Updated: January 23, 2012 3:40AM
Lovie Smith’s decision — I mean, the Bears’ decision — to cut veteran Chris Harris this week exposed an overlooked flaw in the cover-2 defense: The safeties matter too much.
Since when do we care about safeties in the NFL? Ever since the AFL popularized the bomb in the 1960s, it’s the cornerbacks who take all the heat in the defensive backfield. But not in cover-2. The corner covers an area, not a man, and then passes off coverage to the safety. When that communication breaks down, as it seems to have done repeatedly this season, it’s the safeties who get burned, not the cornerbacks. Walt Harris would love to play in this defense.
The safety is the cover-2’s appendix. You never care about it until you feel pain, and then you get rid of it as soon as you can. Cutting Harris was like an emergency appendectomy. The pain is gone, but you’re not any better than you were before.
In retrospect, it’s worth noting that when Harris explained how he got beat on Josh Freeman’s touchdown pass to Dezmon Briscoe after Sunday’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he threw Charles Tillman’s name in there.
‘‘There was a little dead spot in cover-2 in the coverage we played. [Freeman] found it and threw a laser in there,’’ Harris said. ‘‘Me and Peanut are both responsible for that. It’s a little dead spot, 15-18 yards between [the safety and cornerback]. That’s kind of the hole there.’’
That we were talking to Harris and not Tillman about that play might be the problem: too much emphasis on the safeties in the cover-2 defense. The cover-2 chews up safeties and spits ’em out. This is Smith’s signature defense, and since he became the Bears’ head coach, they’ve started 15 different safeties in eight seasons. They’ve changed starting free safeties 23 times and starting strong safeties 27 times in less than eight seasons.
There is zero continuity. The longest starting streak for a safety in Smith’s defense is 17 games (Mike Green, Chris Harris and Kevin Payne). The starting safeties from last year’s season opener already are gone (Harris and Danieal Manning). The starting safeties in the 2009 opener didn’t make it to 2010 (Payne and Al Afalava).
The Indianapolis Colts and the Buccaneers had the same problem in the cover-2 — a continuous revolving door of safeties. The lone exception in the Tony Dungy-Monte Kiffin-Smith version of the cover-2 is John Lynch, a nine-time Pro Bowler. As good as Lynch was, it didn’t hurt that he almost always played with a dominant defensive line with pass rushers such as Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice who commanded double- and triple-teams.
It’s difficult to put too much emphasis on the safety because good ones are so hard to find. The last full-time safety to make the Hall of Fame was Ken Houston, who played his last game in 1980. There have been 16 safeties drafted in the first round in the last 18 years. There have been 19 cornerbacks taken in the first round in the last five.
Nobody really knows what to do with safeties in any defense. Bill Belichick has used three different safety combinations in four Super Bowl appearances. He hasn’t had the same two starting safeties in back-to-back seasons since 2004-05. Belichick changed safety combinations nine times in 2010, when his team went 14-2.
When teams run into salary-cap issues, the safety is among the first to go. After Dexter Jackson was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season, the Buccaneers let him go in free agency and dropped from first to fifth in total defense. They brought him back in 2004 and had the No. 1 defense in the NFL with Jackson in 2005, then let him go again. They dropped to 17th without him. Even the great Lynch was let go by the Bucs after the 2003 season — and he had four more Pro Bowl seasons with the Denver Broncos.
What does it all mean? It means there’s only one way to make a Pro Bowl safety in cover-2: Get the best damn pass rusher you can. Whether or not Harris was good enough, whether or not Chris Conte and Major Wright will be good enough, you need to look elsewhere to find the real source of your problem. The cover-2 is a simple defense. It’s what’s up front that counts.