Mike Pettine didn’t bother reaching into the bag of clichés and attempt to fool anyone with the notion that Sunday’s game against the Jets was no big deal. It wasn’t just one of 16 contests on a long NFL schedule. The Bills knew all week that this one meant more to their defensive coordinator.
Let’s remember that Rex Ryan wasn’t some distant acquaintance before Pettine split to join the Bills this season. Pettine spent nine years with him, going back to their days with the Ravens. They saw each other more during football season than they did their own families. They were like brothers.
Losing to anybody is difficult, but the pain runs deeper when it comes against someone who feels like a family member. Pettine suffered through the anguish that came with a 27-20 loss to the Jets back in Week Three, when New York ran up 513 yards and rookie Geno Smith abused his defense for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
It was embarrassing.
Pettine thoroughly enjoyed watching his defense dominate Sunday after Rex and the Jets rolled into town for a rematch. Buffalo allowed only 120 yards and built a 34-7 lead in the first three quarters before cruising to a 37-14 victory. The Bills had an answer for everything when it mattered and humiliated the Jets, turning the game into a laugher.
“All losses sting, but I can’t tell the lie and say it didn’t matter. It hurt,” Pettine said of the first meeting. “Just like I can’t tell the lie that this one didn’t mean a little bit more today. It wasn’t about me the last time, and it’s not about me this time. I have a great staff who did a really good job preparing the guys this week.”
And that’s where Pettine is mistaken.
It very much has been about him, but not in a way that even he fully understands. Pettine arrived with defensive line coach Anthony Weaver and linebackers coach Jim O’Neill, both of whom left the Jets to join him in Buffalo. Together, they have helped give the Bills’ defense a makeover and adjusted its attitude.
How many times did the Bills insist the culture had changed when, really, all that had changed were the names of a few players and the coaching staff?
Pettine has been a refreshing addition. No longer is there a sense the Bills are playing not to lose, as they did under Chan Gailey, or lose by less, as they did under Dick Jauron. Pettine has effectively reconstructed the mind-set and turned a hesitant, passive defense into a pack of bloodhounds that bites first and asks questions later.
Their biggest problem so far has been getting into position to maximize the strength of their front seven. The Bills are among the leaders in sacks, which is remarkable considering they hadn’t built a comfortable lead in any game until Sunday. It enabled them to crank up a strong pass rush even more.
And they had a ball.
“It’s fun,” defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said. “He lets us be ourselves and let our talents show on the field. He doesn’t micromanage us. We just let it rip. He gave us a whole new attitude and another personality about the game. Attack, attack, attack.”
For the first three quarters Sunday, it was almost as if Pettine was in the Jets’ huddle, if not in their heads. New York failed to make a first down on seven of its first 10 possessions. It had more than two first downs on only one drive, and that came on their second-last possession. He walked away looking like a defensive genius.
Apparently, the genius was in its simplicity.
The Bills attacked mostly with man coverage. They stopped the run early and built a lead. They disguised their blitzes and had pass rushers coming from various angles, as they have all season. The Jets were in trouble in obvious passing situations because Smith was under siege while looking for receivers who were covered.
“I didn’t want to go into the Jets game and think we had to guru it up,” Pettine said. “A big part of our game plan was man-free. Go ahead and beat us. Somebody said, ‘Man, you called a great game.’ It’s not hard to call Cover One every snap. I didn’t want it to be a game that was so scheme-driven that I could pound my chest. I’m not about that.”
Pettine unleashed them against Smith, who was humbled from the beginning and played like a rookie. He completed only 8 of 23 passes for 103 yards. He completed three other passes to the Bills. Jairus Byrd caught the same number of passes from Smith as Jets star receiver Santonio Holmes.
The only touchdown pass Smith threw was to Bills defensive back Da’Norris Searcy, who returned an interception 32 yards for a score. Smith also fumbled the ball away, setting up another Buffalo touchdown. He was sacked four times before Ryan put him out of his misery and replaced him with Matt Simms. Smith’s passer rating was 10.1.
New York finished with 267 total yards, which is grossly misleading. The Jets more than doubled their output during garbage time, when Pettine had his players sitting back with the outcome no longer in doubt. They had 134 yards rushing, but that included a 69-yard run after the Bills were enjoying some rare R&R.
The Bills have had their problems this season, but their defense for the most part has not been one of them. They gave up big yards to the Jets. They were beaten soundly in the second half by New Orleans. If anything, their defense has been placed in difficult situations by a struggling offense. Finally, it all came together.
The timing was perfect.
“The players just sense that this was really special for the guys on the staff,” Pettine said. “It was for me, for Weav, for Jimmy O’Neill, guys that had been there. They knew the outcome of the first one. I thought the guys had a quiet confidence about them, and they just went out and played.”