When multiple outlets reported that the Atlanta Falcons signed New Orleans Saints backup safety, and restricted free agent, Rafael Bush to an offer sheet, I was expecting to hear (or read) an outcry of disappointment from Falcons fans after the glaring need was fulfilled by a J.A.G. (just another guy) from the heated rivals.
Instead, what ensued was akin to a scene out of The Twilight Zone. Fans everywhere were rejoicing at the potential signing as though the team landed the No. 1 safety prospect in free agency in Jairus Byrd.
That dubious distinction actually went to the Saints (ironic, huh?) when many fans acted as though landing Byrd was a foregone conclusion for the Red and Black. Not only didn't Atlanta not land the apple of its eye, it also failed to land: Louis Delmas (Miami Dolphins), T.J. Ward (Denver Broncos), Donte Whitner (Cleveland Browns), Antoine Bethea (San Francisco 49ers) or Chris Clemons (Houston Texans)—who were all sweated heavily by fans on social media and by writers like yours truly.
One name I purposefully left out was former Saints' starting safety Malcolm Jenkins, who is not only a better player than Bush, but is also a scheme-specific fit having been a corner through college and at the beginning of his pro career.
Now keep in mind the Saints already possess one of the brightest young stars at safety in second-year man Kenny Vaccaro. Now that he's teamed up with Byrd, on paper, they have one of the top-five duos in the league.
Bush, at only 26 years old, could've been promoted to starter after the departures of Harper and Jenkins. That is if the staff felt as though he was worthy of being a starter on the No.-4 ranked defense in the league.
Instead they signed Byrd to a billion-dollar contract (well it seemed like it!), decided to stop wasting Vaccaro's talents as a hybrid nickel corner/safety (as first suggested by your's truly) and tendered Bush at a low-level—leaving the Falcons to scour the rummage.
And fans, as we always do, are left to pretend like we wanted Bush all along like he's the primary piece to some master plan. Most fans link his signing to a theory that the Falcons will now trade up to draft uber-hyped defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
As if signing the fourth-string safety from another team somehow justifies anything dealing with the draft. I hate to break it to you; signing Bush should make you even more eager for the brass to go after Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (Alabama), Calvin Pryor (Louisville), Lamarcus Joyner (FSU) or Jimmie Ward (Nothern Illinois).
Ordinary Skill Set
I have a unique perspective on Bush after having covered the Saints for another platform last season. Unlike many Falcons fans, I had the opportunity to watch every single snap Bush took from preseason until the conclusion of the playoffs. After writing over 100 articles on the team, I came to the conclusion that there was a reason why Bush was fourth on the depth chart for New Orleans. Some are under the impression that Bush was a starter for the Saints as they spend a great deal of their time in a three-safety set under coordinator Rob Ryan.
Jenkins, Vaccaro and Harper were the original triple threat until an injury to Harper (third game of the season) allowed for Bush to grab a bigger spot in the rotation. Harper ended up missing seven games so Bush received a significant amount snaps in his stead.
Here's how the Saints opened the season against the Falcons in their three-safety set.
Injuries to Vaccaro (two games missed) and Jenkins (two games missed) also contributed to Bush actually cracking the starting lineup in base defense—which equaled out to six games. Ryan's defense puts a ton of pressure on the safeties to make plays as the three-safety set requires one of the safeties to play more of a corner role.
That duty was usually split between Jenkins and Vaccaro. When Harper was healthy he played more of an in-the-box role. When Bush was brought in initially, he played the Cover 1, single-high safety position.
Once Jenkins and Harper were hurt in conjunction, it was time for Bush to step up and make plays like the safeties above him on the depth chart. Jenkins proceeded to do nothing of the sort.
Former Falcons' starter Thomas DeCoud was vilified for was his inability to take proper angles to ball-carriers. His lack of physicality only compounded the situation, but nevertheless, the poor angles led to a significant amount of explosive plays.
Fans should know that Bush is every bit DeCoud's equal in terms of taking poor angles. He may be a little more physical, but does that matter when you're allowing an extra 50 yards to running backs from not possessing the innate ability to decipher angles?
