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Saints program cover story: Jairus Byrd

Byrd is team's last line of defense at free safety

Jairus Byrd at Houston Texans Photos of Mark Ingram against the Houston Texans on Sunday, November 29, 2015. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end – Jeremiah 29:11.*

That's the scripture on which Jairus Byrd relies, the one he writes next to his autograph when he signs his name.

The passage is one he leaned on during his leanest times this season, when he opened the season unable to play due to offseason knee surgery and missed the first three regular-season games, and last year, when he missed the final 12 games due to a knee injury and season-ending surgery.

"That's been pretty much my staple," he said. "Everything I go with, I refer back to that."

It's worth noting that Byrd, too, harbors peaceful and positive thoughts. The player who was the prized free safety of the 2014 unrestricted free agent class, and who signed a six-year deal with the franchise in February 2014, has reason to project ahead with promise entering Monday's nationally televised game against Detroit in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

He has played in the last 10 games and started the last nine, and has shown flashes of the all-around play-making that placed him atop the free agency wish list.

According to team statistics, Byrd has 47 tackles (fifth on the team), an interception, a sack, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. In his abbreviated two seasons with the Saints, he has three forced fumbles, five passes defensed and the interception, sack and fumble recovery.

The numbers aren't as gaudy as the ones he posted in five seasons with Buffalo, where he had 22 interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), 33 passes defensed, 12 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and three sacks. But with Byrd's increased availability, they're moving in that direction.

"I'm happy that I'm able to be out there and make plays and do different things like that," he said.

But the absence was difficult.

"Just missing time in general is tough," Byrd said. "There is no way around not being able to be out there, no matter how you cut it, whether it's at the end of the season (like last year) or the beginning."

Now, he has been a regular at free safety, the last line of defense for a unit that has struggled this season, but may have had its best all-around performance in its most recent game, a 24-17 victory over Tampa Bay.

The Saints allowed just 291 yards and 17 points to the Buccaneers, 134 yards and two touchdowns less than opponents had been averaging entering the game. Byrd finished with a pass defensed and five tackles, including a shoestring job of Doug Martin following a 22-yard gain that could've gone much longer, and been more damaging.

The Saints held on the drive – Tampa Bay converted just four of 11 third-down attempts – and a missed 47-yard field-goal attempt gave New Orleans a short field that the Saints' offense took advantage of, putting together a 10-play, 63-yard touchdown drive that boosted the lead to 24-10.

"That's in the job description of a free safety," Byrd said, "if something gets out, you've got to get him down."

The improved defensive play has come at the right time for the Saints; they ended a four-game losing streak with the win in Tampa, Fla., and showed continued improvement under Dennis Allen, who took over as defensive coordinator three games ago. Rob Ryan was relieved of his duties during the team's bye week, on Nov. 16.

"Guys are playing with a lot of effort, a lot of energy," Byrd said. "Both (Allen and Ryan) are passionate about what they do, their job, they love calling defenses and getting guys prepared. They just go about it in different ways. I feel like guys are playing hard out there, guys are paying attention to the details of things right now and I think it's showing.

"It's always tough (when a coach is dismissed). You build relationships. Any time you spend as much time as we spend together, especially in football – meetings, all the time you spend together at training camp – you get accustomed and you form relationships with guys. Any time someone is let go like that it's difficult, but it's part of the business, just like players get released. It's part of the business."

The business now is to win, and to help in any way possible.

Against Tampa Bay, Byrd took over the punt receiving duties in the third quarter due to an injury to running back Marcus Murphy.

And the former high school receiver arguably has the best hands on the team – in clutch situations, he's the sure-handed player deep when the punt likely will be fielded inside the 20 and the Saints want to make sure it cleanly is fielded and secured.

"It's a gift," he said. "Just like some people are born with speed, I feel like I've been born with good hands. You can always work on your eye-hand coordination but some people can just catch better than others, just like some people can run faster than others."

He catches it well enough to believe (jokingly?) that he still has a bit of receiver remaining in him.

"I can play receiver," he said, smiling. "I told (Coach) Sean (Payton) that I could play receiver if he needed me. I'd be a cold red zone receiver. I told him, 'Line me up. I'll win.' I told him, 'I'm winning.' "

That wish probably is somewhere down the list. Definitely, it's behind the team being successful and, definitely, that's an ending Byrd foresees.

Byrd has thoughts of peace toward an expected end for the Saints.

"I think we're definitely headed in the right direction," he said. "Things just haven't come together as quickly as a lot of people would want, but I think that it's going to make our journey and our story much better once everything comes together.

"But I definitely feel like we're on the right track. We've just got to stay the course, keep pressing on."

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