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Can Preston Brown handle running Rex Ryan’s defense?

The News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.

By Tyler Dunne

News Sports Reporter

A 22-year-old with one year of NFL experience will be the one telling multi-millionaires what to do this season. Coach Rex Ryan loves to blitz. And ramping up the blitzing means there will be an encyclopedia of checks to process play to play for an inside linebacker.

No pressure, Preston Brown.

All of the talent in the world doesn’t mean anything if assignments get botched.

After finishing with 109 tackles as a rookie, Brown was the one who made the Kiko Alonso-for-LeSean McCoy swap possible. Now, he’s the one at the central command center of a complicated defense. Mario Williams is the $100 Million Dollar Man. Marcell Dareus will soon be a very rich man himself. Jerry Hughes just signed a five-year, $45 million deal. But Brown, the one directing traffic on the field, may be the most important player on this front seven.

“He can learn concepts,” said Vance Bedford, Brown’s defensive coordinator at Louisville who’s now at Texas. “And when young people learn concepts, they can play in anything and they can play fast. The people who can’t learn concepts, they’re going to always struggle. He’ll figure it out and continue to play fast.”

In New York, Ryan leaned on veteran David Harris, who he has called the most “underrated” player in the entire NFL and another coach on the field. The 31-year-old has started every game the last six seasons, providing occasional pressure as well with 24 sacks.

Confusion reigns supreme in today’s game with offensive coordinators always seeking the mismatch. In its Super Bowl win over Seattle, New England chipped away at Seattle’s linebackers underneath one paper cut at a time rather than test Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell deep.

And the greats – Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, etc. – salivate at the sight of a blitzing defense, too.

It’ll be on Brown to match wits with those quarterbacks and make the necessary pre-snap adjustments. After all, Brady has owned Buffalo with a 23-3 record, 6,258 yards, 58 touchdowns and only 19 interceptions.

Bedford first points to the fact that Brown grew up in a football family. His father, Mike Brown, coached at a Cincinnati-area high school. So from childhood through his teenage years, Brown was often in the basement with his dad watching film and working the whiteboard.

And at Louisville, he adds, Brown ran a “NFL style” defense with multiple looks.

One NFL personnel executive who studied Brown closely out of college said he can handle Ryan’s scheme. Year 1 seemed to debunk the concern that he’s too slow. Brown ran a 4.86 at the NFL scouting combine in 2014, 73rd overall.

“He was impressive last year,” the executive said. “Really the only knock on Preston through everything – he had really good film, he’s supposed to be all football – was that he ran a slower 40 than what people wanted and expected. That’s really been the only knock. And once the games start, sometimes that doesn’t really matter. He was really good for them last year.

“He’s instinctive. He’s square. He can take on blockers. He anticipates. He’s quick. He’s a good tackler. He’s smart enough to make up for his lack of speed. You wouldn’t watch him and think that he was fast. But you wouldn’t watch him and think that he was slow, either.”

Bedford sees Brown and Ryan as a perfect fit because Ryan has historically gravitated toward “big, physical” heavy-hitting linebackers. Brown didn’t make many splash plays in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme – zero sacks, zero forced fumbles and one interception in 16 games – but in Ryan’s 3-4 he’ll probably have the green light to rush more often.

In their final season together at Louisville, Bedford sent Brown on an array of blitzes and he changed games with five sacks, 14 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

He sees Ryan getting creative with Brown in the pros.

“He runs through people,” Bedford said. “The 40, sometimes, it’s not what it is. And when we played pass defense, people saw that he could run and he could cover. He’s 255 pounds coming out of college, what do you want? A guy who runs a 4.6? That’s not going to happen. But he’s going to play at 4.6.

“He had a great year last year as a rookie. I don’t see what’s going to change.”

He’ll just need to think a tick more quickly.

“There’s a check for everything,” Bedford said. “Mentally, that slows young guys down. But again, he’s the type of guy who’ll work at it so he’s going to be fine.”


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