Rex Ryan was brought to Buffalo to shut down opponents and get the Bills into the playoffs.
Two years later, Ryan is out of a job and the team is no closer to ending The Drought.
What went wrong?
Owner Terry Pegula said in introducing Ryan that he felt the team was two plays away from an 11-5 record, so he wanted a veteran coach to get the Bills over the hump.
“Rex Ryan-coached teams have two characteristics,” Pegula said. “They’re always great defensively, and they always work hard.”
Ryan’s defense would be top-notch – that much was assured. If the Bills could just get adequate offense, it was thought, their playoff drought would be history in no time.
So maybe it’s not hard to see what happened. Tyrod Taylor may not be a franchise quarterback, but his offense held up its end of the bargain. The Ryan defense wasn’t anywhere close to good enough.
Ryan had a disappointing first season in Buffalo, when the Bills defense fell from fourth to 19th in total yards allowed and first to 31st in sacks. Ryan followed that up in 2016 with another 19th ranking before being fired with one game to play. The offense ranked higher than the defense in both yards and points per game in each of Ryan’s seasons in Buffalo.
"It’s the same thing every week," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said after the Dec. 4 loss to Oakland. "At the end of the day, we have to go out and put four quarters together. That’s something we haven’t done all year. So we have to, at some point, ‘do’ instead of talking about why we haven’t.”
But the Bills never did that. They lost seven of their final 10 games to finish 7-9, missing the playoffs for the 17th consecutive season. They lost six games when scoring at least 24 points, the most in the league, and Ryan was fired.
More often that not, Ryan had his defense to blame.
Rex Ryan’s defense was built on pressuring the quarterback. He and Rob, his twin brother who joined the coaching staff this season, learned from their father, Buddy, the legend who created the “46” scheme that loaded the box and could bring heat from anywhere.
But in Buffalo, Ryan’s defense seemed to lose its identity. Players openly criticized his scheme in his first season with the Bills, with Mario Williams among its most vocal opponents. Those complaints seemed to die down in Year Two, but after he was fired, Marcell Dareus wasted no time telling ESPN that he wished they would’ve been “more aggressive” on defense. “It was just too much detail for a lot of guys,” he said.
Lacking aggression was something Ryan never would have been criticized for in the past. But if it felt like Ryan wasn’t dialing up the blitzes like he used to, that’s because he wasn’t.
According to data from Pro Football Focus, Ryan’s deployment of blitzes declined steadily over the last five years. His Jets blitzed on 42.3 percent of plays in 2011, but that number dropped to 27.9 percent of plays in 2016, falling below the league average (30.5 percent) for the first time over that span. League-wide blitzing rates are down slightly as well, but not nearly as sharply as on Ryan’s teams. (PFF defines a blitz as any time there are five or more pass rushers – unless everyone rushing is a defensive lineman by roster position, such as in goal-line situations – or any play when a defensive back rushes, regardless of total number of rushers.)
When Ryan did cook up a blitz this season, the Bills weren’t that successful. They pressured the quarterback on only 35 percent of blitzes, per PFF, which was well below the league average of 41.6 percent. They managed an above-average rate of sacks on blitzes, but failing to get home often allowed quarterbacks to shred the Bills with fewer defenders in coverage.
When the Bills blitzed this season, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 101.8 – a shade better than Drew Brees’ season rating. PFF said the rest of the league gave up a QB rating of 90.3 when blitzing.
Why that happened on a season-wide level is complicated, but each reason speaks to the larger, systematic issues of Ryan’s Bills.
Coverage, buy-in missing
One explanation Ryan gave during the season for calling off the blitz, after the Week Two loss to the Jets, was that their coverage was too poor to risk sending anyone else after the quarterback.
Brian Billick, who was the head coach on Baltimore’s 2000 Super Bowl team while Ryan was the defensive line coach, believed there was something to that. Coverage and pressure go hand-in-hand. Ryan’s best teams were able to get creative in coverage when they got pressure without sending the house, and they could also get creative with their pressure when the defensive backs locked down the back end, Billick said.
