By: Thomas Frank Carr
For the first time under Head Coach Sean McDermott, the Buffalo Bills were not a team highlighted by their defense in 2020. After he and General Manager Brandon Beane spent the last two seasons building up the offense, Josh Allen and Co. took off. Yet it wasn’t just that the offense out-performed the defense, the defense genuinely took a step back last year. We’ll examine where each unit stands heading into the offseason with The State Of the Bills.
MICAH HYDE AND JORDAN POYER
It’s only fitting to end our review of the Buffalo Bills defense with the tandem that makes the Bills’ defense special. As fans know, both Hyde and Poyer came to the team in 2017 as a part of the team’s first wave of free agency under General Manager Brandon Beane. Both Hyde and Poyer are converted corners from either college or their previous team (Hyde a slot CB in Green Bay) who found a natural position as do-it-all safeties in Head Coach Sean McDermott’s defense.
While neither are singular talents at the safety position physically, what they do in coverage frustrates quarterbacks a great deal. The key to the Bills defense is pre-snap deception in the secondary. It’s hard to get a read at all times on what coverage they will run on a given play because both Hyde and Poyer have the ability to drop down in run support while also having enough range to cover deep.
According to PFF the tandem has roughly equal number of snaps in the box and deep, while sharing exactly 130 snaps in slot coverage. This means that on any given play the quarterback cannot be sure of which safety is indicating the coverage for the Bills because you don’t know until after the snap which player will end up where. That alone puts veteran quarterbacks on their toes and blows young QBs fully off of their feet.
The team has also compensated them as such, with nearly matching 19 million dollar, 9.7 and 9.65 million dollar/apy contract extensions. Despite their exemplary play, Poyer and Hyde are 13th and 14th respectively on a per-year basis among salary cap hits. That makes them the best value against production this side of Tampa Bay’s young duo of Whitehead and Winfield Jr., who are still on their rookie contracts.
That is not to say that Hyde and Poyer don’t have loosely defined strengths and weaknesses. Of the two Poyer is the more productive run defender and spends slightly more time in the box than in deep coverage compared to his running mate. Poyer led the Bills in tackles in 2020 with 124 according to Pro Football Reference’s tally. 91 of those were also solo tackles (5th among all defenders), while PFF charted Poyer with 26 stops, tied for 15th among safeties.
Hyde has better range and coverage ability than Poyer, spending more time at true free safety when the team stems to a Cover 1 or Cover 3 alignment. Again going to PFF, Hyde had a passer rating of 67.0 when targeted last season and allowed only 96 yards and one touchdown in coverage. With a blend of skills and incredible communications skills on the field, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer represent possibly the best safety tandem in the NFL during their time together.
The only issue that they face is the same that any great duo faces; the relentless march of time. Both players are now over the 30 years-old threshold and heading into the back half of their careers. While it’s unfair to say that their skills have diminished simply because of production, it is also fair to point out that they are producing less impact plays than they did in 2017-18. In 2017 both Hyde and Poyer nabbed five interceptions apiece, tying for 4th in the NFL that season according to PFR. The past season the duo managed to only nab three total.
Their ball production has gone down in recent years but so has the quality of the Bills pass rush, which has given teams more time to pull apart McDermott’s zone system. If the team can solve the equation up front, this duo should have no problem continuing their heady, solid play for several more years.
With the departure of Dean Marlowe, Johnson is the only player who has taken meaningful snaps at safety on the Bills roster outside of Hyde and Poyer. The reality is that the top duo play almost every snap for the team so having extensive depth at the position would be a redundancy in resources, especially if the team is stashing projects at slot corner. Johnson is a true safety prospect that the Bills selected in the 6th round of the 2019 draft who has experience playing in deep coverage at Miami. Yet to this point he hasn’t seen significant snaps on defense in his career outside of special teams, where he’s been a standout.
We’ll tack on Siran Neal with the safeties simply because of his size and tackling abilities. At 6-0, 206 pounds, Neal is a slot/box hybrid player who played the most snaps of his career filling in for Taron Johnson in 2019 when the starting slot corner was out with injuries. He’s got the size and speed to be a good player, but has yet to crack the starting lineup for the Bills. He has the profile to be another convert to safety from the corner position but there is not enough evidence or usage in that role to do anything but project for Neal. His size and versatility make him a useful depth piece on the team while his play on special teams helps keep him on the roster.