Free Agent Profile: Jairus Byrd
It’s not often we enter an offseason with teams having just been given a blueprint for change to follow. The Seattle Seahawks defense in 2013 was so destructive and dominant right down to throttling the life out of one of the greatest offenses and quarterbacks in NFL history in the Super Bowl that it is only natural the rest of the league would want to try and emulate it.
That team has gone against the grain in several areas and had such success that there are going to be multiple franchises this offseason who will try to follow that blueprint.
The problem is that in certain key areas the Seahawks have unusual but key personnel that make the scheme work. Most other sides don’t. One of those key pieces of personnel is free safety Earl Thomas. He primarily patrols the deep middle for Seattle and allows them to deploy one fewer deep defender than most other sides.
Earl Thomas might be the best athlete playing safety in today’s NFL. He is certainly one of less than a hand full of players in the league with the range to play deep middle and be able to impact both sidelines in the passing game.
That’s not to say he is the perfect player some make him out to be. As impressive as his range is, he misses too many tackles and has a tendency to get lost when guessing on passes underneath, allowing routes in behind him that he should have been in position to cover. I’m not convinced he is the best safety in the game, but he does have rare if not unique abilities.
While you might want to copy that Seattle defensive scheme, in order to make it work you need to find your Earl Thomas – you need that rangy free safety.
The Key to Emulating the Seattle D?
Until recently I thought Jairus Byrd was one of those guys. It makes sense. Byrd has played a lot of single high safety in Buffalo, especially last year under Mike Pettine’s Rex Ryan inspired defense.
The single-high safety role is usually inversely related to making a lot of plays in the passing game – you’re just asking that guy to cover too much ground and giving quarterbacks too much space to put the football. Byrd though makes plays in the pass game despite this role, grading well at PFF and having impressive coverage numbers.
Adding two and two together suggests this must be because he has the range to get it done. In this case however, 2 plus 2 throws up 5.
Byrd doesn’t make those plays by having Thomas-style range. In fact when you watch the tape he doesn’t play any faster than his average 40-time which is in the 4.5s or 4.6s (depending on venue and source you prefer).
I have seen Byrd try and chase down plays from behind and been outrun by one of his own linebackers over 60 yards. Instead, he is able to influence plays by a combination of great instincts, cheating in coverage by alignment, and by creating range with depth.
Creating and Advantage
When you watch Byrd on tape you will see him regularly cheat to one side of the field, leaving one side of the coverage essentially on an island with no safety help – in cover zero. This will sound familiar to anybody that watched the Jets under Ryan and Pettine when Revis was on the roster, but the trend pre-dates Pettine in Buffalo. He was doing the same thing under the previous regime in far less exotic coverage shells.
Byrd is very good at splitting receivers in his drop rather than splitting the field in half. If the wide receiver splits shrink the field for him he’ll readily take advantage of that and minimize the ground he has to cover. This accounts for some of his unusual alignment when playing deep middle on his own. Many players when they are defending that zone will focus on the quarterback or split the field in half without realizing the receiver splits could buy them a little more space.
He does seem to occasionally cheat beyond what the route combinations dictate he can however, leaving one side of the field to itself and gambling that he has read the play correctly. Most of the time he’s right.
The other way he manufactures range for himself is by playing with depth. When he plays deep middle he is often 25+ yards deep by the time he comes out of his backpedal. That’s around five yards deeper than Thomas is in the same kind of coverage.
At that kind of depth you don’t need Earl Thomas range to be able to impact the sideline deep, it buys you the angle and space to be able to cover the same routes. Thomas can play shallower because he has the kind of range and recovery speed to make up those five yards of depth.
While Jairus Byrd might not have the kind of ‘pure’ range that I thought he had before I started watching the tape more closely, he does have the ‘practical’ range to mean it doesn’t really matter. You can’t ask Byrd to do exactly what Earl Thomas does, but you can ask him to play the same role in a close copy of that defense and expect him to excel.
Byrd doesn’t run a 4.3, and he can’t fly to the football like Earl Thomas can – because that’s a very rare ability – but Byrd excels at a variety of other skills that enables him to make up the difference in raw speed and play every bit as well as Thomas in a similar role.
If you’re looking to recreate the Seattle defense you’re going to need your version of a rangy free safety to play the deep middle. Jairus Byrd can’t run like the wind, but he is one of the few players that can handle that role and make that defense possible.
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