Giant bookshelves consume most of the space on two walls of Rex Ryan’s office at One Bills Drive. They’re filled with binders containing defensive game plans from his two previous NFL stops. On one set of shelves, you see rows and rows of green and white. Those are from the past six seasons Ryan served as coach of the New York Jets. On the other, it’s all purple and black, from his four years as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens.
As Ryan springs from his chair and begins pulling out binder after binder to show to a visitor, his sense of pride is unmistakable. He’s like an inventor showing off some of his most ingenious creations. “There’s Green Bay … that’s Pittsburgh … you’ve got New England,” he says, rattling off the opponents. Then Ryan’s eyes widen as he opens each binder and flips through the pages containing X-and-O diagrams and terms such as “Base,” “Subs,” “Tiger,” and “Cobra 6.”
These are the details behind the schemes that have led to numerous sacks, fumbles, errant throws and interceptions. They’ve made many offensive coordinators curse. They’ve left quite a few quarterbacks and offensive linemen befuddled.
“When you play against us, you get everything,” Ryan says, with the kind of conviction you expect from him in most conversations but especially ones about the most defining aspect of his career. “I’m not going to disappoint you. I’ll bring everybody known to man on you.”
He will. And he won’t.
Therein is the essence of Ryan’s defensive genius, which has gone a long way toward allowing him to consistently field some of the stronger defenses in the NFL. The opponent’s expectation that he will constantly blitz often works to his advantage as it prepares to face his team and especially at the line of scrimmage before the snap.
One of Ryan’s favorite football memories is his first game as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator: Sept. 11, 2005, against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
“We weren’t that talented at that time, but I said, ‘OK, I’m going to blitz every single snap of the preseason when I have my ones out there,’ and that’s what I did 100 percent of the time,” Ryan recalls. “And then we went into the opener, and I rushed three probably seventy-five percent of the time. But I knew I put a clock in his head, that Peyton was going to study his ass off and I was going to use it against him. I wanted him to think I was crazy … and then go out there and rush three.”
The Colts won, 24-7. Manning threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns. But Ryan remains satisfied in the knowledge that he forced one of the greatest quarterbacks in the game to prepare for something that never happened, to think more about the threat than the actual attack.
What is the Ryan scheme? A 3-4? Yes. A 4-3? That, too. It’s whatever it has to be to suit the players that he has for it.
The parts are interchangeable. On one play you can be a middle linebacker, on the next you can be a nose tackle. Or a weak-side linebacker. Or an end. Or a safety. You might even be a 6-foot-6, 292-pound cornerback.
‘“This is a defense that can morph into anything on any given snap and bring pressure all over the field,” says Damien Woody, who played on Ryan’s offensive line with the Jets. “And he doesn’t just blitz on passing downs. He runs run-stuffing blitzes. He does it all. This is a guy that makes you think when you’re out there.”
“You’re like, ‘Nobody’s going to do what we call a bomb blitz in the first quarter,’” former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe says. “But he’ll do it in the first quarter. He’ll do it in the second series of the game.”
Bart Scott, a linebacker that played for Ryan with the Ravens and the Jets, once called the coach’s defensive scheme “organized chaos.”
“That’s really what you’re trying to get it to,” Ryan says. “But there’s a method to the madness. People think, ‘Oh, he’s going to blitz everybody.’ That’s true. But I’m also going to put it in you where it’s really not blitz, but you don’t think that.”
Ryan builds each game plan around what he believes is a thorough understanding of the opposition. The pages of each binder contain reams off information about the offense’s tendencies, under categories such as “Earned First Down,” which is a list of plays that are projected to be run once a first down is achieved via a run or pass (but not a penalty). There are other headings, such as “Favorite Runs and Passes,” “Game-Plan Style Offense,” “Alert for Gadgets,” “Verticals,” “Tempo Changers,” and “Alert for Motions and Shifts.”
“Here’s what they do on two-back stuff,” Ryan says, running his finger up and down one of the pages. “You’ve got play-action passes here, what they do when they go vertical, outside” pass “concepts. Be alert for Bang 8s, they like the ‘Yogis’ and the ‘Option 6s.’”
It’s a language all its own, and Ryan recites it as if he’s playing the game all over again. He speaks with the authority of someone who believes there are no problems on the other side of the ball, just solutions on his side. Show him a formation or a motion or a check, and he’s certain he’ll have the appropriate response.
“It’s a chess match, so a lot of times I’ll look at your protection and I’ll try to take advantage of what I’m seeing protection-wise and route-wise,” Ryan says. “So, say, I have a team that’s hot-releasing. Well, fine, I’ll pressure a guy and know you’re going to throw hot, we’ll make the tackle and get off the field.”
He turns to the diagram under “Cobra 6 Kick.”
“When you look at it, you think that’s an” all-out “blitz,” Ryan says. “We’re overloaded to one side with the dime backer lined up behind the tackle on the right. But it’s actually a coverage. The left end drops into coverage, and it looks like it’s just a four-man rush. But then we’re running a corner blitz on you with a rolled-up safety, which we call the ‘Kick.’ And if you throw to that side, you’re throwing into double-coverage.”
