Seventy days after his 8-8 Buffalo Bills debut concluded, Rex Ryan fired a coach. On Sunday, he cut loose Karl Dunbar.
The move itself may not be too surprising. Buffalo had a franchise-low 21 sacks after a NFL-high 54 sacks. At face value, this can only be interpreted as Ryan making Dunbar the scapegoat. The timing, however, was a bit puzzling. Quite possibly, Rex realized he had too many cooks in the kitchen after hiring his twin brother, Rob.
Either way, Dunbar is gone now. Whoever's in charge must get the best out of the team's best player, it's most expensive player: defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
After inking a $108 million contract extension before the season, Dareus too often looked miscast in Ryan's defense. He finished with 51 tackles and only two sacks after totaling 17.5 sacks the last two seasons combined. In Ryan's 3-4, Dareus took on more double-teams than before and, yes, was asked to drop into coverage. Ryan is still revered as one of the game's brightest defensive minds, and is quick to point to the past himself. Somehow, some way, he needs to get this right.
You probably remember the team's 30-22 "playoff" loss at Kansas City, the one where Ryan's passive play-calling cost Buffalo. He rushed four or less on 92 percent of Alex Smith's dropbacks that day. And on two Chiefs touchdowns, Dareus backpedaled into coverage.
It was a strange, cringe-worthy sight, this violent 6-foot-3, 331-pound behemoth floating in no man's land because that's what he was told. If you can bear it, here's the first on a touchdown to Jeremy Maclin.
The week after, I caught up with Dunbar. He insisted this wasn't a fatigue issue, rather assuring this was what Dareus "was asked to do."
"We’ve got some things where we ask our guys to drop in coverage and do things," Dunbar said then. "Last week, we were trying to take away some of the screens they had. So he’s running our defense and he’s doing a great job at it.”
So this is one way a defense drops from No. 4 overall to No. 19. It fails to utilize one of it's best talents.
There was a disconnect between players and coaches as early as the first week of October. Dareus said then he likes to "to be cut loose," adding that "Dunbar knows it. He feels that from the defensive line. We just like to be lined up, cut loose, kind of just going to the defense that way. We’re still trying to fit that into what Rex wants us to do exactly."
With the exception of spurts here, spurts there, the D-Line was never truly cut loose until the final two games.
In those 16-6 and 22-17 wins, Buffalo wreaked havoc on Dallas' Kellen Moore (13 of 31, 186 yards, Int.) and New York' Ryan Fitzpatrick (16 of 37, 181 yards, 2 TD, 3 Int.). Granted, the injury to defensive tackle Kyle Williams did the defense zero favors. He can command multiple blockers himself, freeing Dareus into more one-on-one situations. But there's no reason Dareus couldn't have been doing more of what he did these two wins earlier in the season.
Game on the line, 2 minutes to go, the Bills called a good 'ol fashion tackle/end stunt. Outside linebacker Jerry Hughes looped inside, Dareus looped outside and D'Brickashaw Ferguson was mauled by the former third overall pick. Dareus smacked Fitzpatrick as the quarterback released a wayward wounded duck that was picked off by linebacker Manny Lawson. Ryan will sell his "half pregnant" narrative all offseason but, in truth, the coaches started to take more player input those final two games.
Defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, the one who hit Fitz on the QB's third interception, said exactly that.
Right here was a play Dareus should've been running all season long. Hughes is a relentless pass rusher; Dareus the most athletic player in the NFL at his size. Why not combine these two forces in unison?
Why not let Dareus rush upfield with abandon? He's a $108 million dollar player player who should be used like a $108 million dollar player.
Rex Ryan. Rob Ryan. Dennis Thurman. Assistant defensive line coach Jeff Weeks. Whoever is in charge next season must game plan accordingly. Scheme should highlight the talent. Last season was too much of the opposite, too much of players being asked to cookie-cutter fit into a scheme. So those two wins at season's end do provide a jolt of optimism. Maybe the Bills can get it right in 2016 without needing a big-splash signing.
After all, Dareus was the franchise's biggest splash ever.
After all, no player on the roster has a perspective quite like him. Dareus opened up to The News all about it — the fact that everyone close to him dies. Through tragedy after tragedy, he has found a way to make football his personal sanctuary. And let loose, he's one of the best defensive tackles in the game.
He just needs that green light more often.