“If you can get pressure, the really good defenses – and when we went to the Super Bowl, one of the hallmarks of our team – was our ability to put pressure on quarterbacks with just a four- or five-man rush,” said Billick, who is now an analyst for NFL Network. “When you can do that, then that gives you a lot of latitude on the back end to play matchup, man, matchup zones, trap zones, it just gives you a lot of latitude. If you have to bring six and seven guys on a regular basis, that’s great but you better be pretty good on the back end.
“And there’s times they’ve had that,” Billick added. “Particularly when they had Darrelle Revis at his top, that allowed you to play man-to-man on the back end. You can get pretty creative with five-, six- and seven-man pressures when you’re that good on the backside. But again, that comes back to your personnel. If you can get pressure with four and five, that’s the optimum. And it looks like to me, in Buffalo, it was a combination of, there’s times they could do that and the back end didn’t hold up as well, and there was times they could get there with a four- and five-man rush and that gave the back-end more latitude to get support and brackets and things of that nature that didn’t leave them quite as vulnerable.”
Problems with players understanding and buying into Ryan’s scheme continued to hamper the Bills’ defensive identity even after Ryan’s second year.
“Just figuring out his scheme, what he wants from us, I don’t think we knew what to expect or what he was really wanting us to do out there on the field,” Jerry Hughes said after Ryan was fired. “So I think it just caused for a lot of miscommunication just by us as players.”
ESPN analyst Damien Woody, who played offensive line on Ryan’s Jets teams, pointed directly to players’ lack of comfort with the scheme as a reason Ryan couldn’t unleash his full arsenal against quarterbacks, as well as coverage issues.
“A lot of times when coaches start scaling back, it’s because the players don’t get it,” Woody said. “There’s too many mental errors, somebody’s busting their assignment. So the natural thing to do as a coach is say, OK, we need to scale it back because we have too much on their plate and we want these guys to play faster.
“Rex’s philosophy on defense, if you were to sit down and have a conversation about defense, one of the things he always said is he loved defensive backs. He always said, like, just get me a bunch of like basketball players on the back end, a bunch of defensive backs that are real athletic in coverage, because if I have guys that can cover on the back end, now that gives me the flexibility to do all types of exotic things in the front seven,” Woody said. “I don’t know on the back end, as far as the secondary, I don’t know if they played up to the standard of what their personnel was on the back end. Because a lot of what happens in Rex Ryan’s defense, a lot of what happens on the back end dictates how successful they’re going to be defensively.”
And in terms of lack of buy-in, Billick harped on the idea that players need to be convinced that the team’s needs are more important than their own.
“At the end of the day, your players are 53 independent contractors, regardless of how good a team they’re on or how good they want to be or how much they want to win,” Billick said. “Sometimes you have to ask players to do things to make sacrifices for the team. … Our interior defensive linemen were asked to do a lot of things to help Ray Lewis look good. And at times it wasn’t necessarily the numbers or the position they wanted to be in, but it’s what we needed as a team. Sometimes your defensive ends need to do things in terms of slow rushing or maybe not freelancing, going after the quarterback as much as they would like, but that’s what their contracts are tied to in terms of sacks and this and that.
“Sometimes you’re asking discipline from them for the sake of the team that asks a sacrifice that, when you’re winning, that’s fine, but when you’re not, all the sudden players aren’t as willing to do those things that the team needs them to do that asks them to sacrifice some of their individual aspirations.”
Run and safety issues
Another issue that plagued Ryan’s defense was stopping the run. His Bills featured some fantastic failures in that area this past season.
Ryan’s defense made 2016 the Year of Jay Ajayi, allowing the Miami running back two 200-yard games, including one the week after he gained 200 against Pittsburgh. Only O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams had ever rushed for 200 yards in consecutive games.
Against the Steelers in December, the Bills gave up a team-record 236 yards to Le’Veon Bell, making Ryan’s “bully” of a unit just the third defense in NFL history to allow three 200-yard rushing games in one season.
Ryan’s reasons for his run issues always went back to poor tackling – a failure of players, not coaches. Woody agreed.
