Rex Ryan took umbrage with the idea that Nickell Robey had a down 2014 season, no matter what the statistics say.
“I don’t know how big of a step back he took last year because I thought he was outstanding,” said Ryan, the Buffalo Bills’ head coach.
The numbers, however, say there was a dip in production. Robey burst onto the scene as an undrafted free agent in 2013 under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine with 39 tackles, three sacks, 10 passes defensed, one interception (which he returned for a touchdown), one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Last year under Jim Schwartz, Robey’s tackles increased to 47, but he had no interceptions and just one sack to go with seven passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of minus -8.0, down from a positive 6.1 in his rookie year.
Not surprisingly, Robey is happy to be returning to a scheme that should bare some similarities to what Pettine ran.
“I think it’s better,” Robey said of how what the Bills will do this year on defense suits him. “Last year, I was more just in coverage, basically. Softer coverage, too. I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do as far as being aggressive and being able to play like I really like to play. This year, Rex allows me to do that.”
It might seem strange that the smallest player on the roster will be one of the Bills’ key blitzers, but that’s exactly what the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Robey expects to do.
“Scheme-wise, just doing a lot more blitzing,” Robey said of what he focused on during spring practices that wrapped up last week. “I’m playing a lot more aggressive coverages, but most of all doing a lot more blitzing. I love it.”
The Bills can utilize Robey as a blitzer out of his slot cornerback position because opposing offenses have to devote blockers to players like Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes off the edge.
“Coming off of Mario or coming off of Hughes, it’s a great switch up because they’re all going to be keyed on them and then I just slide underneath them,” Robey said. “It’s like a giveaway. It’s real easy.”
Aggressiveness has been a hallmark of Ryan’s scheme since he started coaching in the NFL. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team blitzed even more in 2015 than it did in 2013.
“I feel like the coverage is a lot more aggressive on the back end,” Robey said. “The D-line, they are able to rush more aggressively, so it helps out everybody.”
Every time it’s suggested to Ryan that the Bills are returning to a similar scheme to the one in which they played in 2013, the coach is quick to point out that this year’s defense will be new. That means there will be a learning curve for players even if they were here two years ago.
Ryan, though, is confident that Robey will adapt well.
“You guys want to paint it as the same scheme, but it’s not,” he said. “Some things are similar but it’s a new defense. There’s a lot of things that we ask. Ours is more of an audible defense than he’s been in in the past. He picks it up well. He’s going to have a big impact. He’s a little man with a big impact on the game. I’m glad he’s our nickel. I think he’ll make a lot of plays. He’s a playmaker and will fit right in.”