Su’a Cravens’ Fit as Strong Safety in Redskins’ Nickel Defense

Su’a Cravens was drafted by the Washington Redskins with the 53rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. As Chad Ryan broke down his versatility when he was drafted, I wanted to take a closer look at his fit as strong safety in Joe Barry’s nickel defense.

Role of the Strong Safety

In the first game against Miami last season, the Redskins suffered a big loss to their run defense when strong safety Duke Ihenacho was lost for the season after dislocating and fracturing his left wrist. Here is an example of Ihenacho stepping into the box in nickel defense against the Dolphins where he holds the edge from the linebacker position.

There was a major difference between him on the field as his substitute Trenton Robinson struggled in space. Here is an example versus Buccaneers with Trenton Robinson at strong safety as Ihenacho’s replacement. Watch as he gets juked cleanly by Doug Martin versus the Buccaneers.

While these two plays are certainly cherry-picked, they do illustrate the basic trend of the team and how much of an impact the strong safety position has for the Redskins defense. So this begs the question: Why does the strong safety position matter so much in the Redskins’ nickel defense?

Under Joe Barry, the Redskins love to walk the strong safety into the box for run support as the “third” linebacker when the opposing team brings out three wide receiver sets (or “11 personnel”).

Ihenacho’s aggressiveness and willingness to play run defense solidified the front seven when they needed an extra defensive back on the field. Unfortunately his injury history forced the Redskins to look elsewhere.

Su’a Cravens Fit as Redskins’ Strong Safety

Now one of the first things you notice immediately after turning on the film is Su’a Cravens’ playmaking ability on the field. Here is an example of a sack and a tackle for loss where Cravens uses form-tackling to drag each player down in the backfield.

As discussed previously, the ability to defend the run is an extremely important aspect of the strong safety position for Joe Barry’s nickel defense. Against Stanford he defends a stretch run to the right staying square down the line of scrimmage. Using excellent technique with his arms extended to stay clean of the opposing blocks, he sheds three separate men to tackle the ballcarrier by the sideline. This is actually my favorite play made by Su’a Cravens in all of the film I watched of him.

Recruited as a safety, he moves very well in space and consitently took great pursuit angles to bring down the ballcarrier. Additionally, he was asked to lineup against slot receivers and tight ends carrying seam routes and playing hook zones in USC’s defense.

Special Teams Added Value

Jay Gruden said that Su’a Cravens “can come in and begin to contribute” immediately on special teams. Here is an example of Cravens making a great special teams tackle in space on a kick return versus California.

Su’a Cravens’ versatility offers a skill-set that fits directly into Joe Barry’s defense and General Manager Scot McCloughan’s core philosophy in building a team of “football players.”

So why did he fall in the draft into the second round?

He simply doesn’t have the size of a traditional safety or a inside linebacker making him a “tweener prospect” in NFL standards. If the Redskins use him in defined situations like on special teams or in nickel defense allowing him time to develop, they could have a valuable building block going forward.

Follow Samuel Gold on Twitter: @SamuelRGold.



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