Free safety play is one of the most difficult things to evaluate in football. How do you evaluate a guy who is often isolated, the last line of defense against up to three people? The position is not only completely reactionary, but also contingent upon the play of 10 other individuals. This is an oft overlooked aspect of free safety play. Since they spend so much time isolated high, they must see if someone gets beat. If no one is beat, they have to read the quarterback. If the quarterback is baiting them, they have to read that.
So how do you evaluate something so completely subjective? It really comes down to how the rest of the defense plays. If they're aggressive and knocking receivers off of routes, you look for an FS that can jump the route faster than the receiver can get there. If the other defenders are playing soft and giving a cushion, you look for an FS that can do one of two things:
1.) Read the quarterback to jump a route against his expectations or
2.) Patiently play the safe man and don't allow anyone to burn you.
If the other defenders are just playing poorly, you just want a guy to make the tackle and get up ready to do it the next play.
Byrd and the Saints fell strictly in that third category.
The Saints insisted on running a Cover 2 defense, even though their personnel would have far better suited either a Cover 3 or a Cover 1 man defense. Cover 2 requires that your linebackers have excellent lateral quickness, so that they can defend an entire third of the field. Anthony, Hawthorne, Ellerbe, Kikaha, you name them, they struggled in that category. This forced Byrd to constantly try to undercut routes, which took him out of plays. Kenny Vaccaro also spent a lot of time underneath, which is good, the problem is that he spent a lot of time underneath in Cover 2, which is not as good. This left an entire deep half of the field open. Byrd thrives when he's single high, able to survey the field. The Saints' personnel even better reflects that, with Delvin Breaux excelling in man coverage. Hopefully, when Damian Swann and Keenan Lewis are healthy next year they'll be able to more effectively utilize that strategy.
The Saints had no intermediate help over the middle of the field. Whether it was Michael Mauti or David Hawthorne supplanting Stephone Anthony, who was awful in coverage all year, Byrd was forced to try to cheat down to minimize the damage on the crossing routes underneath.
The Saints, on this play, are running a Cover 2 defense. The CBs are responsible for the flats, the linebackers and responsible for the intermediate routes and the safeties are responsible for the deep routes. Very simple. Dannell Ellerbe (59, WLB) is responsible for the intermediate topside third of the field, whereas Byrd is responsible for the deep top half of the field.
The thing about zone coverage that a lot of people don't fully understand is that it isn't set in stone. It isn't "I'm going to stand here until someone comes here," but more "someone is here, I'm going to follow him until I can reliably pass him off." The biggest misconception about zone coverage is the idea that "I cannot turn my back to the QB." You absolutely can, if there's no one to pick up your zone. The reason that I give this exposition is because, at this point in the play, assignments are pretty clearly defined. Byrd is now responsible for the slot receiver running the post route, Ellerbe is now responsible for the top receiver running a fly, and the topside corner is now responsible for the checkdown RB. Byrd commits to the receiver running the post, effectively turning his hips towards the middle of the field.
This isn't all Ellerbe's fault, because he doesn't have eyes on the back of his head to see Byrd committing to that inside receiver. However, when Julio Jones is about to run by you, you commit to Julio Jones until you're certain he's covered. Furthermore, if that checkdown back is already being covered by a DB, you have to anticipate that one of the receivers turned upfield is going to be open. By staggering their receivers' routes, the Falcons have effectively utilized the levels play, designed to break the exact coverage that the Saints are using. Ellerbe's refusal to take his eyes off of Ryan is ultimately his downfall on this particular play, as Byrd is now isolated in a 2v1 situation.
Ryan hits Jones for 30 yards on this play, as Jones gets chased down by Ellerbe. Byrd was forced to make a wide, sweeping arc to adjust to the play, taking him out of the play entirely.
I'd also like to go back for just a moment, to note something else that occurs earlier in the play.
