Rex Ryan wants Ralph Wilson Stadium to become a heavy metal concert on Sundays. He wants a deafening roar every third down.
And in the Buffalo Bills’ 27-14 haymaker of a win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the fans delivered.
One problem: His own defense needs to communicate, too. Inside linebacker Preston Brown, the one making calls, couldn’t hear his own voice. In their own stadium, the Bills reverted to hand signals.
“If we didn’t have hand signals we wouldn’t have known what to do,” Brown said. “Sometimes, they were doing no-huddle because they knew we couldn’t hear either.”
The improvising worked as Ryan’s defense started with a bang against one of the league’s best quarterbacks. A unit playing together for the first time in Ryan’s complicated scheme – one that can have seven different checks on a play – was in mid-season form.
No coverage breakdowns. No second-guessing.
Rather, Ryan confused Luck all game long. He dictated the action.
“Everybody studied the plays,” Brown said. “So once I got the signal, everybody knew what they had to do – the checks, everything – it was great to see everybody working as one.”
Specifically, the blitz and illusion of a blitz kept the quarterback off balance. At times, Ryan sent the hounds. Other times, it appeared he would, only to back off.
The first drive of the game, the coach tried to instill fear.
On a third and 23, both inside linebackers – Brown and Nigel Bradham – crept within inches of the center before the snap … and followed through a Double A-gap blitz. Six yards behind them, in stormed safety Bacarri Rambo. Pressured immediately, Luck threw a deep, errant ball to Donte Moncrief that was nearly intercepted by a diving Aaron Williams.
The second play of the next quarter – on second and 4 – Ryan timed up another blitz perfectly. This time, Aaron Williams snuck up the middle with such stealth that running back Josh Robinson didn’t even see him in pass protection. Luck’s subsequent rushed, underthrown ball was then nearly picked by cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The goal early? Get Luck skittish. Make him think blitz. Speed up his internal clock at uncontrollable speed.
Because then Ryan can bait and switch. As the game progressed, linebackers sold blitz and backed off.
“There’s a lot of times I’m not blitzing but everybody thinks I am,” Brown said. “A lot of times it’s a hard count and you’re about the fall, about to blitz – we know we’re not – but he has no idea where we’re coming from.”
This mirage, in turn, made Ryan’s pressure that much more effective.
With the Colts trying to mount a late rally – and Luck already has nine fourth-quarter comebacks – Ryan saved his best for last with one of the strangest alignments you’ll see. This third and 10, Ryan had 193-pound Nickell Robey, 303-pound Kyle Williams and 254-pound Jerry Hughes all rush from an upright stance on an overloaded left side. Brown showed blitz, then backed off. Bradham stayed home as a spy on Luck.
Translation: Mass confusion.
Williams got to Luck, missed, and Robey swooped in from behind to sack him at the line of scrimmage.
And on the final interception that iced the win, Manny Lawson was set to rush off the edge, only to drop, as Hughes (from ILB) and Robey (from the slot) blitzed on both sides of him.
Expect Lawson to be one of Ryan’s primary chess pieces in 2015. Ryan said in their “Niner” package, the Bills move Lawson around as a fourth rusher/dropper. This 10-year vet with 127 games of experience is asked to handle a lot mentally in this defense.
“And he did a great job. He’s really a smart guy,” Ryan said. “When you have smart players, you’re able to do a lot of different things and change up your plans week to week. That’s what we need to do and keep teams guessing so to speak. Especially when they play at our stadium – with that type of noise – I’m not going to say it’s impossible but, man, it makes it difficult.”
Another key? Timing.
The Bills study precisely when quarterbacks snap the ball on the play clock. Before the opener, they noticed that Luck loves to drip the clock down to one or two seconds. So they waited until that buzzer to show blitz.
“So we have to do the same thing with Tom Brady and see when he’s snapping the ball – on second and third down – to get that timing down. And with the crowd, they might have to go to a silent count. So when they do that, we’ll be right on it.”
Yes, Brady is next. The four-time Super Bowl champion has owned the Bills with a 23-3 all-time record, 6,258 yards, 58 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Ryan has flustered Brady, occasionally, as the New York Jets’ head coach. Buffalo rarely ever does.
There’s footage of his new defense on tape now, but Ryan stresses that his game plan changes week to week.
There will always be tweaks. Adjustments. Subtleties.
“So if you’re focused on this,” Ryan said, “we may or may not do what you see on tape. We’re pretty multiple on defense.”
Against a quarterback making three-step drops, the Bills were still able to generate pressure. Now, the challenge is keeping this scheme fresh.
On Sunday, players were able to play fast in a new defense even though they couldn’t hear each other.
With a smile, Brown says there’s plenty in that iPad that hasn’t been used, too.
“We have so much stuff that we haven’t even put out on practice yet,” Brown said. “There’s probably stuff they’re working on in the office up there right now.”