By now, the Buffalo Bills defense should be dictating, intimidating and leaving quarterbacks bruised, confused and begging for mercy. After flustering Tom Brady on Monday Night Football, it appeared this group was trending in the right direction at the right time.
At Arrowhead Stadium, the Bills — as linebacker Preston Brown said — took “a couple steps back.” Their margin of error is now shrinking. So what happened in Sunday’s 30-22 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs? How did a defense firing in beautiful chaos one week get burnt for 413 total yards and 21 first downs the next? To Alex Smith?
Days after coach Rex Ryan declared, “This is our defense,” the Bills resembled a completely different defense.
The film reveals a passive, soft, play-on-our-heels game plan against the methodical Smith. The Chiefs quarterback dropped back to pass 37 times in all, of which the Bills unofficially rushed four or less 34 times (92 percent).
Buffalo sent four 23 times, three 10 times and one rusher on Travis Kelce’s touchdown reception.
Wondering why defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was biting his tongue after the game was over? Here’s one theory: On both of Smith’s scoring strikes, the 6-foot-3, 331-pounder who inked a $108 million contract extension dropped into coverage… against air.
Yes, yes. Coaches coach and players play. Make no mistake about it, the moving pieces on the field missed opportunities. A pick-six here, another pick-six there. But Ryan seemed to outsmart himself in this crucial loss. All game, he dropped players in shallow zones — the Adonis-built Manny Lawson was used almost exclusively in such a wait-and-see role. Buffalo’s banged-up defensive line couldn’t win up front and Smith picked the defense apart to the tune of 255 yards on 19-of-30 passing.
A defense that led the NFL in sacks last season (56) hit Smith exactly zero times Sunday. They’re on pace for 23 sacks under Ryan.
Instead of boxing like Mike Tyson, instead of slugging Smith with haymakers, they approached this one like Floyd Mayweather. Bobbing. Weaving. Hoping their opponent whiffs enough to win in 12 rounds. Buffalo played in fear of screens, scrambles and throws underneath, so Smith — with all day to throw — threw deep. He connected on his punches.
A sampling of the wreckage...
• On a 14-yarder to Jeremy Maclin, inside linebackers Brown and Nigel Bradham, along with cornerback Nickel Robey, all floated in space underneath. Sure, Spencer Ware leaked out of the backfield but no other Chief receivers bothered to run routes near them. They were all caught, mostly useless, in no man’s land.
• On Smith’s 41-yard touchdown strike, the Bills’ showed five and rushed four with Dareus shuffling back in coverage as heat was applied to Smith’s blind side. Not a bad fire-zone concept. Remember Green Bay’s B.J. Raji returning an interception for a touchdown in the 2010 NFC Championship? One problem: There wasn’t a Chiefs receiver anywhere near Dareus. No hot-route option was even lined up to his side pre-snap, so it’s not like he would’ve had a chance for a pick. Not to mention, Dareus is arguably the team’s greatest talent. A large, violent, disruptive force who had 10 sacks last season. Maybe this is why a heated Dareus turned down one interview afterward, “feeling certain things I don’t even want to say.”
• When Smith did scramble on a third and 9 — three Bills defenders all waiting at the second level for him — Brown took a poor angle, Smith reversed field and then Lawson took a rough angle and he gained 11 yards. Floating backward off the snap was the theme of the day for Buffalo. For some reason, the Bills treated Spencer Ware and Knile Davis like Roger Craig pouncing on both at various points, even in double coverage, out of the backfield.
• This line of thinking, likely instilled all week in the film room, backfired on a 38-yarder to tight end Travis Kelce on third and 2. Yes, Leodis Mc- Kelvin got burnt on the play. He’s the main culprit here. But both Brown and A.J. Tarpley fan out on Ware’s swing pass, giving Kelce room to run free.
• Players aren’t blameless. Just replay the Chiefs’ final offensive play on that final field goal drive. Ryan rushed only three on third and 17 and Nickell Robey smelled the receiver screen all the way. He pounced quickly yet, for some reason, held up at the last split-second for what could’ve been a touchdown the other direction.
Overall, Smith hardly blinked at Ryan’s deception. The coach dared the quarterback forever dubbed a “game manager” to beat him with his arm and he did.
Both Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore were burnt deep. Rather than staying in attack mode, rather than ripping downhill with abandon, both Bradham and Brown were instructed to hover.
Rather than rush Lawson, the one who got to Brady a week ago in Foxborough for a sack, the Bills constantly had the 10-year vet backing off the line on no one in particular.
“Certain teams are good at one thing, than others,” Lawson said. “So with Brady, we knew that he was going to try to get rid of the ball quickly and we had to disrupt his routes. With Alex, he’s more of a mobile quarterback, so he’ll hold the ball and allow his receivers to get open. So we had the coverage there, get more guys in his face and have guys who can keep him contained.”
On paper, it makes sense.
In the lab, it seems smart.
But injuries to Mario Williams (foot) and Kyle Williams (knee) dulled Buffalo’s four-man pass rush. The coverage was sloppy deep. And most of the game, the Bills’ defense consisted of white jerseys covering air.
Baffling, considering that, just one week prior, the Bills pestered Brady — a four-time Super Bowl champion — to the point of complete frustration on the sideline.
Next up? The Houston Texas’ Brian Hoyer.
If this 30-year-old NFL journeyman tears Ryan’s defense up like Smith did, few in the locker room will be talking playoffs.