Something was bound to give, and in the aftermath of an embarrassing performance against the Cincinnati Bengals, it finally happened. Members of the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line weren’t talking about still learning and adjusting to a new scheme anymore. They flat out identified it as the reason they no longer have the pass-rushing prowess of a year ago.
To say Rex Ryan had a big problem on his hands after the Bills’ 34-21 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium would be a major understatement.
“When we’ve got four guys rushing, we can do some different things,” end Mario Williams said. “Some of the calls that we had, we just didn’t have four guys out there rushing in certain situations, things like that. You know, you’re just playing the call.
“We don’t make the calls as players. We’ve got to execute whatever’s called. If it’s three guys going, it’s three guys going and we’ve got to figure out an opportunity, a different way to get there faster.”
The Bills’ defensive linemen never found that way Sunday. Consequently, Andy Dalton completed 22 of 33 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t sacked. The only time he was hit was on a blitz by safety Duke Williams.
And that is the essence of what is wrong with the Bills’ defense and the team as a whole as it finds itself 3-3 and hardly looking like the playoff contender Rex Ryan promised.
The Bills’ strength is supposed to be their front four. The majority of their investment has been made in that unit. It was the primary reason they overcame offensive ineptitude and stayed in the playoff chase as late as they did last season. With the help of Ryan’s defensive coaching genius, it was supposed to allow the Bills to continue to overcome the absence of a franchise quarterback and combine with a stronger running game to lift the team to greater heights this year.
So far, that looks to be a long way from happening.
If you want to point to Tyrod Taylor missing Sunday’s game with a knee injury – and EJ Manuel coming up short as a replacement – as a key reason for the loss, go ahead. If you want to embrace Ryan’s injury explanation (“It’s like we’ve been so snake bit, it’s just unbelievable to me”), have at it. Manuel did misfire on several throws and the Bills, already without running back Karlos Williams (concussion) and Percy Harvin (hip), wound up losing wide receiver Sammy Watkins (ankle) and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (knee) with injuries that could keep them out multiple games.
But it still comes back to the defense – the area that is supposed to carry most of the load most of the time. Ryan was hired to make sure that happened. Big money was spent on end Jerry Hughes and tackle Marcell Dareus (in addition to the big money already spent on Mario and Kyle Williams) to make sure that happened.
“As far as the amount that’s given out to the players on this team, as far as income, I would assume those four guys, a lot is on their shoulders to get after the quarterback or stop the run, be disruptive,” Mario Williams said.
Recently, Hughes, Dareus and Kyle Williams addressed the differences between this year’s scheme and the one utilized last year under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. They were clearly more comfortable in Schwartz’s defense because it operated from a 4-3 base and allowed the ends to operate in wide stances, outside the tight end, while mostly allowing all four to tear after the quarterback.
This year, in Ryan’s 3-4 base that calls for the linemen to mainly help create openings for blitzing linebackers and safeties, Mario Williams leads the team with two sacks, while Hughes, Dareus and Kyle Williams have one apiece.
Asked if he would like to see the scheme allow him to be more aggressive as a pass rusher, Mario Williams said, “I definitely would like to say yeah. I think I probably set a record on dropping” into pass coverage “today. But that’s part of the scheme for us to be put in the position to win, so whatever’s called you’ve got to be able to go out and do it.”
Doing it and being effective with it are, in the eyes of the Bills’ defensive linemen, two different things. And the criticism they hear for not applying the same sort of heat on quarterbacks as last year is frustrating because they don’t see themselves as being the ones who are underperforming.
“What people don’t understand is you’re not running the same defense that we ran last year,” Hughes said. “This isn’t the 4-3, four down linemen, go after the quarterback. This is a 3-4 defense. We know what the 3-4 defense entails because we’ve had it before,” in 2013 when Ryan coaching disciple Mike Pettine was Buffalo’s defensive coordinator. “I just think it’s going to take guys some time to get used to making those calls and get that mindset to 4-3. Last year’s gone.”
With midseason fast approaching, time is running out. Ryan acknowledged the urgency when he said, “We’ve got to take a long, hard look at what we’re asking our guys to do.”
They’d better, because it isn’t working.
“I’m used to knowing what my guy’s doing beside me in a passing situation and things like that,” Mario Williams said. “And being able to cause havoc from different angles as far as getting after the quarterback or setting up the tackle or the tight end or whoever’s blocking you.”
The company line from the defensive line: Whatever’s called is called. Translation: It’s on the coaches; we’re just doing what we’re told.