NFL 100 – The Safety Blitz

18 Sep

Just as important as players, coaches, contributors and others are to the 100 years of NFL football, strategies developed over the years are key to the development of the modern game. The T-formation, forward pass, the 4-3 defensive alignment and the shotgun formation have all been a part of the game’s evolving history. Another tactic that came to be in the 1960s and is still used to this day is the safety blitz. “Blitzing” had been a term used to identify when a defense rushed more than the usual four defensive line players on a passing play. Mainly, the extra player sent was a linebacker and the tactic was called a “red dog”. That tactic was used in the late 1950s in the NFL. In 1960, a little known defensive assistant with the St. Louis Cardinals, Chuck Drulis,  devised the safety blitz, with one of the safeties being sent on the rush instead of, or along with, a linebacker. The design didn’t work very well at first, since the Cardinals didn’t have a defensive back athletic enough to make it successful. But in 1961 the Cardinals drafted a cornerback from Utah named Larry Wilson, who was a great athlete. Drulis convinced the head coach, Pop Ivy, to convert Wilson to safety and the safety blitz was born to become a standard part of NFL defenses. The Cardinals called their version of the new blitz the “Wildcat”, and that became Wilson’s nickname. (The “Wildcat” is nowadays widely known as an offensive formation.) Wilson went on to use the safety blitz, among his other skills, to turn his NFL career into a Hall of Fame one. He is regarded in many circles as the greatest Cardinal player of all time, or at least the greatest of their St. Louis era.



Hall of Fame safety Larry “Wildcat” Wilson

Meanwhile, over in the fledgling American Football League, the offenses were entertaining fans with a wide open style of play, as Houston’s George Blanda, San Diego’s John Hadl and the Chiefs’ Len Dawson were filling the air with bombs and piling up the points. In Buffalo, the head coach was a former defensive player, Lou Saban, and the Bills went against the grain, building a top-notch defense. Saban’s top defensive assistant was a mild mannered, bespectacled and cerebral man named Joel Collier. He incorporated the Cardinals’ safety blitzing into the Bills’ defense and his safety, George Saimes, became known as the AFL’s master of the tactic. It didn’t hurt that he was one of the league’s ablest open field tacklers. Collier, by the way, went on to become a major innovator in the NFL. In later years in Denver he is widely accepted as the inventor of the 3-4 defensive alignment. In today’s game, the safety blitz is just another part of every team’s defensive strategy. Teams nowadays send players from everywhere. Linebackers still are the main blitzers, but the safety blitz and cornerback blitz are a standard part of the game, as dropping huge defensive linemen into pass coverage has also become commonplace. The athleticism of today’s players has evolved to the point where defensive coordinators can devise strategies that make quarterbacks and offensive coaches shudder.

Saimes safety blitz 1966

George Saimes(26) blitzes Joe Namath


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