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Position's physical demands taking toll on players

Generally, it isn't safe being a safety. Safeties are asked to be the last line of defense against big pass and run plays. Coaches increasingly ask safeties to play near the line of scrimmage and perform like linebackers.

This season, especially, safeties are going down with injuries at a rapid pace. Eight are already out for the season -- Rodney Harrison and Guss Scott of the Patriots, Donovin Darius of the Jaguars, Tebucky Jones of the Dolphins, Kim Herring of the Bengals, Colin Branch of the Panthers, Jay Bellamy of the Saints and Donald Strickland of the Colts. Madieu Williams of the Bengals had a procedure on his shoulder and might be lost for the season. Ed Reed of the Ravens is sidelined with a high ankle. Not included is Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin, who was a victim of an assault outside of a Seattle nightclub and has a fractured skull.


Perhaps the strangest breakdown happened last week in Oakland. Raiders strong safety Derrick Gibson broke his wrist. Cornerback Charles Woodson, who has been playing more safety in the Raiders' big nickel scheme, broke his fibula while playing safety. Both players are expected to miss six to eight weeks.

"This year, I think we've had a lot of bad luck," Harrison said. "It's been a bad year for safeties in general. We are very physical in general. We have to take on a lot of blocks and make tackles. They have been putting some smaller guys at safety. Safety is a unique position."

Looking for further explanations for the carnage? One idea that sources didn't buy is that the conversion of career cornerbacks to the safety position is leading to increased ailments.

My thought was that defensive coaches were improving midfield coverage by turning cornerbacks into free safeties and then putting more pressure on the strong safeties to come up in the tackle box and play like a linebacker. However, most of the converted cornerbacks are holding up, and there don't seem to be any additional adjustments for the run-stopping safeties. Scratch that thought.

But something is happening, because safeties are getting hurt at an alarming rate. The most likely theory is that defenses are getting more aggressive because of last year's rule emphasis on calling illegal contact downfield on pass plays. Against certain teams, particularly those that are stronger at running back and tight end, defenses are taking the action to the line of scrimmage.

Successful defenses are overloading one side of the line of scrimmage with an extra defender. In most of those defenses, at least one safety has to be near the line of scrimmage playing like a linebacker. By dictating the action with an extra defender, offenses can't release a pass-catching tight end. If the TE releases, the running back has to stay in to block.

Aggressive defenses mean more collisions. More collisions result in a higher chance of injuries. And no one can minimize the loss of a good safety.

The Patriots haven't been the same Super Bowl-caliber, stop-the-run defense this season without Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, but losing Harrison at Pittsburgh in Week 3 added to their troubles. Harrison blew out three knee ligaments, and the position has been a nightmare ever since.

Scott tried to fill in but he ended up on injured reserve. Rookie James Sanders filled in during the Denver game but he hurt his ankle. The Patriots signed veteran Arturo Freeman days before the Broncos game and had to use him most of the second half. Coach Bill Belichick can be thankful Eugene Wilson made the successful transition from cornerback or the defense would be in bigger trouble.

"I just got done watching tape of the Raiders game and noticed how they were using Derrick Gibson almost like a linebacker," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "There was a spell in the past couple of years where it looked liked the old-style safeties were being phased out and being replaced by cornerbacks. Now, teams are using safeties like linebackers as the eighth man near the line of scrimmage, more so on first downs."

While some safeties are getting increased responsibility, they're not necessarily receiving respect. Generally, they are the lowest paid among the defensive positions. When teams are looking for cap room, they will come to the physical safeties and threaten to cut them if they don't take pay cuts. Most veteran safeties on the street end up playing for the veteran minimum.

"They say we can't cover a receiver as safeties, but there is so much Cover 2 being used that you have to have enough speed to cover," Harrison said. "As a safety, you have to be strong enough to stop a 235-pound running back. Once a wide receiver breaks the line of scrimmage after about five to seven yards of being with the cornerback, they are turned over to the safety. Yet, they say we can't cover. The position doesn't get the respect it deserves."

Maybe the loss of some of these safeties will lead to a renewed respect and appreciation. The Jaguars' defense is giving up an unusual amount of rushing yards (120.8 a game) even though they have the two best run-stopping defensive tackles in the NFL -- John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Many of those problems have to be attributed to the season-long absence of Darius, who plays like a fourth linebacker in the Jaguars' 4-3.

But while stopping the run is key, defenses can't ignore the impact tight ends have in the passing game.

"Look at the tight-end position, because these guys are nothing but big wide receivers," Harrison said. "They are 6-5, 265 pounds and can jump. You have to be fast enough to cover them. You also have to be strong enough to make 100 tackles a year. Look at how many of the top safeties make 100-plus tackles. It does take a toll. You have a lot of guys who are 23, 24 or 25 coming in but us older guys are still the ones with the 100-plus tackles."

Fortunately for the NFL, an increasing number of good rookie safeties are in the mix. At least a half dozen are already starting -- Josh Bullocks in New Orleans, C.C. Brown in Houston, Sanders with the Patriots, Kerry Rhodes with the Jets, Chris Harris in Chicago and Nick Collins in Green Bay.

"There are a lot of guys who are getting hurt, and that's a surprise," Bullocks said. "But when you get good players hurt, the next guy has to step up behind them. In the NFL, you've got to be ready to come to play every week. It's much more physical. You've got big-time running backs. All of them are big. You have to come up and make a tackle. The one thing you have to do is take care of your body."

During the offseason, teams and players might have to look back at what happened to the safeties this year. The NFL asks a lot of them. They have to play like linebackers and cover like third cornerbacks. Safeties have to prepare their bodies for the punishment. Do they need more bulk or more speed?

"There is a lot of eight-in-the-box in the NFL," Bullocks said, "and you get a mix of everything as far as defenses."

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.