Here we see Bush attempting to make an open-field tackle from his single-high safety position. This is the same position that Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas has perfected. As literally the last line of defense, you have to be the surest tackler on the field. This means taking proper angles is a must as a missed tackle from this position usually leads to explosive plays and touchdowns.
Bush was frozen off a simple stutter step; As you can see—50 yards later—the running back had himself an explosive play at Bush's expense.
Here's another explosive play that came off the strength of Bush's inability to take proper angles. Once again as the single-high safety Bush appears in the still.
I'm not sure what type of angle Bush took here—but it was real flat. The red arrow shows the angle he took, the white one shows the angle the coaching staff wishes he would've taken.
Bush takes such a bad angle that he knocks down teammate Junior Galette in the process. Furthermore, Vaccaro is the one that ends up out-running Bush to make the play 50 yards down the field.
These are just a couple of instances, among many, that Bush channeled his inner DeCoud from a prominent position in the formation. If fans were angry about DeCoud's angle-taking prowess, they should feel the same way about Bush.
Inept Feel for the Game
I'm not sure if many realize this. Despite playing a great deal of the season as a help safety, Bush recorded zero interceptions.
In fact he only has one in his entire career. He was listed as having a meager five pass deflections—but even that's misleading. Three came in the final game against rookie Mike Glennon in a blowout win. The other two were blunders.
This one came off an errant throw by Dolphins' signal-caller Ryan Tannehill that literally went right to Bush and he still didn't make the play. But if you're going by stats, or some websites advanced stats (more on that later), you would think that Bush actually made something happen.
The reality of it is Bush received a gift and couldn't unwrap the present.
The other one was a phantom call that truly never happened. Here we see Bush in man coverage against San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Ryan, more than likely, wouldn't have called this coverage if the field was flipped as Bush has very little to offer in man coverage. In other words this is a complete mismatch.
As a former defensive back, I was taught to always react from a backpedal when in off-man coverage. Bush opens up his hips right away as if he's in press coverage. This disallows Bush a chance to square up with Davis and react to his route.
A sign that a defensive back doesn't trust his own technique is when that back holds while attempting to locate the ball. Right here bush should be performing what's called a look-and-lean technique where he gets in a more favorable position by "bodying up" the receiver.
Instead he blatantly holds.
No joke. The ref missed an egregious hold by Bush. Despite the hold, Bush is beaten to the pylon as his technique allowed for him to be walled off by the crafty veteran.
Davis simply missed this as the ball was slightly underthrown. Bush didn't remotely get his hands on this ball. He didn't even get a chance to get his hands up, yet he was rewarded with a pass deflection.
Wait, it gets better.
Here we see Bush making a rookie, better yet Pop Warner-like, mistake against the Jets defending the "Wildcat" package. Bush's only responsibility is to not let his team get beat deep as they have man coverage on the outside.
Bush's first key should be the tight end leaking out to the third level. But he's so caught up peeking into the backfield that he doesn't even realize that it's happening as he continues to attack the line of scrimmage.
I'm not exactly sure what Bush is doing here. And I'm completely sold that he doesn't, either. As a safety you have to always know your personnel. Jets' receiver Josh Cribbs is a former college quarterback who has been known to throw out of this package.
But what really telegraphs this play is the fact that Cribbs is running parallel to the line of scrimmage with both hands on the ball. Bush should've immediately bailed and looked to see if anyone was behind him. There was already two other defenders in pursuit of Cribbs as well.
This is what having a good feel for the game entails. The ability to assess situations on the fly simply by instincts.
Bush is in freeze mode as Cribbs launches the pass over his head.
If Cribbs had a better arm this would've gone for a 50-yard touchdown. But instead another teammate is left to make the tackle to save the play.
Gross Misrepresentation of His Play
There's an epidemic going on in the world of football called "lazy analysis." Since most pundits and fans can't possibly watch every single player on every team, they rely on certain websites to make the determination on how effective a player is.
The process goes like this: Player A is mentioned as a target, or transaction, for a fans' favorite team. Fans want a quick and easy way to grade a player they're not very familiar with, so they immediately go to a website called PFF. They check this website's ranking of the player compared to other players at their respective position. The fan then goes on social media and posts these rankings as if they are gospel.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Now there's so many things wrong with this entire way of operating. First of all, why would you let anyone else think for you? I understand that not everyone has played football, or may not understand schemes, coverages or the overall nuances of the game, but there should be things that just smell fishy when you read them.
