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Raiders training camp: Quarterback of defense

Often seen as the last line of defense for NFL teams, the job of a safety varies from team to team. For the Las Vegas Raiders, the responsibilities at the safety spot run similar to the distance they are from the line of scrimmage: Deep.

Whether it’s lining up in the box, deep in a two-high shell, or dropping close to the line of scrimmage to blitz (or feign a rush), safeties wearing the Silver & Black in Patrick Graham’s defense are tasked with a lot. Raiders defensive backs/passing game coordinator Jason Simmons broke it down even more on Tuesday.

“The first thing that I look for is intelligence and I look for call command. Those are two things when you start talking about defense,” the coach said during his media session. “The quarterback of the defense comes from the safety position. Being able to get guy’s acquisition. The quicker you can make the call, you’re on the command and the poise behind the defense.”

Just like every other Raiders coach stated from the get-go, communication is vital. Safeties must be able to diagnose and divvy up coverage responsibilities before the snap — often within a blink of an eye with how some offenses operate in the NFL. It’s a lot of info digestion and disbursement that happens. Hence intelligence being absolutely critical.

Whether it’s Tre’Von Moehrig, Johnathan Abram or Duron Harmon manning the free or strong safety spots in the Raiders secondary, each must be able to relay alignments and responsibilities to other defensive backs and teammates; command and conquer.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints

Duron Harmon’s nine-year career has given him the experience and knowledge of reading coverages and being in the right place at the right time.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Ball Magnet

Defensive backs coaches around the league preach the “see ball, get ball” mentality but it’s often a difficult thing to get defenders to cover and look for the ball and make a play on it. It’s bang-bang decisions in those moments the ball is in flight to a receiving target and defenders have a brief window to locate the ball and try to snare or deflect it. Harmon, however, is showing Simmons exactly what he wants to see from his safeties.

“He is a ball magnet. You see the ball finds him, and that’s the type of player that we want,” Simmons said of the veteran safety. “He’s a ball hawk. He attacks the ball. He thinks about the ball. He talks about the ball in meetings. He talks about how to make plays to the younger players. That’s what I see.”

For Harmon, that’s a trait developed from the experience he’s gained over the course of his nine-year career.

“The older I am, the more ball I play, you kind of understand and each coverage where the quarterback is trying to throw the ball,” Harmon said. “As a deep safety or any zone type of player, if you can have just edge or just a little tip to where you think the ball is, and just anticipating where to break, those are where those tips and those throws might come where you have a chance to put your hands on the ball. Sometimes it’s just instinct, just being able to break on the ball, read the quarterback, know what his arm comes off, that’s when you make your attempt — find where the receivers are located and go for the ball.”

Jacksonville Jaguars v Las Vegas Raiders

Raiders safety Johnathan Abram (24) stretches with the team during pre-game warmups before Las Vegas’ Hall of Fame Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

About Abram

There’s no getting around it: The Raiders hard-hitting safety’s coverage skill hasn’t been on par with his tackling ability. So much so that he’s been identified as a liability in coverage — not only by myself, but the vast majority of the football watching world.

Simmons was asked about that particular aspect of Abram’s game and his answer of “you get what you emphasize” was a resounding one.

“You see growth. We don’t see it as a liability. We see a guy that needed to get better at a specific part of his game, and you see him working on it,” Simmons said of Abram. “One thing that I’ve seen just in terms of coaching is you get what you emphasize. You see this guy, diligent in terms of watching film, in terms of approaching his technique. You see him getting better at it so we’re excited.”

Expanding upon his thoughts on Abram, there was one thing that did surprise Simmons.

“Not knowing him personally, the first thing you see is just the physicality. Him running around, 100-plus tackles,” Simmons said. “What you don’t see from afar is how intelligent he is. That’s been a really good surprise.”

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