When everything is going according to plan, there’s no need for backup safeties. Unlike defensive linemen for the Buffalo Bills, starting defensive backs are expected to play every single down. Not everything went according to plan though. Micah Hyde was injured and didn’t appear for about two games and Jordan Poyer missed a handful of snaps. Admittedly that’s not much to go on, but the Bills did put safeties on the field for nickel and other defensive-back-heavy formations. We’ll look at three second-string safeties to see how they did and also how the Bills used their depth players.
Siran Neal was mostly used on special teams but was given a few plays here and there across the season (15 total). Primarily Neal was in for anticipated run downs and very limited injury fill-in duties. Analysis shouldn’t be considered overarching for Neal on the clips shown.
For our first one, Neal shows good discipline hanging back and reading the runner. He patiently finds the right lane and gets in for a tackle. Neal wasn’t shy about contact, but wouldn’t have made the tackle on his own.
Micah Hyde was injured early against the Green Bay Packers and in came...Rafael Bush actually. Interestingly though, when Taron Johnson left the field for a few downs in came Siran Neal. At safety. Bush took over the slot corner spot until Johnson returned. Keep this fact in mind for later. For Neal’s part, he’s a little anxious to run the blitz and got lucky that Aaron Rodgers didn’t change the protection to pick him up. Instead, Neal sprints in for a sack.
Against the New York Jets, Siran Neal was put in toward the end of the game when the outcome was already decided. Instead of playing near the line, he was allowed to drop back. He shows off good closing speed and movement in traffic, and is very enthusiastic about trying to make a hit.
Neal’s overall (lack of) playing time tells you all you need to know about where he is in the pecking order. Buffalo is hoping he’ll pan out for more than special teams, but have been reluctant to give him a significant role.
Dean Marlowe only played in two games in 2018, and one of those was exclusively on special teams. This contest against the Tennessee Titans was his only time on defense. This game came after Green Bay and with Micah Hyde still recovering. Although Rafael Bush had entered the game for Hyde against Green Bay, it was Marlowe who started in Hyde’s place against the Titans, seeing 100% of defensive playing time.
Marlowe looks pretty similar to Neal here, letting the play develop before committing. There’s a little more traffic in front of Marlowe and, as a result, he ends up chasing the ball carrier.
Dean Marlowe played quite a bit on the back end of the field as seen here. Ordinarily, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde rotate frequently when only one is back deep. This wasn’t the case with Marlowe on the field, with the Bills showing a strong preference in having him back there in the clean-up spot. On this tackle, Marlowe sees the play develop rapidly and, again like Neal, doesn’t hesitate to attempt a big hit.
For this play, Marlowe is slow to react and lets the receiver run by him. What should have been double coverage becomes a dangerous match-up for the Bills in the end zone. To be fair to Marlowe, the lack of film of him reacting to this situation makes it hard to judge if this was a one-time error, or likely to be repeated. Overall, it appeared that the Bills limited Marlowe’s exposure to more difficult challenges, opting to let Poyer step up his game.
Rafael Bush played over 40% of defensive snaps and was far and away the most utilized depth player at safety. Filling in for Hyde against Green Bay was his longest stretch playing a traditional safety role. The Bills allowed Bush to mix up coverage depth with Jordan Poyer more often than Marlowe was allowed to. Bush frequently matched up with receivers out of the slot, like he does here. Bush was fairly dependable in coverage like we see above.
With Poyer dropping back, Rafael Bush is involved soon after the snap as a crossing receiver comes into his zone. Bush picks up the receiver well, showing good awareness of where his help is and when to step in.
Though Hyde only offered up about two games’ worth of snaps from his injury, Rafael Bush played in 15 games, and broke 25% of playing time on defense in twelve of them. Bush was used in rotation with Taron Johnson as a slot defensive back. With the Bills loving nickel defense as much as they do, that was the primary reason for Bush’s heavy usage in 2018. Against the Miami Dolphins to close the season, Bush played every single down as the fifth defensive back. On this play, Bush avoids being blocked and knifes in to drop Ryan Tannehill for a loss.
Rafael Bush didn’t make a habit of missing tackles, and that’s not a primary takeaway from this clip. The motor to get back into the play after wiping out is good to see and is the better reflection of what Bush brings to the table. Like with Neal, the playing time should be a solid clue on what the coaches think of Bush. He rotated heavily into the defense because he was a reliable option for the slot duties as well as a backup in a pinch.
Backup safeties in Buffalo were used in the traditional sense only when absolutely necessary. And even then, game plans seemed to suggest an attempt to hide weaknesses as we saw with Marlowe. Rafael Bush was a trusted asset, but overall the coaching staff seemed to prefer him in a nickel role out of the slot.
Comparing to game play when Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were both on the field, it’s clear that the Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier system demands a lot out of their starting defensive backs. Seemingly interchangeable, Poyer and Hyde are able to create confusion on the back end of plays. The drop-off when one half of the duo wasn’t present is noticeable, albeit mitigated to some degree by coaching. Neither Marlowe nor Neal appear to have inspired a ton of confidence at One Bills Drive, and Rafael Bush was strongly preferred in the slot role. With their penchant for tinkering on defense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see competition brought in.