Free safety has to be one of the most difficult positions to gauge success in, because there are just so many ways to play it. Some people may base it on not giving up deep plays, others may base it on interceptions and still others may base success on diagnosing and stopping plays. The Saints’ defensive scheme throughout 2016 was fairly consistent, for better or for worse. They kept their safeties high and away from the play to compensate for their debilitated cornerback situation, including utilizing a lot of three safety sets.
Jairus Byrd struggled at times in these sets, culminating early in the season in him not starting against the San Diego Chargers. This was the week after Falcons’ running back Devonta Freeman absolutely devastated the Saints’ secondary in a Monday Night game. Freeman’s five catches for 55 yards devastated New Orleans at crucial times, and the Saints would lose the game.
You can see the amount of devastation summed up in this play, where Byrd slipped when looking to make a tackle.
No amount of film study can go into diagnosing what goes wrong on a run play, and this one is pretty self-explanatory. Byrd injured himself on the play trying to breakdown against Freeman’s acceleration, and although he recovered to make the tackle Freeman was able to pick up another dozen or so yards in the process.
Byrd, however, improved immensely through the season. According to Sporting Charts, a stats aggregation site that attempts to chart less tangible stats, the Saints gave up 29 big plays in the passing game (25+ yards). While not great or even good, it puts the Saints at the middle of the pack in big plays allowed (16th) and it gives them a differential (big plays vs. big plays allowed) of +12. A lot of this comes down to safety play, and it was partially due to how Byrd was used in the Saints’ scheme.
How New Orleans generally played defense in 2016 was a soft shell. Byrd is going to continue to not be much of a stats’ compiler in New Orleans until he is allowed to take chances in the passing game.
One thing that the 2015 Saints didn’t do that the 2016 Saints tried to do was vary their zones. This meant a lot more Cover 2, and a lot less Cover 3 throughout the year. The Chiefs on the play are running a triple seam route, designed to exploit the soft spots in the Cover 2 defense. The two corners defend the flats, while the safeties play deep. This leaves the intermediate routes open, as the three remaining linebackers are tasked with covering an inordinate amount of space (this theory is why the Tampa 2 defense is so difficult to implement, as it requires an elite coverage Mike for the middle third of the deep field).
The red cone is a rudimentary representation of Byrd’s field of view, or FOV. FOV is extremely important for a high safety, and it’s why Cover 3 requires its safeties to play abnormally high. In Cover 2, Byrd is only responsible for seeing half the field, while the other half is tasked to the other high safety (in this case, Vonn Bell). Because they’re in Cover 2, Byrd doesn’t start his backpedal right away (while the rookie Bell does on the other side of the field). The Saints lock up the three receivers in man to man off the line of scrimmage, hoping to deceive Alex Smith. Smith sees a linebacker on his number one receiver, Jeremy Maclin, and decides he’s going to hit that seam.
At this point, whether it’s a savvy play by the Saints defense or a stupid play by Smith is in the eye of the beholder. The topside corner sets his receiver loose, Bell breaks for the seam leaving the lone nearside receiver wide open, and Travis Kelce (circled) is left alone in the middle of the field. Smith, however, bit on the initial look and tries to make the throw to the only person being recognized by the Saints’ defense as a threat.
Only Alex Smith could make what could be called a “safe” throw into triple coverage, but that’s the case here. He slightly overthrows Maclin, and the Saints’ defense lives to fight another day.
Byrd’s best game of the season and arguably as a Saint came against Tampa Bay in the penultimate game of the season. The Saints run an inverted Cover 1 (or a Cover 1 Robber, if you will) in which rather than playing over the top the high safety undercuts the routes being run. It’s just man-to-man with a rover, essentially, the rover being Byrd in this case.
The idea of Robber plays is that they’re high risk high reward. Best case, it’s an extra set of eyes on the field. Worst case, it’s a liability that’s taking themselves out of the play. Jameis Winston played a bad game in this particular game against the Saints, but only the sense that his inexperience showed. He looks topside to Shepherd on this entire play, and rather than dropping back Byrd plays horizontally on a level field. He begins to drift to his left, following Winston’s eyes.
As a roaming safety, when the QB’s hips open, your hips open too. That’s the general rule. Winston times the route correctly, hitting Shepherd right out of his break, but as soon as Winston makes the throw, Byrd breaks on the ball with him. It’s the kind of throw that a quarterback wants back as soon as they see the guy break.
Easy(ish). Winston has an impressive arm, but Byrd only has to go about 10-15 yards to get to the ball in time. He’s able to undercut Shepherd’s route and make his second interception of the game, and his third as a Saint.
The potential is clearly there. Byrd certainly had his embarrassing plays, but he was still third on the team in tackles at 56. A lot of the Saints’ defensive problems are systemic, and Byrd is diagnosing plays fairly efficiently. When only the middle linebacker and the other free safety (Bell) end up with more tackles than the free safety, that simply means that players are getting into the secondary entirely too easily.
Byrd was at his best when he was in Buffalo and given a bit of rope to freelance. Keeping him 30 yards off the line of scrimmage doesn’t let him make the plays he’s used to making. If the Saints get some corners and the Saints still continue to give up big plays, then worrying about Byrd would likely be warranted, but to say that he hasn’t had a lot of secondary help would be an understatement.
In 2017, the Saints’ secondary will hopefully return to form. With a healthy Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, and Damian Swann (although the long-term health of the latter two is a concern), it’s possible that Byrd can come into his own for the Saints.