“Stopping the run is an attitude,” he said. “You can draw up schemes and all those type of things, but stopping the run is truly attitude. The offense is trying to impose their will on the defense. If a team is imposing their will, there’s no scheme that’s going to stop that. The players have to stop that. So when it comes to Buffalo giving up 200 yards rushing multiple times, I don’t blame that on the scheme, I blame that on the players not being able to impose their will on the offense.”
Ryan always said his players’ effort wasn’t the problem, but the fact that he couldn’t instill his run-stopping “attitude” in them spoke volumes.
It was also interesting how much worse the Bills defense did, especially against the run, after safety Aaron Williams got injured.
The Bills were 4-2 when Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry threw a high block on Williams, sending him to injured reserve with a severe neck injury for the second year in a row. The Bills’ safety carousel eventually featured eight different players at the position in 2016, even with Corey Graham on the field for 99 percent of defensive plays.
The Bills allowed only 17.2 points per game with Williams, but after he went down, the Bills gave up 22 consecutive points and blew a lead in an important divisional game before losing three straight. They gave up 27.5 points per game without Williams while going 3-7.
The Bills actually gave up fewer passing yards on average without Williams, but on fewer attempts, likely because they were so easy to run against. Once Williams went down, the Bills rushing average against skyrocketed from 103.2 yards per game to 151.1. Williams is contemplating retirement.
The Bills will have a new defensive mindset in 2017. They’ll surely have some new infantry, with a league-high 24 unrestricted free agents, and could have a new scheme under new coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
The Bills used 3-4 principles under Ryan, but McDermott ran a 4-3 scheme in Carolina that utilized an extra lineman with one fewer linebacker. The Bills could be ripe for a change, with players like Shaq Lawson better suited for a 4-3, though they don’t have an All-Pro to man the middle linebacker position like McDermott’s Panthers had in Luke Kuechly.
“I come from a 4-3 background,” McDermott said at his introductory news conference, “[but] I’ve worked with a 3-4 as well. Again, strategically right now I’m not going to say we’re going to be, I don’t want to get into that right now. I’m going to put the players in position to be successful. That’s what a coach does, a coach adjusts to what he has and I just believe in that.”
Billick said less attention should be paid to what teams call their defensive fronts.
“We transformed from one to the other in Baltimore, and it’s real simple,” he said. “When we had a lot of good defensive linemen, we were in a 4-3. When we had fewer defensive linemen and a lot of good linebackers, we were a 3-4. Pretty simple.
“I think people make too much of that, because most 3-4 teams, the way they reduce ‘strong’ and ‘weak,’ it really is a four-man front. You can call a guy a linebacker, but he’s really maybe a stand-up-rush defensive end.”
The Bills’ defensive line looks solid at the moment, though that could change if Kyle Williams retires. Linebacker, however, could be an area of need. Preston Brown and Reggie Ragland will be back, but Alexander and Zach Brown are both free agents.
The biggest holes for the Bills to plug are in the defensive backfield. Safety is one of their biggest needs, even if Aaron Williams doesn’t walk away from the game while he still can. Cornerback would also be a huge need if Stephon Gilmore signs elsewhere. He performed at a high level after a shaky start to the season and may have a higher ceiling yet, which will land him big money somewhere, though the Bills could franchise tag him for 2017.
The Bills own six picks in the upcoming draft, but they may want to get their quarterback some help, too – whomever he may be.
Pondering draft needs in early January instead of the upcoming playoff opponent feels familiar in these parts. Ryan was supposed to change that.
But the family defense he tried to install never meshed with players. He trusted the scheme to a fault – punting in overtime on Christmas Eve truly may have been Ryan’s last stand – and the results weren’t near good enough.
It’s McDermott’s job now.
“We just didn’t do it on the defensive side,” Preston Brown lamented. “The offense scored enough points for us to win games, we just didn’t go out there and find ways to stop people when we needed to.
“It’s a complicated defense, but that’s what we need to run. It’s worked for him in the past, so it could’ve worked here. We just didn’t get it right.”