It's almost like the blind leading the blind.
I was personally bombarded by Falcons fans justifying the Falcons' potential signing of Bush by fans claiming some website had him ranked as the 12th best safety in the NFL.
Now excuse me while I laugh uncontrollably.
Any site claiming that the fourth safety on any team is the 12th best player at his position needs to be drug tested immediately. Any fan who actually believes something so egregious should contact me personally as I have some get-rich quick schemes to run by you at the low cost of $99.99.
First of all, Bush's role was drastically different than the rest of the safeties on his own team. Both Vaccaro and Jenkins had much tougher roles covering receivers, tight ends, blitzing and dropping back into Cover 1 and Cover 2 roles—while Bush mostly played single-high safety.
That's like a boxer fighting Mike Tyson in his prime opposed to fighting some fighter with barely a .500 record. If Fighter A loses a closely contested bout to Tyson, and Fighter B wins against a J.A.G., would you remotely compare the level of competition for ranking purposes?
These sites don't take into account: competition, roles, scheme or anything of the sort. Bush should not be compared to someone like Vaccaro who had to cover Carolina Panthers' receiver Steve Smith in man coverage quite a few times in one game—while Bush sat back in a Cover 1 role making tackles 10-15 yards downfield.
Falcons fans at least saw Bush play two games against their team and can't point out one play he made. But I bet you remember Vaccaro's game-winning pass deflection that was intercepted by Harper. Or you more than likely remember Jenkins' play where he made a great play against former tight end Tony Gonzalez where nearly intercepted a pass that was stripped by Gonzalez.
Conversely, can you name a play from the anointed "12th best safety'" in the NFL? He who finished with a stat line that reads: 42 tackles, zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles, one stuff and five questionable pass deflections. Keep in mind I was told that Falcons safety William Moore finished as the 60th best safety in the NFL according to said website.
Things that make you go hmm.
I believe those two rankings somehow got flipped in the editing process, but I digress.
Every fan remembers the Saints last game against Seattle where Bush had two vicious hits on Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin—who weighs about 120 pounds, by the way. Although these were a couple of impressive hits on national television—that had a sizeable audience—does anyone remember anything else from Bush in that loss?
Of course you don't, because he finished with two measly tackles (one solo).
While Bush is a better tackler than DeCoud, he can't match his ball-skills. He also has a worse feel for the game. They both take horrible angles and both are improper fits in an aggressive scheme that calls for them to cover a lot, as the Falcons' does.
Bush should play the exact same position he played in New Orleans for the Falcons. The Falcons need to bring in one of the young prospects in this draft and have Bush serve as the third safety in three-safety sets. I could go for a formation with Moore and Clinton-Dix operating at the strong and free safety, respectively, with Bush playing the single-high role on occasion.
If not, be prepared for disheartening scenarios like this:
Saints fans undoubtedly remember this play. This was the final play in a last-second thriller loss to the New England Patriots. All the Saints had to do was defend this pass and they would've had a season-changing road win against one of the elite teams in the NFL.
The Saints are in a Cover 6 with New England needing a score to win.
Bush was late getting over to help as he squatted on the seam route which was already being double covered by Jenkins, who was playing nickel corner, and a linebacker.
Bush's lack of instincts made it easier for the corner to get beat to the back pylon. Although the corner shouldn't have allowed the receiver to get behind him, it was still Bush's responsibility to help out in that particular quadrant. Bush wasn't even close to being in the right spot on this play.
I surmise that Bush is a decent player if his role is minimized like it was in New Orleans. But counting on him to be a starter, while passing on some of the uber-talented prospects in this deep draft, is borderline insanity. He can provide quality depth, but is not a front line player on a team with true championship aspirations.
The Saints, who look to be building something very formidable on defense, have rode that notion by continuing to acquire new talent at the safety position instead of simply promoting Bush to the front line.
The NFC is full of talented teams with potent personnel on both sides of the ball. We can't expect the Falcons to compete with Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, New Orleans, Arizona, Carolina, New York (Giants), and even Tampa by acquiring mediocre talent. It's time to compete.
Wise up, Atlanta.