IOWA CITY, Iowa — Phil Parker knows from personal experience how to play and coach the defense’s most versatile position.
A three-time first-team all-Big Ten safety in the mid-1980s at Michigan State, Iowa’s defensive coordinator not only covered ground in the passing game but also delivered some big-time hits in run support.
Iowa’s secondary has reflected Parker’s style of play in his 18 seasons with the program. Under his tutelage, 14 defensive backs have earned all-Big Ten recognition. Eleven were NFL draft picks, including three who didn’t even attain all-league acclaim. That NFL list likely will grow with cornerback Desmond King, the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner, and possibly opposite-side cornerback Greg Mabin.
With that history, coupled with Parker’s prowess at the position, it’s perplexing to see Iowa’s current inconsistency at safety. The Hawkeyes legacy includes thunderous hitters Bob Sanders, Sean Considine and Jordan Lomax, as well as playmakers Tyler Sash, Brett Greenwood and Matt Bowen.
This year’s tandem of junior Miles Taylor and sophomore Brandon Snyder bring big-time hits, no doubt. Snyder has forced two fumbles, recovered another and has two interceptions. Taylor, the team’s energetic leader, might be the hardest hitter on the team. But when they get trapped in space, they have struggled, both in the passing game and stopping ball carriers.
Parker possesses a fiery sideline reputation, but he’s more deliberate when explaining the growth these players need to make.
“We talk about it all the time; it’s getting in the right place,” Parker said last week. “I’d rather tackle a guy in the doorway. I tell these guys, you’d rather tackle a guy in the doorway than in this big room. It’s a lot easier. It comes back to the angle that you’re going with, and how you’re getting there. … Are you reading your keys fast enough and getting in the position to make the tackle?And that’s the really concern. And obviously we’ve got to continue to wrap up a little bit better. I think our guys have worked that.”
Errors prove costly
Any mistake in the secondary is high-profile, and both players have made their share. In a tie game at Kinnick Stadium, Northwestern running back Justin Jackson faked out Taylor horribly in a gap. He then raced 58 yards untouched for a go-ahead touchdown in a 38-31 Wildcats win.
Both players have hit offensive players in the middle of the field without wrapping — Snyder on Northwestern’s Austin Carr, Taylor on Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli. Both plays turned into touchdowns in one-score defeats.
Pro Football Focus charts every play for Iowa, and the safety tandem’s statistics are difficult to process. According to PFF, Snyder has played a team-high 565 snaps while Taylor has 545 snaps. PFF describes Snyder as “slightly better than average vs. the run, terrible in coverage, in fact the worst DB on the team.” PFF defines Taylor’s play as “average defending the run, very poor in pass coverage.”
Iowa’s official statistics have Snyder with 50 tackles and Taylor with 40. According to PFF, Snyder has 38 tackles with 11 misses and Taylor has 31 tackles with eight misses.
In pass coverage, the numbers are cringe-worthy. Quarterbacks targeted Snyder targeted 17 times with 11 receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns, according to PFF. He also has two interceptions (at Minnesota and against North Dakota State). Opponents targeted Taylor 23 times. He’s allowed 17 catches for 293 yards (11th most for a safety in coverage) and two scores.
Snyder produced one standout game this year at Rutgers, when he forced and recovered a fumble that led to the game-winning touchdown. That game also was the only positively graded game for Taylor. Of the 341 safeties who have played at least 25 percent of the snaps, Snyder ranks 261st and Taylor 313th, according to PFF. Taylor posted his lowest-graded game of the season against Wisconsin. He was targeted four times and allowed three receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Tackling a problem
The pass rush and the secondary’s coverage have a reciprocal effect against a passing game. Those numbers fluctuate on variables. But tackling the ball carrier, that’s often a one-on-one situation and where Parker has placed much of his focus with his safeties.
“Obviously that’s a concern of mine, when they do miss tackles,” Parker said. “It’s sometimes the angles and maybe duck their head, keeping (their) eyes up. And we talk about all those things you have to do, but eventually it comes to putting their full body on top of a guy.”
With three top-20 opponents in its final four games, Iowa’s defense needs its safeties to take a leap forward to remain competitive. Penn State boasts the league’s best running back in Saquon Barkley. Michigan will use all-purpose threat Jabrill Peppers, perhaps the nation’s best player, in multiple situations. Nebraska has an assortment of offensive playmakers available for the season finale in Iowa City.
Iowa’s safeties will be tested over the next 26 days. Their improvement will help determine whether the Hawkeyes enjoy their flight south for the winter, or if the season will be one for the birds.