This is right after the immediate play action. There is a gift and a curse to having a safety that thinks like Kenny Vaccaro. The gift is that he can make plays in the running game and rotate down underneath, the curse is that sometimes he doesn't think like a safety when he needs to be. That red is the Bermuda Triangle of safety play. There is no good angle, and in a Cover 2 defense you simply cannot be 8 yards below the receiver's trajectory when you're isolated against a post route. If Vaccaro reads this play better, then Byrd doesn't have to undercut the post route and he can still make a play on Jones.
This is a similar play design, only with a man wrinkle, that yields nearly the opposite result. The Saints run two safeties high, with players leaking to the flats. Each player is responsible for the player lined up opposite them.
Kyle Wilson is on the slot receiver, Brian Dixon is the topside flank. They successfully trail their receivers inside. With no one left free and no one coming over the top, Byrd is now left to do what he does best: make a break on the play. The idea of a "free" safety is that they aren't constrained to any one particular man or route in most coverages. This allows them to read plays and jump them accordingly, as seen on this route.
Roughly 1.2 seconds in, and still no separation. Byrd is about 15 yards back from the receiver on the in, and Cameron Jordan has just shed his block on the outside and is attacking Luck. It's at this point in the play that Luck likely accepts the inevitable...
...Sack. If Luck throws this pass, it's going to be broken up or deflected by Byrd. Byrd closed 13 yards in less than a second, a ridiculous pace. Luck recognized the play as a lost cause, as the Saints' pass rush was too aggressive for the Colts' passing game to have anything develop on this play.
Any QB won't be able play as well if they can't go through their progressions, but a QB like Andrew Luck that loves to extend plays will have his game decimated if he can't make a read. The topside in is his first, and only read on this play, and he smartly decides to not force the throw and concede to the NO pass rush.
One thing that struck me as I went back to look at Byrd this year was how much Cover 2 the Saints actually ran. On this one, they invert Delvin Breaux and Kenny Vaccaro, having the latter play underneath and the former play high, but the scheme is still very quintessentially C2. This is Byrd's only pick on the season. It's a play where literally everything went wrong for the Texans, and it's so quintessentially Byrd.
Cecil Shorts III is going to try to sneak over the intermediate linebackers and under Byrd. The Texans are trying to get all of their receivers into space to negate the zone coverage (the general idea of a spread offense. Byrd and Breaux are responsible for the high parts of the field, while the DBs are responsible for the flats. Shorts is shoved at the line, impeding his route.
This is where things go from bad to worse for Houston. Hoyer is forced out of the pocket, and the Saints are closing in. Perhaps you'll recall the Bermuda Triangle I mentioned Vaccaro was in earlier? When the receiver is in front of the safety, that route is inverted. Now Byrd has the jump. Notice how in every still, Byrd's hips form a right angle from Hoyer's. That's textbook safety play. A quarterback can fool a player with his eyes, but the hips are much harder to deceive with, as they directly impact how well the ball will travel.
This is the point of no return, as Hoyer has thrown the ball and Byrd can now break. The Saints have proper coverage underneath, so Hoyer is forced to try and elevate.
Notice how as Byrd is ghosting Shorts over the top, he's also got a step on him. This makes it so that he can adjust to any type of overthrow. Byrd would end up picking this pass off. It was his only pick of the season, a sad statistic, but one that can be remedied.
For Byrd to succeed, his instincts need to utilized effectively. He didn't look slower last year, but he certainly looked more unsure of himself. When, as an FS, you're forced to cover the entire field, you're not able to make reads like you otherwise would. Byrd made the plays that he could, the problem was that most of the plays that he was in a position to make a play on the receiver had already beaten the players at the level below him. As an FS, that makes the best you can do damage control. But the Saints didn't pay for a damage control safety, they paid for a game changer, so that's what fans expect. Byrd played okay in 2015. However, without an amazing 2016 and a restructure, it's going to become far more difficult to rationalize his escalating price tag. Byrd makes $7.4 million in 2016, third most on the team behind Drew Brees and Cameron Jordan, both of whom are established captains on their respective units. This is a prove it year for Byrd, but he needs help to prove anything. An FS without help is useless, but with some help Byrd still has the potential to be a top flight safety.