A lot has been made about the signing of free safety Jairus Byrd by the New Orleans Saints at the onset of 2014 free agency. However, one thing that appears to be lost in the shuffle of "how did Loomis do this?" and the projected Saints defense is just what makes Byrd so special. People tend to get so wrapped in the logistics of a deal that they forget about what’s important: the player that the contract is being offered to.
Coming out of the 2013 season, Byrd was considered a top commodity at not only the free safety position, but in the NFL. He’s often discussed as a ball hawk that can create turnovers and make plays. Perhaps the best example of his talent in 2013 came against Geno Smith and the Jets. Byrd had two interceptions in this game, feeding on the young quarterback and his mistakes.
Byrd’s first pick came in the second quarter on a second down and twelve against Geno and the Jets.
The Jets come out in a basic singleback shotgun formation. The Bills counter this with a 3-3-5 defense and a single safety high. Buffalo loved to isolate Byrd (circled in red) up top, since he works best when he’s flowing with the quarterback’s eyes. He is the high safety on this play, essentially centerfield. The defense Buffalo runs on this play is a Cover 1 man robber. The low safety, circled in blue, is the "robber." It’s his duty to take away intermediate routes in the middle. Byrd’s is to take away routes over the top. The other 3 defensive backs are playing man to man on this play. The outside and slot corners are all giving their men a solid cushion on the outside. This is Geno’s first mistake: He should check to a 3-step route on this play and take advantage of the soft coverage. He doesn’t do so.
The tight end Cumberland’s starting position and route is indicated in yellow. The Bills bring a 5 man pass rush and keep one linebacker as a spy. The two outside corners have already committed to man. The near and far side guys have both already opened their hips in anticipation of the receivers’ routes. Now, the smart play at this point would be for Geno to go to the receiver top side of the screen and cut his losses. The corner is allowing that completion. Smith, however, has not looked away from his primary read, Cumberland, once on this play. Byrd is staring at Smith from his topside position. The underneath safety has only just begun to commit to Cumberland and drifts towards the middle of the field.
One thing that a static image cannot adequately demonstrate is how Byrd is reading the play. He is constantly hopping on the balls of his feet, getting ready to a.) Switch directions or b.) Make a jump on the ball. Safeties get in trouble when they’re flat-footed. Byrd is excellent at making sure that he is always ready to jump a play.
This is at the moment of release. Cumberland actually has a step and inside position on the robber safety, who got pushed too far over the top. Byrd, however, flips his hips the moment Smith lets go of the ball and makes a break on it.
Byrd can’t be seen underneath Cumberland at this point due to his jump. He undercuts Cumberland’s route and dives forward to shield his position. Cumberland has no chance to break up the pass, and Byrd comes away with an interception that, while easy in terms of result, takes a lot of patience to get.
However, Byrd isn’t going to be the one single piece that puts the Saints’ defense over the top. There’s a reason that Rob Ryan is bringing in safeties from Timbuktu and beyond. The risk that a team runs with a Cover 1 defense is that the centerfielder can be beaten. He can be fooled. And Byrd has been in that situation before as well. You take the bad with the good sometimes.
This is a Base I formation for the Saints. Buffalo is in a base 3-4 over front. This means that they have their basic 3-4, but the linebackers are shaded over the tight end on the strong side. What this oftentimes indicates is that the Sam linebacker doubles as the "elephant" that chips the tight end at the line of scrimmage. Byrd is, once again, the single high safety in red. Kenny Stills is the motion man in blue, and Jimmy Graham, who had beaten Buffalo previously in this game, is the X receiver circled in green. Buffalo is running press-bail coverage on the outside.
To this point, this play looks like completely horrible spacing. Coming out of the play-fake, Stills is the inside man and Graham is still outside. This play is only a two-man route, with Pierre Thomas as a hot read out of the backfield. Byrd recognizes the dual streaks and begins his back-pedal. The front side of the Buffalo defense is just going into coverage due to the play-fake. Brees has not committed with his eyes yet and Byrd, as per usual, keeps his eyes on Brees waiting for a look.
Now, it would be disingenuous to blame this play entirely on Byrd. However, the job of a single high safety is to prevent the ultimate big play. After what looked like dual seams, Stills and Graham crisscross, throwing Buffalo’s already recovering man coverage off. Brees, at this point in the play, is looking for Graham in the middle, and Byrd, as denoted by the directional arrow, has committed to Graham.
This is just child’s play. Stills is now left all alone on the left side of the field. The open space is now literally the entire left side of the field. Byrd is still staring at Brees, and therefore misses the wheel to the outside. Brees easily converts the pass to Stills for a 69 yard touchdown pass, and the Saints bury the Bills by the end of the game.
Byrd can suffer from what we Saints fans call "Breesitis." Brees, of course, caught this ailment during the tail end of the 2012 season, in which he tried to do everything and paid dearly because of it. Byrd was in a substandard secondary in Buffalo, and was often left in single safety high coverage. Sometimes it paid off, and sometimes it didn’t. He is a very intelligent safety, and is always looking to make the big play, something that the Saints lacked in 2013. However, only blaming the surrounding talent isn't fair. Byrd is human, and does make mistakes. He doesn't take away the entire backside of the field, as many wish to believe.
He still needs help. Rob Ryan understands this. He can’t just be put on an island all of the time and then succeed, all of the time. This is why, despite safety not looking like a huge need for the Saints, Ryan is still talking to safeties. Centerfielders are high-risk high-reward type players. They take chances and make plays, but sometimes they get beat, whether it’s by reading the eyes wrong or trying to make a play that just isn’t there. Ryan will still use 2-deep coverages and strange robber sets. He'll still come out with 6 safeties and no corners because that kind of stuff is fun for him.
A major factor that Byrd will bring is the ability to create turnovers. The Saints generated an extremely mediocre 19 turnovers in 2013, only 12 of those coming on picks. They were fourth ranked in yardage and points allowed, but were extremely middle of the road in terms of turnovers. The Saints weren't so much "bend-don't-break" as they were "make-the-offense-bend-a-little." It's great to force as many punts as they did, but that doesn't win teams the field possession battle. Byrd picked up 4 interceptions last year, and had 9 in his rookie season. The potential is there, and he should instill fear into opposing offenses to throw the ball deep over the middle.
His ability to play deep also allows Kenny Vaccaro to settle into a strong safety role and let him play where he really thrives: against slot receivers and up in the box against the run. Allowing the young safety to develop can tremendously help the Saints for not only next season, but also seasons to come.
Ryan won’t tailor his entire defense around Byrd. As of right now, New Orleans doesn’t have the corners to just play man across the board and keep one safety high. He’ll continue to use various looks and coverages to confuse quarterbacks because that’s his MO. Byrd is an excellent signing and looks to improve an already very good defense. However, people that think that Byrd is going to be left to his own devices are naïve. He’s certainly a top free safety in the league, but one thing that the Saints have made clear is that they don’t just want talent. They want depth. Byrd gives them a little bit of both, and he will be a very important cog in their secondary come day one. And a cog is sometimes exactly what a star athlete needs to be.