Below the scorching sun and gray clouds, Jairus Byrd stood at his own five and studied the Dolphins’ players at their respective positions. The quarterback was in shotgun five yards from the left hash where the ball was placed. To his right was a running back offset, and on the outsides, two receivers inhabited the short side of the field while another stood staggered at the 20-yard line on the long side of the field. Early indications suggested a passing play.
Standing as the single-high safety in between the white painted hashes of the dark green striped field, Byrd would soon be in the middle of the play. He was the free safety, making it his job to read the passer and find the ball. It seems simple enough, but many safeties can’t do it like Byrd can. He’s different.
Passed on by NFL teams 41 times for running a 4.68 40-yard dash at his 2009 Oregon Pro Day, Byrd still finds the ball faster than most defensive backs. He does it by trusting the film, which shows common formations and concepts teams like to use. He also relies on his ability to quickly process a quarterback’s movements. It’s how he’s forced nine interceptions the last two years, and why he was one of the prized safeties on the market before the New Orleans Saints signed him to a lucrative six-year contract.
When the Dolphins quarterback caught the snap, he took one step back and looked to his left where the slot receiver ran a slant route. The receiver had inside positioning on the cornerback, who shaded outside and looked for Byrd’s help inside.
Byrd paid no mind to the slot receiver. He watched the quarterback, waiting for the throwing shoulder to rise an inch or the elbow to raise or the ball to be cocked back. The millisecond the quarterback’s shoulder rose, Byrd pivoted his right foot, leaned forward and went after the ball. He was on path to intersect the ball’s flight to the slot receiver, who was open. The second the receiver leaned in and touched it, however, Byrd turned his right shoulder and blasted him, separating him from the ball and leaving him flat on his back.
This was Byrd showing his range and route recognition. It was a short distance to cover and read — a mere 15 yards — but it was enough to show potential future employers what he could do as their defense’s air traffic controller.
The Saints noticed. When the first day of free agency rolled around in the new year, they quickly signed him and put him in the back of their defense, where he’ll study, read, and attack every quarterback’s throw. He’ll play primarily free safety, something he didn’t always do for the Bills. Despite the position labels, he rotated down into the tackle box as a run defender or blitzed on occasion, making a quick tackle or a sack.
In New Orleans, he’ll play more free safety for good reason. His ball skills, instincts, recognition and awareness are ideal for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme. It requires a reliable safety to cover up for man coverage mistakes made by linebackers and defensive backs underneath. The Saints thought they could rely on Malcolm Jenkins to do that, but he proved otherwise.
One play that shows Byrd’s recognition and ball skills is his second interception against the New York Jets in Week 11.
Down 20 points, the Jets faced second-and-14 from their own 16. They were almost certain to pass despite a running back lined up to the quarterback’s left; they had four receivers out wide, with three on the right and one on the left.
Byrd, meanwhile, was positioned as a deep single safety. Because of the ball on the right hash, he was lined up on the left hash to balance the tilted playing field. His responsibility in the Bills’ Cover 3 zone call was to patrol the middle and jump any inside-breaking routes that came in front of him. One could come from the single receiver side, as teams have a tendency to call them there.
As Byrd awaited the snap, he quickly analyzed the receiver’s alignment. It was outside the numbers, the first clue to an inside-breaking route. Receivers frequently aligned this way to give themselves additional room to pin the cornerback on his heels before they broke inside. This tendency connected a dot to another: all routes, sans double moves and quick ones like slants, break at roughly a dozen yards downfield, as Bleacher Report’s Matt Bowen frequently points out. That’s about how deep Byrd was from the line.
When the play began, the receiver ran vertically for 13 yards, stemming his route and attempting to set the cornerback up with a quick shoulder shake outside prior to breaking inside.
Byrd kept that in mind but didn’t watch the receiver. Instead he watched the quarterback, like he often does. The quarterback took him from outside the near hash to the middle of the field and then back outside where the single receiver was. Byrd shuffled, then stuck his foot in the ground and ran toward the receiver as the quarterback threw the ball. When the receiver broke inside near the 35, Byrd was there waiting. As the ball came over the defense, Byrd caught it like he was fielding a punt.
On an interception he registered three weeks later against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he showed a similar thought process.
It was another obvious passing down; third-and-nine. The Bucs had the ball on the Bills’ 33-yard line and looked to add to their 14-3 lead. They were in shotgun formation, with two receivers lined up on the left side of the field. This was the wide side. On the short side, only one receiver was lined up well outside the numbers.
Inside the numbers to that same side was Byrd. At the 20, he stood and took forward and lateral steps, watching for any movements before the snap that tipped off the Bucs’ intentions. There wasn’t much. But when the ball snapped, he took one step to his right and then turned his hips to the left where the receiver was running his route. This was Quarters coverage, meaning he’d be helping the cornerback to his side cover the outside receiver.
Byrd didn’t move much. He mostly stood at the 20 and waited for the receiver to come to him. He knew it would be an in-breaking route. All the signs were there: a wide split outside the numbers, a strong vertical stem and, eventually, a break after a dozen yards.
The receiver turned his shoulders at the 20, at the same time the quarterback threw a tight spiral from a collapsing pocket. The receiver slipped, but he wasn’t getting the ball anyway. It was Byrd’s all the way.
Byrd’s different than most safeties. He’s not as fast as they are, but he processes the game at a far greater speed. He’s made a living finishing receivers’ routes for them. He does it with a combination of intense film study and his natural traits, like the ability to track the ball with awareness and instincts. It’s why he’s one of the best NFL air traffic controllers.
It’s also why the Saints paid him $54 million to be theirs.