Vikings

Why Does Cam Bynum Always Play So Deep?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You may have noticed that the Minnesota Vikings’ defense has struggled in the last few games. You may be a little sick of watching passes get completed over the middle with acres of space to the nearest purple jersey. Aren’t players like Camryn Bynum supposed to be responsible for that? Why, on replay, does he play so deep?

If you only watch the Vikings on TV every Sunday, chances are you watch Bynum backpedal all the way off the screen every play. You might even be frustrated with that. Because safeties tend to make most of their decisions outside of the TV camera’s frame, we don’t get to spend a lot of time immersed in their play. So let’s take a step back (perhaps several backpedaling steps all the way to the deep middle) and talk about what Bynum is doing with all that depth, and if that’s even the reason that he seems to be late to break on plays.

Why Safeties Need Depth

We need to talk about the basic fundamentals of safety play. The Vikings still spend most of their time in Cover 6 variants, which means Bynum is often either playing a deep half zone or a deep quarter zone. More on that distinction later, but there are enough similarities to use one as a starting point. Let’s go with deep half first.

In a deep-half coverage, Bynum’s job is to work from just outside the hashmark on his side and then simultaneously play two possible vertical routes. Obviously, you can’t be in two places at once, so the teaching point is to work between the two until one of the routes breaks off. If both routes go deep, stay between them and break if the ball is thrown to one of them.

In the below example, Bynum executes this perfectly, but he still can’t make the play.

It’s not entirely Bynum’s fault since this route concept is specifically set up to beat the coverage the Vikings call. Sometimes you call rock, and they call paper — it happens. If anything, Bynum needs more depth here, not less. The play fails because Bynum loses his footing thanks to a more diagnosable problem.

The technique is very similar when Bynum is in a quarter zone (the Vikings call this a “trick safety”). Bynum’s job depends on the offensive formation and route concept. But to over-generalize, he takes the vertical responsibility on some inside receiver, usually the No. 2 or the No. 3. In some coverage calls, he’ll also watch the inside receivers on the other side of the formation and try to pick them off, like he famously did against Lamar Jackson last season. But for the most part, the job is to backpedal, get enough depth to see the field, then break and make a play.

Here’s where the differences between quarter zones and half zones come up. On the half side, each route will have a defender playing underneath it, so Bynum never has to worry about the shallow part of routes. Get all the depth you want; someone’s covering the underneath throw. In quarters, there are fewer underneath players available to help, so the defensive backs are on their own. Here getting too much depth can bite you.

It’s an oversimplification to say this play is only a result of Bynum getting too much depth. He could have made the play if he could break a little faster. Here’s a more extreme example. Bynum gets a perfectly appropriate amount of depth as a half safety, but he tries to cheat his alignment a little wider than the traditional No. 1/No. 2 split. He could get away with it, but again, his transition into his break is too slow.

For the record, the main culprit on that play was Jordan Hicks biting too hard on play-action, but the lessons about Bynum ring just as true.

Footwork

So, what’s wrong with Bynum’s footwork? Before I go any further into that, let me emphasize what you already knew: Camryn Bynum played cornerback in college. He learned safety for the first time last year. Now, in his second year, Bynum has to transition from the scheme he spent his whole rookie year learning. So fundamentals like footwork will naturally suffer, which is understandable.

On Bynum’s backpedals, his technique looks pretty good. He stays on the balls of his feet and gets a lot of depth very quickly. It’s when he transitions that he loses critical moments. The goal is to limit wasted motion in transition. Go one direction, then another, and waste as little time as you can in between.

I reiterate, Bynum is very new to this, and the deck is stacked against him. This article shouldn’t send you away thinking that Bynum is doomed and that the only chance the Vikings have at good safety play in the future rides on Lewis Cine‘s recovery. But these sorts of fundamentals aren’t easy to drill during the breakneck pace of the regular season. Just look at the New York Jets, where they had to bench Zach Wilson for an entire week to work on fundamentals. The rigors of game-to-game preparation don’t leave spare moments to practice the basics.

So this problem will persist unless Bynum decides he wants to play with less depth. It’s an option; Harrison Smith always plays with less depth. It’s a dangerous way to live, but with Smith’s veteran wiles, he doesn’t need to give himself as much of a safety net. If Bynum tries to play the way Smith plays, it could lead to even more disasters. But with two touchdowns squarely in his coverage on Thanksgiving night, it may be worth considering.

Some of these clips were pulled from a video I made on this topic at Patreon.com/LukeBraunNFL. If you want a more comprehensive review of Bynum’s night against the Patriots, including one of the best plays of the night, you can find it on my Patreon page.

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