Another example is Kurt Coleman.
Over the summer I highlighted trending changes in personnel archetypes at the nickel back position, noting that the rise of plesiosaur-sized football players in the slot receiver position (e.g. Gronkowski) has demanded larger, more physical players at nickel. Many teams have responded by looking for more athletic safeties, guys who can either be flexed onto the field as third safeties (the "Buffalo Nickel") or to match up against larger, more athletic players in man coverage with regular two-safety packages. Dave Gettleman recognized this in the offseason and, trying to improve a pass defense ranked outside the top ten, brought in Coleman, a 6th-year veteran who played with Philadelphia but lost his job with the departure of Andy Reid (new defensive coordinator Bill Davis declined to resign him when retooling the 3-4 scheme.)
At Carolina he quickly beat out Tre Boston for the starting job at free safety, proving significantly better in pass coverage. A free safety who's lethal in run defense is a huge advantage for defensive backfields, and that's precisely why he's so valuable. Coleman's versatility gives McDermott the ability to play him in multiple roles. This makes him instrumental in disguising coverages. A prime example is the first quarter play against the Buccaneers last week that ended in a Josh Norman interception return for a touchdown. Here Tampa Bay lines up with a 3WR 1TE set. The Panthers are in the nickel defense. Kurt Coleman is the free safety, highlighted near the bottom of the field.
As Jameis Winston makes his pre-snap reads, Kurt Coleman moves down close to the line of scrimmage:
When the free safety drops into the box - usually that's an assignment for the strong safety, in run support - it's often an indication that the defense is in man coverage. Coleman's presence near the linebackers indicates his assignment is the running back, leaving Tillman on an island against Mike Evans. This could mean either Klein or Davis are blitzing or spying, or Klein's man is Louis Murphy, lined up directly across from the right guard.
Let's look at the play call:
As you can see above, Mike Evans - at the bottom of your screen - is running a slant. At the top of your screen Vincent Jackson is running an inside hitch, TE Brandon Myers an out route, and Louis Murphy is running up the seam on a deep post. This play design looks like it will be get several guys open if this is man coverage, since Murphy is a speedster and can easily run past Harper even if Davis is bracketing him.
But notice how Coleman backpedals right before the snap. He's dropping into coverage. He may be staying inside that slant. Possibly recognizing this, Jameis Winston never even looks his way. Look at the right side of the field, where Winston immediately turns:
If this is man coverage - and Winston probably thinks it is - then Jackson takes Norman out of the play, and Murphy takes Klein out of the play. This leaves Brandon Myers with inside leverage on the nickel, Benwikere. Myers will run into a zone cleared out by the receivers. With an easy first down in mind, Winston targets Myers.
THEY'RE IN ZONE! Kurt Coleman was just pretending to cover the back! Brandon Myers is in Josh Norman's zone! Josh Norman sees him!
We all know how this ends.
There you have it. A critical turnover and scoring play against a division rival, made possible largely by Kurt Coleman's versatility as a safety. His ability to handle the responsibilities of a strong safety while actually playing free safety has allowed McDermott to move him around the field and confuse young players like Jameis Winston. Incidentally his presence given a marginal pass rush more time to get to the quarterback and helped keep offenses from isolating Roman Harper on plays. As the resident Swiss Army Knife, Kurt Coleman is a substantial piece of the puzzle, and one of the reasons the Carolina Panthers are 4-0.
A final note on defense. Good safety play is always better safety play when you've got a pass rush. A good pass rush is always a better pass rush when you have a actual animals on your defensive line. Can you tell the difference between these hungry lions and newcomer Ryan Delaire?
I sure can't. In a week and a half the Seahawks get to find out in person.