pressed on inside receivers, and they are always moving around pre-snap. We’re going to look at how they shift alignments pre-snap and how they are able to equalize the leverage of the offense by passing responsibilities. We’re going to use the Iowa State game against Oklahoma State

The first play we’re going to look at today is an example of how the safeties align in man coverage. For the Cowboys defense they are in Cover-1 here and Iowa State utilizes a motion from one of the receivers. We get to see how the three safeties change their alignment to match the formation.

To start the we need to identify the three safeties, the free safety (No. 31) is the deepest defender, one strong safety (No. 13) aligns over the tight end of Iowa State in the slot, and the other strong safety (No. 2) takes the tight end who motions out of the backfield. The situation is 3rd and 5 in an obvious pass situation. With Iowa State having four receivers spread out this puts the safeties out of the box in true man-coverage responsibility. The free safety has the one high deep middle zone responsibility. In this case, the strong safety moves across the formation with the receiver, so they can line up straight up against the offense. This play shows what the safeties are asked to do and shows the task of covering the tight ends.

The next play shows how there are some similarities to what Jim Knowles does compared to what Ohio State does defensively. They opt for a cover safety alignment in this situation which is another obvious passing situation. In the first look at the alignment, we can see a two-high shell meaning the true safeties are halving the field by being on opposite hashes.

Two things we need to look at first before we look at how the safeties play this down. The first, the corner to the top side of the screen is on an island despite being in Cover-2 Man Under – the safety will not be helping over top. The linebackers in the box have man coverage responsibility for the two players in the backfield, by taking the running back and tight end, this frees up the safeties to help with the receivers. The cover safety (No. 13) lines up over the slot receiver, at the snap he jumps outside and this forces him into his help which is the safety (black arm sleeves) to his side.

On the bottom of the screen, the corner is also playing outside leverage, but from a press depth. The corner maintains outside leverage and the safety helps him over the top. We can see how Knowles created a funnel and this allows everybody to have help. Over the top the safeties have it covered and underneath the corner and cover safety have that covered. If the corner or cover safety gave up the outside, this play could have looked a lot different. This was supposed to be quick game for Iowa State, but with the initial routes being taken away, the quarterback is forced to scramble. This is a win for the defense and they did it through technique.

For the safeties, we have seen them align in two types of man-coverage, but in the next play we get to look at how the three safeties bounce their responsibilities. Iowa State motions to a quads formation, as we have seen this season any type of motion has put Ohio State’s defense in a blender.

To the trips side Oklahoma State once again has a safety playing in that cover safety role, this is important because the Buckeyes already do this. As they transition to Knowles, this position will be even more vital given the increased responsibilities. Rather than forcing square pegs in round holes they will be able to adjust and match personnel. The strong safety to the trips side is already aligned over the number three receiver (no. 88) giving away that this is man coverage.

Once the receiver motions across the corner shifts outside the box to a deeper depth away from the line of scrimmage. He checks this to the safety who shifts over with the motion of the offensive player. What adds to this check is the safeties bracket the two inside receivers, this means that one is playing the player who goes outside and the other takes the player who goes inside.

These are the little things that put defenders into better positions than forcing them to chase players across and having rules that create advantages for the offense. The play ends up being a run play, but the formational alignment as well as the discipline with the checks is what is exciting here.


The safeties in Jim Knowles’ defense have a lot of responsibilities and Knowles is willing to put a lot of trust into them to do a lot of different things. Ohio State added some dimensions that utilized the 4-2-5 personnel better, but it does not come near the execution of what Knowles’ unit accomplished last year. With players like Ronnie Hickman, Josh Proctor, and the load of safety type players heading into next year expect Knowles to find a lot of ways to play different guys.

From a situational football standpoint we can see how the Cowboys defense utilized the three safety look to fix any advantages created by the offense. You can also see how much they are asked to take on not only during the play, but pre-snap. The alignment of the safeties and how they respond to motions/shifts is a significant part of what has made Knowles’ defenses great. For the Buckeyes they have the personnel, but maximizing it will tell the tale of next season.

If the Buckeyes defenders can learn the different responsibilities, check coverages, and show the level of versatility required, this can be a dangerous defensive team. The safeties are the key cog to making this defensive scheme successful and if they’re great the defense can return to its silver bullet ways. Today we saw how important they are and this is going to be an exciting position group to watch heading into 2022.