How to Play Free Safety in Football

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders
Cordarrelle Patterson #84 of the Oakland Raiders is tackled by free safety Byron Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images

The safety position, or "free safety," is the last line of defense in the secondary on a football team. He is the deepest defender on a pass play and provides secondary support on a run play. The free safety gets the privilege of standing in the back, watching the play develop and attacking where he knows the play will end up. Many people refer to the position as the quarterback of the defense because the safety needs to recognize formations and communicate to the rest of the defense accordingly.

Every player in every position on the football field needs to know these basics: their alignment, their assignment, and their key or read. Here are those basics for the free safety:


The safety will line up about 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, cheated to the strong receiver side. This puts the safety in good position to be deep on pass coverage, but close enough to come up for a stop on a run play.


The safety's primary responsibilities are to stop the pass. However, they are called upon to be a quick support for the run, once the pass threat is gone.


The safety keys on uncovered linemen, the offensive linemen that do not have a defender directly in front of them. At the snap of the ball, the safety needs to establish as quickly as possible an initial run or pass read. This will determine whether he moves downhill (toward the line of scrimmage) or backpedals to find the deepest receiver. This is sometimes called a "high-hat, low-hat" read. If the linemen stand up to block (high-hat), the play is most likely a pass. If the linemen stay low to block (low-hat), the play is most likely a run play. The safety has to allow their eyes to read through the linemen to the running backs to further read the direction of the play.

If Pass Read: When the safety reads pass, he will immediately backpedal, and scan the field to find the deepest threat. He will also read the eyes of the quarterback to predict where the pass is headed. His responsibility is to support the other defensive backs that are covering man-to-man. A safety cannot waste any steps. He would immediately backpedal with his eyes reading receiver routes. What is the deepest threat? Which receivers are most likely to get open? He will break towards that threat, and when the ball is thrown, break on the ball to try to make a play.

If Run Read: If the safety sees "low hat" and reads run, he will be slower to go. He wants to make sure of the direction of the play before he takes a step. As he reads through the linemen to the backs, he'll be able to read the direction of the play. He will then pace himself with the ball, working from the middle of the field towards the sideline, watching for the cutback. His goal on the run is to fill any gap left by other defenders fighting off blocks.

Who Should Be a Safety?

A safety, depending on the defensive scheme, should be a guy that has the rare combination of speed, quickness, size, and tackling ability. He needs open field speed to be able to close on the ball, wherever it ends up. He has to have the quickness to adjust to receiver routes, as well as good vision and ability to read plays quickly to know where to find the attack point of the play. He also needs the size and strength to be able to tackle well in the open field. Lastly, he needs endurance. On any given play, he will likely cover more field than anyone else on the defense.