The first week of football came to a close with many predicted outcomes. The dominance of the Patriots, for example, was no shock to anyone who has watched football this century. However, an unexpected storyline emerged in Cleveland, where the Browns received much hype coming into the season.
The Browns would falter as they were obliterated by the visiting Tennessee Titans, who won 43-13 off of three key interceptions. While there are many reasons as to why the Titans pulled off the upset, no player was as impactful as All-Pro safety, Kevin Byard.
Byard is most notably known for leading the NFL in interceptions in 2017, but it is no secret to anyone that he is a top-flight safety in the NFL right now.
In week one, Byard continues to reaffirm the belief that he’s a top-flight safety by wreaking havoc on the back end and registering his first interception of 2019. And the tape is even more fun than I expected it would be. Byard showed out in all phases of the game.
Kevin Byard’s biggest play of the game was him intercepting Baker Mayfield. Not only was it the turning point of a game that could still go either way, but it was Byard showing off his skills to a tee.
Below, Tennessee displays an initial two high look. Mayfield’s first read is the in-route by the receiver at the top of the numbers. Dependant on the coverage post-snap, this route could’ve likely been converted into a skinny post.
The Titans roll out of a cover-2 and instead rotate Byard down and send Kenny Vaccaro back into a deep third/cover-3 look. Byard then becomes a “buzz” defender, essentially in hook/curl coverage.
Byard maintains perfect leverage while luring Mayfield into making this throw. He “buzzes” down into his spot zone and reads Mayfield’s eyes the whole way. Once Mayfield locks in on the in-breaking route, Byard breaks towards the ball and jumps it. A fantastic play overall by Byard.
Athleticism and range
Athleticism and range for a safety are qualities that NFL evaluators covet when scouting draft prospects. If a player does not have those traits as backend defender in the NFL, they are going to have a hard time fitting into the newer, diverse schemes in the league. Luckily for Kevin Byard, he has both in spades and then some.
Here we have a simple draw play to Nick Chubb that freezes the Linebackers. In doing so, the Cleveland offensive line can climb to the second level to open a seam for Chubb. However, the angle and athleticism by Byard allow him to avoid the mess and make an impressive stop from the other side of the field.
Toe-to-toe with Njoku
Byard was also assigned with covering Browns tight end David Njoku more than. His length and aggressiveness allowed him to be incredibly effective against Njoku.
Here, Njoku and Byard are in the near slot to the line of scrimmage. Njoku is tasked with running a fade route, but Byard sniffs it out from the start. Byard stays square, gets his hands on Njoku, and controls the leverage of the play and, coincidentally, the route. It’s a subtle thing, but Byard locked down Mayfield’s target on this play.
In this next clip, Njoku runs a short curl and then goes into the scramble drill once Mayfield vacates the pocket. However, Byard is being incredibly handsy and is in a great position to make a play on the ball should it be thrown his way.
The mirroring of the cut out towards his sideline is great because Byard is foot matching. When Njoku moves his feet, Byard’s quick feet are right there with him on every step. He completely takes this away as an option for Mayfield.
Kevin Byard has been a top safety since his breakout season in 2017, and his first game in 2019 leads me to believe that trend will continue. His scheme versatility, football IQ, and technical abilities are fantastic. I would consider him a heavy contender for the best safety in the NFL right now.
With the Titans looking to surge their way into the playoffs, Byard will be a part of that backbone to push them into the postseason and towards a potential AFC South division crown.
Nick Farabaugh is a writer for Pro Football Network’s Film Room. Follow him on Twitter @FarabaughFB.