Speedy New York Jets running back Trenton Cannon raced in motion behind the line of scrimmage and burst up the right sideline in the third quarter of last week’s game.
Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde shifted from his position near the line of scrimmage and raced to blanket Cannon before he got 5 yards downfield. Jets quarterback Sam Darnold had nowhere to throw the ball and tossed a harmless incomplete pass.
It was the kind of play that Bills veteran safeties Hyde and Jordan Poyer routinely nip in the bud before it comes open for the opposing offense.
And it’s an example of why the Bills rank No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense. The secondary is assignment sound.
“He was prepared enough to know when No. 40 was in the game for them, he was a specialty player,” Bills defensive backs coach John Butler said. “So if he came motioning across fast to your side, they’re not doing that for smokescreen. They’re doing it because they want to get him the ball. We didn’t necessarily run that specific play, but he knew that when that player was in the game, something could come his way. That awareness is critical to have.”
The Bills enter Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions ranked No. 1 in the NFL in overall yards allowed (290.6) and passing yards allowed (185.8).
The players will embrace whatever prestige they can get with three weeks left in their season with a chance at the playoffs evaporated.
“A hundred percent,” Hyde said. “We’re out here, whether it’s in practice competing against each other, trying to get some takeaways, not giving up big plays, we take pride in that stuff. We do. If someone said they don’t care about it, I think they’d be lying to you. Because you want to finish No. 1 on defense, No. 1 in the secondary. You want to get the most takeaways. ... We definitely want to finish No. 1.”
The 45-year-old Butler is in his first season as Bills defensive backs coach after spending the past three years with the Houston Texans. He appreciates the chance to coach a veteran safety tandem.
“I think it’s a nice benefit to have two very experienced and very talented and very professional players back there running our secondary,” Butler said. “The safeties obviously take the lead with what we do on defense in the back end, and those guys are as good as they come in terms of their preparation and professionalism.”
The Bills lead the NFL in fewest pass plays of 20-plus yards and 40-plus yards allowed (29 and 1, respectively). That reflects the scheme. The Bills are not a heavy blitzing, gambling defense.
“I think it first speaks to the philosophy of our defense as it relates to Coach (Sean) McDermott and Leslie Frazier, and how they install it,” Butler said. “We don’t want to give up big plays. You have a chance in this league defensively if you don’t give up big-play passes. A lot of that has to do with personnel. A lot of it has to do with the call. But those guys understand the importance of it. We emphasize it consistently.”
The fact Hyde and Poyer are interchangeable in the back line helps coaches give quarterbacks different looks.
“Micah is a safety who has a multiple skill set,” Butler said. “He can cover like a corner. He can tackle like a safety, and he has very, very good ball skills. You have those three characteristics, and that gives the coaches flexibility.”
“I think Jordan has all three of those as well,” Butler said. “He’s a very physical player. They’re very similar. Jordan is down in the box a lot, kind of scuffling around, fighting with the receivers and tight ends. He does a nice job of that.”
Hyde and Poyer have made fewer big plays this year than last year, when they combined for 10 interceptions, tops among NFL safety tandems. They have five combined interceptions this year. In terms of preventing big plays, they’re doing better in their second year together, with the help of their defensive teammates.
Bills have a cushion of 232 yards over No. 2 Jacksonville in the race to be the No. 1 pass defense. The race for No. 1 in yards allowed is closer. Buffalo is 44 yards up on Baltimore. Detroit’s offense enters Sunday’s game ranked 24th in yards and 22nd in passing yards.
“Our No. 1 goal as a defense is to play well enough to help the team win, everything else kind of falls in line behind that,” Butler said. “All of our guys are aware of where we’re at, and they want to play at a high level. If that means we finish as the No. 1 defense or the No. 1 pass defense, I think that’s a collateral benefit.”