In the NFL, one of the scariest players on a field of bench press kings and giants is often the 5’9 skinny wide receiver whose sole purpose is to run right by and away from everyone else. Atlanta’s most effective home run hitter has broken through over the course of the past two weeks, and veteran Damiere Byrd is proving to be someone worthy of putting fear in the hearts of opposing defensive backs and defensive coordinators alike.
There was not too much hype when it was announced that the Falcons were signing Byrd to a one-year deal this past offseason. We assumed that his experience and unique ability to stretch a defense would be enough to win him a roster spot, but this was by no means a headline stealing move or sexy signing. Just another one of Terry Fontenot’s bargain shopping moves gone right.
After catching four passes for 69 receiving yards over the course of the preseason and being named to the 53-man roster, not much thought was given to Byrd. He was looked at as a steady veteran presence who had successfully extended his career to a seventh season, two years removed from his best year as a New England Patriot, when he had a career high 604 receiving yards on 47 catches. He was not necessarily looked at someone who was going to play a lot.
He did not even see the field at all to start the campaign, being a healthy scratch in each of the team’s first three games. Byrd was comfortably buried on the depth chart behind Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus, Khadarel Hodge and Bryan Edwards, not seeing his first game action until Week 4 and being held without a catch on two targets in his first two appearances.
Byrd is a specialist with one unique trait which has helped him enjoy a long career — his blazing fast speed. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash time at the combine, which makes him the fastest wide receiver the Falcons have had on their regular season roster since Taylor Gabriel in 2017. Just the threat of that speed can keep a defense honest.
Other teams have not been taking Atlanta’s deep passing game very seriously, however, continually stacking the box against their run heavy approach. Caleb Huntley (38.6%) and Tyler Allgeier (34.5%) currently rank second and fourth in the NFL in percentage of runs against a stacked box (eight or more defenders).
In Week 7, Byrd made the Cincinnati Bengals pay for that disrespect, at least for a play, and it got Atlanta back into a game which was at that point a blowout.
MARCUS MARIOTA GOES FOR THE 75-YARD TD‼— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) October 23, 2022
Mariota finds Damiere Byrd to cut the Bengals' lead pic.twitter.com/EMMphaEItS
Following Cincinnati’s fourth touchdown of the game to take a 28-7 lead, Marcus Mariota hit Byrd in stride on a perfect post route after the speedster cooked Eli Apple in one-on-one coverage. The result was a career high 75-yard touchdown reception, one which helped spark a run of 10 straight Falcon points before the half.
It was his only target of the day, but it was enough to see Byrd grade out as the team’s best player that week, according to PFF:
Top-5 #Falcons PFF Offensive Grades vs. Bengals (Week 7)— Evan Birchfield (@EvanBirchfield) October 24, 2022
1. WR Damiere Byrd - 89.7
2. LG Elijah Wilkinson - 75.8
3. RG Chris Lindstrom - 75.3
4. WR Olamide Zaccheaus - 74.1
5. WR Drake London - 63.6
It may not seem like much, but the fact that Marcus Mariota hit the home run after struggling with his deep pass accuracy for much of the season up to that point, and that Atlanta was willing to showcase their 4.2 speedster, is an additional element that other teams suddenly need to be weary of. Making the offense less one-dimensional will be crucial to the Falcons’ success moving forward this season, and so that was a bright note.
That passing game was humming more in Week 8 than in any other week so far this season, as the Birds let Mariota throw the ball 28 times for a season high 253 passing yards, after they failed to reach 200 yards through the air in each of the past four games.
Right from the beginning, Atlanta looked to establish the Byrd deep threat, even if it did not work out right away — Mariota threw an interception on the second play of the game when targeting Byrd deep. Donte Jackson matched the receiver step for step and won the battle for the ball.
The Falcons eventually found themselves down 28-24 with a little over two minutes remaining and needing to score a touchdown. At that point, Byrd had two targets, and one catch for 12 yards, but he was on the field in the most crucial of moments.
Damiere Byrd only catches TD passes, those are the rules pic.twitter.com/3xQ2Zfnnwr— Miles Garrett (@MilesGarrettTV) October 30, 2022
Mariota bought time and connected with the University of South Carolina alum, who worked his way back toward the quarterback, and caught the ball 15 yards downfield right at around the first down marker.
What he does next is something very few players in the NFL can do. He reverses the field and sprints away from five Carolina Panthers defenders for 33 yards after the catch, accelerating past the last defender and into the end zone for what should have been the game-winning play. It was a play reminiscent of Tyreek Hill’s touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Divisional Round last season.
That seemed to have earned the former Gamecock some more of Mariota’s trust, as he saw three more targets after that play throughout the rest of the fourth quarter and overtime.
Even after D.J. Moore’s improbable touchdown catch to tie the game, Byrd’s ability to get down the field quicker than anybody else almost earned the Falcons a field goal opportunity on what should have been a pass interference:
Mariota dialed Byrd up deep once more in overtime and ended up throwing a second interception as a result. It’s a play that should have cost the Falcons the game, but they gained a reprieve after Eddy Pineiro missed a short field goal that would have won it.
On the very next drive, Byrd had a nice catch and run for a first down where he created space after the reception with an impressive juke move against linebacker Shaq Thompson.
Atlanta marched downfield and Younghoe Koo kicked the game winning field goal in a game where Damiere Byrd finished with six targets, three receptions, 67 receiving yards and a touchdown. The targets and yardage were both second on the team behind Kyle Pitts. He was also third in the NFL in Week 8 with 190 air yards, showing the trust Mariota has already developed in throwing it deep to the speedster.
Byrd played a season high 34 snaps, which is more than any wide receiver on the team other than London and Zaccheaus. It is the first time in which he’s played more than half the team’s snaps all season.
With Hodge and Edwards playing a combined six snaps, it seems that Byrd has broken through as the team’s clear cut WR3, with Arthur Smith and Mariota seemingly now comfortable enough to dial him up for a deep shot whenever the opportunity presents itself.
For the second week in a row, Byrd was graded by PFF as the best Falcons player:
Top-5 #Falcons PFF Offensive Grades vs. Panthers (Week 8)— Evan Birchfield (@EvanBirchfield) October 31, 2022
1. WR Damiere Byrd - 85.4
2. RB Caleb Huntley - 84.5
3. RG Chris Lindstrom - 84.3
4. RB Avery Williams - 80.4
5. RT Kaleb McGary - 79.4
The results of Atlanta’s more balanced passing approach were evident in Week 8. While Huntley continued to run into a stacked box 37.5% of the time, which was just slightly under his average clip, Allgeier ran against one just 21.43% of the time, which is nearly 13% below his average for the season.
The Panthers seemed to respect Atlanta’s run game a bit more in this contest. I’m not saying that’s solely because of Byrd — the Falcons did pass the ball more than they did in any game this season outside of Week 1 — but that deep threat and Mariota’s willingness to use it is certainly something defensive coordinators will have in the back of their minds whenever they see Damiere Byrd on the field.