What is a Safety in football? Explaining the NFL’s oddest scoring play

A safety is one of the rarest ways to score in the NFL. Here's everything you need to know about scoring a safety and its impact on the game.
New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans
New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans / Wesley Hitt/GettyImages

The game of football is unlike any other in professional sports. Players can score by passing, catching, or running the ball into the endzone or by kicking the ball through the uprights of the field goalpost.

There are numerous ways to score when a team isn't even on offense. On special teams, a return man can field a kick or punt and take it to the endzone for a score. Special teams defenses can score with a blocked punt or field goal that is returned to the opposite endzone for a touchdown, and on defense, players can intercept a pass or scoop up a fumble and return it for six points.

But there's another way to score that not all fans are familiar with.

A safety is one of the least common scoring players in football, but it has a critical impact in shifting the tides of the game.

What is a Safety?

A safety is a way for a defense or special teams to score two points against the offense by stopping them in their own endzone. This can occur in several ways.

Football has two types of 'safeties' that can make things confusing. There is the safety position that is responsible for manning the back end of the defense. Within this, there are differences between strong safeties and free safeties, while some teams use three safeties at a time in certain defensive packages.

The safety we are referring to is the uncommon scoring play. It's rare to see as much as one safety play made in a game. So how does a team score a safety?

How Does a Safety Occur?

Offensive Errors Leading to a Safety

Perhaps the most common way a safety is scored is through an offensive error. This often occurs when teams are backed up against their own endzone. Trying to pass or run the ball out of the endzone, the ball carrier is tackled without breaking the plane of the endzone and the play results in two points for the defense.

This can also happen if the ball is fumbled out of the endzone or in the endzone and is recovered by the offense and the ball carrier cannot escape the endzone. A safety can even occur if an offensive ball carrier accidentally runs the ball out of the sides or the back of the endzone.

Penalties Resulting in a Safety

Penalties can also cause a safety in the NFL. If a player commits a holding penalty while in their own endzone, this immediately results in a safety for the defense. The offense needs to be especially cautious not to commit a penalty while backed into their own endzone.

The results of the offense committing a penalty inside their own endzone would be the same as the defense making the play to stop the ball carrier inside the endzone for a safety.

Special Teams Mistakes

The final way a safety can be scored is from a special teams mistakes. If a punt is blocked and goes out of the back of the endzone -- or is recovered by the punting team in the endzone but the recovering player can not escape to break the plane -- the result of the play is a safety.

Special teams mishaps can also result in a safety if the punter muffs the ball in his own endzone or is tackled by the defense in his own endzone with the ball in his hands. A poor snap by the long snapper or an unblocked player can lead to these types of plays.

Impact of a Safety on the Game

Scoring and Points

A safety is the only play in football which results in two points for the defense. This can lead to a funky and unusual score at the end of the game. In comparison, a touchdown is worth six points. Tacking in the extra point following a touchdown is worth one point (touchdowns and successful point after attempts result in seven total points).

Along with a touchdown and extra point, a field goal is the other common way to score in the NFL. When a kicker successfully kicks the ball through the uprights without scoring a touchdown, this is worth three points -- regardless of how close or far the field goal attempt is.

Possession After a Safety

What makes a safety unlike any other scoring play in football is that the team that scored immediately gets the ball back. After a team scores a safety, the opposing team will begin on their own 20-yard line and punt the ball back to the team that just scored two points on the safety.

This rule rewards the team that scored a rare play by immediately receiving the ball -- giving them a chance to score twice in a row before the opposite team touches the football.

Historical Examples of Safeties

One of the most memorable safeties in NFL history occurred in 2008 between Detroit and Minnesota. Former Lions quarterback, Dan Orlovsky, dropped back into his own endzone to pass the football. Unfortunately, he lost track of how much real estate he had left, and he accidentally and unknowingly stepped out of the back of the endzone without being touched by a defender.

This play proved to have a substantial impact on the final outcome of the game. Though Orlovsky's safety occurred late in the first quarter, the Vikings would go on to win a low-scoring defensive back 12-10. The safety ultimately helped Minnesota secure the victory at home and keep their season alive at 3-3 while the Lions fell to 0-5.

Strategies Involving Safeties

Defensive Tactics

Not every safety that occurs in the NFL is a flukely play. There are strategies that defenses and special teams deploy to increase their chances of earning a safety.

When the offense is backed up against their own endzone, many defensive coordinators will dial up a blitz and leave the back end of their defense exposed for the chance to earn a safety. This could mean having a player shoot the 'A' gap (between the center and guard) to knife in and make a play in the endzone.

Special teams coaches also have something in their playbook for capitalizing on their chances of earning safety. When teams are forced to punt from their own endzone, special teams coordinators will often forget about dropping players back to try to get a good return. Instead, they will send the house after the punter in hopes that one player can get free to block the punt or even prevent it from happening.

Offensive Avoidance

The offense can't always avoid getting a safety, but they can lessen their chances of giving the opposing team two points when backed up against their own endzone.

This requires a combination of excellent playcalling and execution. Running the ball into the teeth of the defense isn't always the best strategy when the defense knows it's coming. Creative offensive coordinators have dialed up play-action passes or bootlegs that catch the defense off guard.

Putting a player in motion could also confuse the defense and give the quarterback a feel for what the defense intends to do to stop the offense in the endzone. Because of the over-aggressiveness of defenses with teams backed up against the endzone, the offense can sometimes turn this into a huge play with the right playcalling and execution.