A complete challenge
For Ryan, defensive success starts with being loaded with talent. Ideally, he’ll have great cover cornerbacks – something that, with injuries and inexperience, might not necessarily be the case with the Bills – to handle the single coverage that his blitz-heavy scheme requires. Ideally, he’ll also have an ultra-strong front seven, which is mostly the case with his three Pro Bowl linemen – Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams – and star edge rusher Jerry Hughes.
After that, it’s about making the calls that not only put his talent in the best possible position for success, but also put the opposition in a perpetual quandary.
“I don’t want to just challenge the coordinator or the quarterback,” Ryan says. “I want to challenge the entire offensive unit mentally, as well as physically.”
He then reaches into the sleeve on the inside cover of a binder to pull out a folded piece of paper with the heading “Defensive Call Sheet.” “Eventually, this is what I get to,” Ryan says. The sheet has color-coded sections and dots to help Ryan, who is dyslexic, better recognize what the accompanying words say.
“They all mean different things to me,” he says. “These are calls that I’m going to make against specific personnel groupings. Here’s my second-and-two to –sixes, -two to –fives, whatever it is. Here’s two-minute calls. Short-yardage, goal-line. And these are things that I’m going to light up on.”
Light up, as in send more pass-rushers after the quarterback than he or his protection can handle.
“There are times when I’ll use a load of tendencies against teams and other times I won’t,” Ryan says. The Patriots “no-huddle the heck out of you, so a lot of times I’ll put our guys in base and I’m going to ride it out. If I have the talent, I may really mess with people with way more personnel groupings, all that type of stuff.”
Woody remembers those frustrating days of practicing against Ryan’s defense with the Jets.
“There would be three guys lined up outside of me, so you would automatically assume, ‘OK, here’s the pressure,’” Woody says. “And then, all of a sudden, those guys are dropping and all the pressure’s coming from the other side. So from a protection standpoint, you’re adjusting your protection accordingly to what you’re seeing. But then all of a sudden, as the ball is snapped, the whole secondary is rolling to the other side. And here comes the pressure from the other side.”
Whatever Ryan does, it will change week to week, depending on the opposition. Ryan conforms his game plan to his team’s and the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. He places heavy emphasis on tendencies. Injuries, especially to his own players, will factor in as well.
Ryan attributes the thinking to “talking with some of the great coaches in the history of the league,” such as Joe Gibbs, who would never use the same red-zone plays in three successive games.
One of David Diehl’s worst nightmares as an offensive lineman for the New York Giants came in 2004, the rookie season of quarterback Eli Manning. The Giants were facing Ryan’s Raven defense.
“They came out in a completely different hybrid that we had never seen before,” Diehl says of the 37-14 loss that resulted in Manning being replaced by Kurt Warner in the fourth quarter. “They were running different stems,” moving linemen outside and inside the shoulders of the blockers, “and motions. It was one of the toughest games, not only as offensive linemen but as a team, that we ever had.”
Finding reward in risk
To describe Ryan’s defense as risky would be an extreme understatement.
When you blitz, you can get burned. Badly. Large chunks of the field are left vacant for the quarterback to exploit, if he’s able to throw the ball before the blitzer gets to him.
That’s OK with Ryan.
“He believes, if I make a mistake, I don’t give up six; I give up a 30-yard gain,” Sharpe says. “But if you make a mistake, I might hit your quarterback in the back, he fumbles the ball, I’m going to scoop it up and go for six.”
Ryan’s favorite targets are immobile quarterbacks. He respects Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for their Hall-of-Fame credentials, but he knows he can feast on their inability to move well in the pocket.
“So he’s going to light them up, he’s going to heat them up,” Sharpe says. “He doesn’t believe in just sitting back, because they’re going to pick you apart. He’s saying, ‘I’m going to see your reaction time. I want you to make quick decisions.’ The quicker the decision, the more apt you are to making a mistake.”
Not all of what Ryan’s defense does is generate pressure. Often, it’s what he calls “simulated pressure” that gets the better of the opposition.
Ryan achieves this through pre-snap alignment and movement. On each snap, he wants the opponent to assume there will be a blitz … even when that isn’t the case. He wants the quarterback and the linemen to believe they have solved the riddle before the snap … only to discover they haven’t.
As always, he wants the joke to be on the other guy.
“I like the hit on the quarterback,” Ryan says. “But a lot of time, I’ll give you simulated pressure more so than other teams in the league. It’s going to look like pressure to them, but it’s actually a coverage.
“I’m going to play overloads on you and actually only rush four guys, but you’re going to think it’s a blitz coming off one side. But we’re going to put simulated pressures where you’re thinking, ‘It’s pressure, it’s pressure … well, no, it’s not.’ ”
By that time, you might very well have been forced into a mistake as the quarterback or an offensive lineman. And you’ll become the reason Ryan smiles the next time he opens up the binder for that defensive game plan.