Micah Hyde loves the "game within the game."
The Buffalo Bills’ veteran safety understands the key to disrupting opposing offenses isn’t necessarily possessing superior athleticism, but sowing confusion. And in order to confuse an opponent’s offense, he needs to confuse the quarterback.
In order to confuse the quarterback, he needs to understand how a quarterback thinks — not only his physical strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — but the mental side of the game, how a QB tries to identify coverage and potential blitzes at the line of scrimmage, often by using motion and hard counts, as the play clock ticks toward zero and the ball is snapped.
A tell can mean success or failure on every down.
“The really good ones — and I was fortunate enough to be in Green Bay for four years with Aaron (Rodgers) — he’s able to see everybody on the defense,” Hyde said. “If he doesn’t get a clue from the defensive line, he looks at the linebackers. If the linebackers don’t tell him, he looks at the safeties. If the safeties don’t tell him — his last resort, he looks at the corners.
“And the corners usually always give it up. Because a lot of teams, they don’t tie their corners into the disguise. We do. It’s something different here, so it doesn’t really show our defense. But there’s definitely a game within the game, and the elite quarterbacks know that. It’s a skill, for sure.”
The Bills’ defense has ranked among the best in the NFL at limiting explosive passes, those big gains of more than 20 yards that can swing a game in an instant, in each of the last two seasons.
The Bills owned the NFL’s top-ranked passing defense last season, based on total passing yards allowed, and they were especially effective at limiting the deep pass. Buffalo allowed just 11 completions of 20 yards or longer through the air, the fewest in the league, according to sharpfootballstats.com. (This does not include shorter passes that went for long gains.) Chicago was second with 14 such passes allowed. It accounted for just 4% of all passes the Bills allowed.
And this was not an anomaly, but a trend.
In 2017, the Bills allowed 12 completions of 20 yards or longer through the air, which accounted for just 3% of all completions they gave up and tied Tennessee for the second-fewest allowed in the league. Philadelphia was tops, allowing just nine such completions on the way to its Super Bowl championship.
"We’re a top-down defense," Hyde said. "We feel like we can give up those shorter plays and stuff, where we’ll come back and tackle them, but we just can’t give up deep balls, because that’s what hurts defenses too much. So we preach that and we try to emphasize that in the game."
The Bills are giving up fewer deep balls than most teams, in part, because their strategy discourages opponents from testing them deep.
Last season, Buffalo's opponents averaged just 5.8 yards per pass attempt, tied with Baltimore and Chicago for the lowest in the NFL.
The Bills, in turn, allowed just 9.2 yards per completion, the best mark in the league.
It was a similar story in 2017, when Buffalo's opponents averaged 6.3 yards per attempt (tied for ninth-lowest), and the Bills allowed 9.9 yards per completion (tied for sixth-best).
That was a considerable improvement from 2016, when the Bills allowed 7.0 yards per attempt (which ranked 21st) and 11.7 yards per completion (29th).
The Bills’ emphasis on taking away the deep ball, and ability to do so, coincided with the arrival of head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the free agent signings of Hyde and fellow safety Jordan Poyer, and the team using a first-round draft pick on cornerback Tre’Davious White.
“I think when we came here early on, we did a really good job of establishing that that was the main philosophy — we’re not going to give up big plays,” Poyer said.
Frazier identified one game early in the group’s tenure that put the rest of the league on notice — a Week 4, 23-17 victory at Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2017.
Hyde twice intercepted Matt Ryan on deep passes. The first came when the Falcons were driving in the third quarter, after the Bills had taken a 14-10 lead, and Hyde snagged a deep pass down the middle of the field at the 12-yard line. The Bills then pieced together a 19-play drive that ended in a field goal and chewed 11:20 off the clock.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 1, 2017
Hyde had another interception with three minutes remaining, this time off a tipped pass that traveled about 20 yards through the air.
“They take away people’s desire to go down deep against our defense,” Frazier said about his starting safeties during training camp. “In particular, Micah Hyde. His ball skills, I remember the first year, the first two or three games people were challenging us down the field.
