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Mark Gaughan: Micah Hyde giving Bills the best free safety play in team history

Mark Gaughan: Micah Hyde giving Bills the best free safety play in team history

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Going home with a game ball

Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde (23) has his interception ball tucked under his arm as he celebrates with fans after the Bills' 38-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

File Micah Hyde’s interception return for a touchdown Sunday night under the heading: Good things eventually come to good people.

Hyde caught a break. The pass from Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes bounced directly off the hands of Tyreek Hill. Hyde was in the perfect position to make the play.

That defines Hyde’s career with the Bills. He is Mr. Reliable, Mr. Assignment Sound, Mr. Security Blanket on the back end of the defense.

“They ran a shallow route,” Hyde said of his 26-yard interception return, the biggest defensive play of the season so far. “We talk about it all the time, it happens, tips and overthrows happen, right? And, yeah, I must be living right, because we knew once the rain starts coming, those tipped balls and stuff, they happen. So just trying to get to the football, was able to tip it up and get this thing going.”

PlayAction is new to The Buffalo News' extensive NFL coverage. Each week, Mark Gaughan, who has covered the league throughout his 38 years at The News, distills X's and O's and strategy relating to how the Bills match up with their next opponent. All in about two minutes.

It wasn’t just good fortune. The Bills were in a two-deep safety look before the snap. The defensive call from coordinator Leslie Frazier was single-high safety, with man coverage underneath.

Hyde used just the right timing at the snap of the ball to come closer to the line of scrimmage and get in position behind Hill, who was being covered by Taron Johnson. Even if Hill caught the ball, Hyde was on the spot to tackle him short of the first down on the third-and-5 situation. If Hyde tips off the coverage too soon, maybe Mahomes goes somewhere else with the ball.

“I thought it was a great call, first of all, by Leslie,” said coach Sean McDermott. “But getting in the call is one thing. Secondly, is being in the right position with the right technique, the right progression of eyes and feet. And that’s where he found himself.”

Hyde is 67 games and four-plus years into his Bills career. It’s time to call him the finest free safety ever to play for the Bills.

“He’s a great player, I mean he's been a great player the whole time he's been here, just always making plays especially when we need it,” Johnson said. “So just having a guy like that, I know offenses are scared to throw the ball over the middle because he's over there and he's just a ball hawk, and we're lucky to have him.”

Everyone usually talks about Hyde and Jordan Poyer together, and they are the best safety tandem in Bills history. They’re arguably the best safety tandem in the league. (Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, and Denver’s Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson could argue the case.) Every once in a while, it’s worth appreciating Hyde and Poyer independently.

They largely are interchangeable, like the other top safety tandems in the NFL today. But Poyer plays in the box more often. He makes more tackles in run support. The Bills blitz him more often than Hyde. Poyer is the strong safety.

The best example of Hyde’s skill on the back end is the Bills’ success at preventing the big play, which is the foundation of the philosophy of both McDermott and Frazier.

The Bills allowed the fewest pass plays of 20 or more yards and 40 or more yards in the NFL in both 2018 and 2019. So far this season, the Bills have yielded just six 20-plus plays and one 40-plus plays, both lowest in the league.

In both 2019 and 2020, the Bills faced the lowest rate of passes 16 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Football Outsiders. (It was 13% last year).

So it goes again this year. Opponents are just 1 of 9 on passes of 20-plus yards downfield, according to Buffalo News charts. The lone completion was the catch by Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman for 26 yards Sunday. It took a perfect throw in the sideline hole of the Cover 2 zone and a video review for the play to stand.

Hyde had five interceptions his first Bills season, when he made the Pro Bowl. But he had just one pick each of the two previous years. A generation ago, you’d see free safeties on the back end of the defense getting a bunch of interceptions on deep overthrows. It doesn’t happen as much in this quick-passing era.

“There’s not many teams you see that just drop back and try to launch a post, and you see what they tried to do with Quan, and Quan went up and picked it,” Poyer said, referring to Jaquan Johnson’s deep interception vs. Houston. “Nobody’s really trying that, and that comes with what we’ve done over the last couple years.”

Hyde now has three interceptions in three games. If he can get a couple more, maybe another Pro Bowl is in his future. It would be overdue national recognition.

“All OTAs and training camp, I didn’t even touch the ball one time; not even a PBU,” Poyer said, referring to pass breakups. "The third game of the season, I get a pick. I’ve had a PBU every single game. You can’t press. Play within the defense and the plays will come. Right now, Micah’s living right. Hopefully it keeps going.”

Mark Kelso was an outstanding, underappreciated free safety for the Bills from 1987 to ’93. But he wasn’t as big or as athletic as the 6-foot, 197-pound Hyde.

Tony Greene was a superb free safety for the Bills for nine years in the 1970s. He was a ball hawk, who had corner skills, and he had 37 interceptions in an era when QBs threw into the teeth of the coverage all the time. But he had the misfortune of toiling for bad defenses, and he was only 5-10, 170. Hyde is a bigger presence on the back end.

Henry Jones was an outstanding hybrid safety in the 1990s, but he was more of a strong safety than a free safety.

The other factor that makes Hyde so valuable for the Bills is his leadership. He is a cornerstone of McDermott’s culture in the locker room.

“Just being in this locker room and entering year nine now, I’ve been around a lot of these guys for going on five years,” Hyde said of being named a team captain. “It’s a blessing to be in this organization, and I definitely don’t take it for granted. Being a captain here is awesome. I want to get to the next level and win a championship.”

On the field immediately after the final gun in Kansas City, Bills sideline reporter Sal Capaccio stopped Hyde. Part of Capaccio’s job is to bring excitement to the radio broadcast, and he gushed over the magnitude of the Bills’ victory.

Hyde paused.

“Bro! It’s Week 5,” Hyde said.

McDermott couldn’t have said it better.

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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