If University of Florida safety Matt Elam was in the NFL five years ago, he would be a box safety because of his run prowess. Today, he has to be more than that, but is he fit for extensive coverage duties? He appears to have the physical skillset for it but the technical side is lacking.
The safety position has been forced to change at the same rapid pace that offenses have. Spread formations with 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end) have become the norm, resulting in less and less of the old school 12 (1 back, 2 tight ends) and 21 (2 backs, 1 tight end) personnel that was once featured the most.
A safety has to be able to play the run and cover, and cover with flexibility. By flexibility, I mean show the ability to play deep center-field as a single-high safety in odd coverages (Cover 1 and 3, for instance) as well as a split-field safety in the even coverages (Cover 2 and 4). Coaches and general managers are always looking for interchangeable safeties as well, especially in Cover 4 (Quarters) coverage. Altanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff mentioned this when talking to Steve Wyche of NFL.com last year.
"Ideally, we'd like to get to a situation where you have interchangeable safeties," said Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose expertise as a college scout was evaluating defensive backs. "Maybe one guy is the strong safety, but you can flip it. Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, those guys are great football players who set the benchmark. It's not easy to find those guys year in and year out, but those are the type of guys that we are ultimately looking for at the safety position."
Those guys are also quite rangy and perhaps Hall of Fame defenders. That’s a difficult find for any GM, even one as good as Dimitroff. He further commented, noting the multitude of coverages that I mentioned above.
"There is a lot of variety in your coverages," Dimitroff said to that point. "I think it's something that usually will keep the offenses guessing. I'm a lot more apt to evaluate a player with the ability to cover as well as have the ability to come up and stick his nose in there and be an aggressive run-stopper guy."
Is Matt Elam this type of player? And if he’s not, can be become one?
If he’s going to be, he will have to start with his technique. The Palm Beach native is well known for his aggressiveness and physicality in coverage. He is the type of player that will lay the wood on crossers, regardless of it being right on time or well after the catch. It’s this same physicality that has gotten him in trouble, however.
Elam looks for the knockout blow too often, as seen against the LSU Tigers. Lined up as a split-field safety in UF’s Cover 2 concept, the young safety was responsible for the deep half of the left field. This meant that if one of the two receivers to his side ran vertically, he would be responsible for picking him up in coverage. That’s exactly what happened when the far receiver ran down the field and was passed off by the cornerback, who was responsible for the flats.
In Cover 2, the split safety is taught to play with strong fundamentals. He must take a proper angle in attacking the receiver in order to break up the pass. The proper angle is one that’s anticipatory, which implies that Elam can’t make a beeline for the receiver; rather, he has to track the ball and expect to meet it at its destination, where the receiver is expected to be as well. At that point, Elam can separate the receiver from the ball. However, he doesn’t do this. Instead he takes a direct angle at the receiver and falls a few steps behind him, allowing the big catch to be made.
When Elam’s not given deep duties, he’s usually inside or near the box. He can often be seen lined up across a slot receiver or tight end and looking to matchup with him one-on-one. Against the Tennessee Volunteers, he did just that as he lined up on the right side of the field with an inside shade against slot receiver Zach Rogers.
The coverage call was Cover 2 Man or what’s commonly called “Man-Under”. This meant two deep safeties were playing zone while all underneath defenders, including Elam, were responsible for a receiver. When playing with Man Under technique, Elam is to stay inside of the slot receiver, eliminating any inside release in order to refrain from being stuck in a trail position.
At the snap, Rogers got off of the line of scrimmage and quickly shuffled his feet to his right. His goal was to make Elam slide to the outside, which the safety was not supposed to do in this coverage. When Elam saw Rogers’ shuffle to the quick right, he maneuvered in the direction as well. As soon as Elam slid over, Rogers went back to the inside and ran a crossing route to beat the undisciplined Gators safety for a big gain.
In the NFL, technique is more important than any physical skillset an athlete has. Players can’t get by with just their physical talent. This is the concern that lies with the Gators’ Elam and he has to clean it up once he gets into the pros or he will be picked apart.
While he learns to play with proper technique in coverage, he’s likely going to be reduced to the box where he shines the brightest. He’s 5’10”, 200 lbs., and is very involved in the running game. He does an exceptional job of filling in the alley as a supporting run defender and being a factor in run fits, in general.
In the aforementioned matchup against LSU (and every other game), he showed the ability to read his run keys from a deep alignment (as well as in the box) and be patient in expanding with the ball-carrier. While expanding, he showed the presence of mind to stay to the outside to force the runner back inside as well as putting himself in position to make the tackle. When he finally met the runner, a yard in front of the line of scrimmage, he administered a bruising tackle that illustrated impressive pad level.
Overall, many have debated the draft stock and talent of Florida’s Matt Elam. There are concerns as to how he’ll handle extensive coverage duties on Sunday’s, where he’ll need to play smart to have a long career.
Meanwhile, he’ll be a factor in run defense, with bone crushing tackles and quick fills of the alley. The hope with Elam is that he’ll improve fundamentally like former Gators safety Major Wright has. Like Elam, Wright was a big hitter but struggled with the technical side of the game in college. Now he’s a quality safety.