“We go down to Atlanta, people would challenge Micah in the middle of the field and he would do a great interception and as the season went on there were fewer and fewer people taking shots at our defense, and last year was similar. A lot of that has to do with Micah Hyde, who just discourages quarterbacks from taking shots down the field because of his range and athleticism.”
It takes a degree of intelligence and communication for the Bills’ defensive players to understand the big picture and all be on the same page.
“Communication is probably the biggest thing in our defense, from top to bottom,” Poyer said. “Everybody’s got to be on the same page. Everybody’s got to be doing their specific job in order for our defense to work.”
But beyond that, the physical tools are an obvious, critical component.
A disguise in coverage, by its very nature, essentially entails lining up out of position and being able to recover without getting burned.
“The way I was always taught, even since little league, the good coaches always say, ‘You don’t jeopardize your coverage,’ ” Hyde said. “So if you’re supposed to be in the middle of the field, obviously I’m not going to be on the line of scrimmage messing with the quarterback. You can’t do that. You’ve got to get to the middle of the field. You’ve got to be on top of everything. You’re supposed to be the deepest of the deepest, you’ve got to be the deepest of the deepest. So there’s little things like that.
“But within our secondary, we just have so much confidence in each other, so that when Po is showing something, I try to tie off him. When Tre’Davious wants to show something, when Levi (Wallace), when Taron (Johnson), there’s a whole bunch of different stuff that our secondary does, that you want to tie in some blitzes with some man, with some zone coverage looks, so it’s crazy, man. It is.”
Hyde and Poyer coordinate disguises with the rest of the defense, based on their vantage point, their ability to see the entire field, and a proximity to teammates that allows communication with players to their left and right.
“The opposite corner might not see what’s going on on the other side of the field,” Hyde said. “So the disguise, if he wants to show something, the disguise might not work. So that’s where the safeties come in: ‘Hey, you do this. You do this.’ And me and Po will talk about doing something, and that’s when we give the look. And obviously we know the call in the back of our heads, so we know where we’re supposed to be.”
Without giving away strategy, Hyde suggested that the Bills might show single-high coverage pre-snap, but then they switch to Cover 2.
“That’s simple. I think that football people understand that,” Hyde said. “But the next level is playing the ‘game within the game,’ and knowing first half you’re showing single-high, you get the Cover 2. But in the second half you switch up so single-high, you get the Quarters. It throws the quarterback off. He’s thinking Cover 2, you jump into something and make a turnover.”
Sometimes there is no disguise, and single high is, in fact, single high, which can contribute to a quarterback’s uncertainty.
The so-called “game within the game” — it’s a mind game.
“I feel like we’ve done a great job in the walkthroughs, how we just tie everything in,” White said, “as far as like coming strong-side blitz, you do a good job of showing the other side, or vice versa. Or if we’re not even coming, we do a good job of just disguising, because everything is tied into it.
“It’s not like somebody’s coming, but it looks like an erratic blitz or something that’s not realistic. It’s something that guys look at and we really can sell it. I feel like we do a great job.”
Much of the Bills’ continued success in the secondary stems from familiarity, the same coaches and players growing together over time.
In much the same way that the Bills’ revamped offensive line needs to play together to develop consistency, that applies to the secondary, as well.
“And that’s what I think a lot of people don’t understand,” Hyde said. “It’s not just me, it’s Po, it’s the corners, it’s the linebackers all tying in to make it one look, and then we come out and run something else. It’s a skill.
“Obviously, we take pride in not giving up deep balls, but that’s something you’ve got to continue to work on. Because you never know when something might happen, a play might break down, someone might get past me. And then the next thing that everyone’s going to be saying is, ‘Oh, we gave up a 50-yard, 60-yard pass. We blew it.’
“I think that we have the confidence in disguising — everybody on defense has the confidence in doing it. We practice it a lot, and that’s what makes us so good at it.”