How bad has the Buffalo pass rush been this season? Look at it this way: If the Bills were a person, they’d be only 2.5 sacks ahead of the league leader, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt.
Over the last five weeks, Watt has more sacks (9.5) than the entire Bills defense. Watt is a great player, the best defensive player in the league. And you better watch out, he’s coming to town Sunday with the red-hot Texans.
But it’s not Watt’s sack total that’s so noteworthy. He’s roughly on the same pace as a year ago, when he had 20.5 sacks and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a second time. The astonishing thing is that the Bills are 30th with 16 sacks after leading the league with 54 a year ago.
The Bills had 46 sacks through 11 games last season. Three Bills (Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus) finished in the top 20. They have no one in the top 60 in sacks at the moment. Williams and Hughes lead the team with three apiece.
“That’s crazy,” said Dareus. “We’ve got to figure it out. They’re getting rid of the ball; we got to kind of mix it up and make it fit like a puzzle.”
Rex Ryan’s defensive system has been a mostly inscrutable puzzle this year, a veritable Rubik’s Cube of ineffective blitzes and passive scheming. A Bills defense that was fourth overall a year ago is sitting 20th in the NFL with five weeks left in the season.
When he came swaggering into Buffalo, Ryan promised the defense would get even better. He said they would lead the league in defense. At various times along the way, as his unit stumbled, he said he knew the numbers would wind up where they generally do.
“Yeah, I thought I did,” Ryan said. “I mean, 30th in sacks is not real good. Wow! But I expect us to get better, I really do. We’ll see. It’s different for me. I’ve never been in this sitation. I think the worst I’ve ever been in this league is 11th. It’s new for me.”
Don’t let anyone tell you Rex doesn’t care about his stats. He was dead-on. In 10 years as a defensive coordinator (four with the Ravens) and head coach (six with the Jets), his defenses finished out of the top eight just once. Two years ago, his Jets defense was 11th in total yards allowed.
So this Buffalo defense has been his most disappointing, especially when you consider the high expectations that preceded them. What’s more distressing is that whatever chance the Bills’ D had to sustain its supposed elite status is fast diminishing.
The window appears to be closing on this defense, especially the celebrated and highly paid defensive front. There’s a chance that half of the “Quarter Billion Club” won’t be back in 2016. Ryan was asked if he feared that might be the case.
“No,” Ryan said. “I don’t feel that way, and with those players, I believe they’re under contract.”
Ryan ended his weekly media session after that hollow reply. The fact that players are under contract means nothing in a league where contracts aren’t fully guaranteed. The contracts, especially in Mario’s case, are precisely the reason why the defense is bound to change next year.
Mario Williams will count $19.9 million against the cap next season (not $12.9 million, as I reported Tuesday). The Bills can clear $12.9 million by cutting him, cap space they need for free agents.
Kyle Williams has a base salary of $7 million next year. That’s more manageable. But he’ll be 33 years old at the start of next season and is coming off a season-ending knee injury. Williams has taken a pounding in his 10 seasons. The Bills might be ready to move on, and he might choose to retire.
“I don’t know what upstairs plans for Kyle and Mario,” Dareus said. “I’m looking for them to still be here and finish out their contracts and have a great time with me for a couple more years, me and Jerry. I don’t know what the future holds.”
Hughes, who signed a five-year, $45 million contract last March, said it wasn’t a shock to him that the defense regressed under a new coaching staff.
“Everyone had pretty high expectations for us,” Hughes said. “But given the whole circumstance of things, I don’t think people were looking at the bigger picture.”
Which circumstances, Jer?
“This isn’t the same defense,” Hughes said. “We’re like a 3-4 defense. We have interchangeable parts. We have guys coming in. You have to be able to communicate and work within a new playbook.
“So for us to come out and say we’re going to be great, looking at the playbook in the offseason, I just rolled with it,” he said. “But I know how a football season is going to go. You got to be able to roll with the playbook, and we’re still doing that. This is our first year in it.”
Wow. Hughes is saying that he knew all along, while Ryan was making bold pronouncements about making the defense better, that it would be a difficult transition from Jim Schwartz’s schemes.
We’re nearly three-quarters through the season and it’s still an issue. No wonder Dareus decided to cut short his interview after the loss in Kansas City. He was probably afraid he would tell us how he really felt about being dropped into coverage on two Alex Smith touchdown passes.
“Whatever it takes to help the team,” Dareus said Wednesday, given three days to cool off. I sighed at his response. He laughed. “If the coach feels that me dropping helps, hey, I’m taking up as much space as I can. As much real estate as they’ll let me. He’s the head coach. We’re going to do what he feels is best.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Dareus said when pressed again on his role in K.C. “It’s like a blur, the game was going so fast. Especially when you’re playing nose tackle. With Kyle down, I had to play extra snaps and I was a little woozy.”
Well, a lot of people are getting woozy at this point, including Bills fans who expected great things from this team and its defense.
It’s not over, but it’s feeling more and more like another wasted year, but with more money than usual spent in the empty pursuit of the playoffs.
That’s why we’re likely to see big change. At the start of the season, Tim Graham wrote an in-depth story about elite defenses, and how rare it is to keep one together for more than two seasons. Since the NFL salary cap was adopted, roughly one-quarter of top five defenses repeated the next season.
Ron Wolf, a Hall of Fame executive for three NFL teams, pointed out in that story that the window for top defenses in today’s game is “very, very small.”
That story seems prescient with the Bills facing another non-playoff season and the almost certain prospect of moving ahead without one or more of their Pro Bowl defensive linemen. That sound you hear is the window closing. Maybe Rex shut down his presser early because he feels it closing, too.