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It’s a little late, but defense starting to ‘get’ Ryan’s scheme

The 10-year veteran met with the head coach often this season.

“Several times,” linebacker Manny Lawson said. “Several times.”

And, yes, Rex Ryan has listened to Buffalo Bills players as the season has progressed. But it’s all been too little, too late.

Remember training camp? The NFL’s fourth-ranked defense, one that racked up a NFL-high 54 sacks, was supposed to reach an even higher stratosphere under Ryan. This playbook was set to unleash playmakers in ways they never imagined. Yet with three games to go – at an uninspiring 6-7 – the Bills defense currently ranks 20th in the NFL.

They have averaged one interception per game. Buffalo’s 19 sacks rank 30th in the NFL. The analytics site Pro Football Focus grades Buffalo as the worst pass rush in the NFL.

One reason is that this playbook was too deep, too complicated and by the time players got a grasp of it, it was too late.

“We have to understand that even though Rex is a defensive guru, that’s a lot at one time,” Lawson said. “With these guys here, there is a lot of talent. So a lot of guys here were thrown into situations they weren’t accustomed to and had a big playbook thrown at them. So it took some time to adjust to that. But I think that – it’s sad to say – but as the season’s dwindling away from us, now we’re starting to see that ‘Aha!’ factor. I wish we could’ve had it early on.”

There were many questions with this team heading into the season: Who would play quarterback? Is LeSean McCoy still an upper-echelon back? How do all the new offensive pieces fit together? Do Richie Incognito and Percy Harvin fit in the locker room?

Ryan’s defensive scheme was the least of anybody’s concerns. Yet generating pressure and communication were issues all season. Surely, one looming off-season narrative will be Ryan finding the right pieces for his defense. Still, it is alarming that such talented personnel has not led to better results.

His dense scheme is a factor.

As inside linebacker Preston Brown said way back in mid-August, plays can have six, seven, eight checks off any given play. In Jim Schwartz’s simplified 4-3? “When you’re set, you’re set.”

“Now we change the whole … everything,” Brown said then. “It’s a lot more checking this year. It’s a lot more complex. It gets us in the best position possible. We can change the front, the back, whatever we have to do with that formation, we’re going to make sure we’re in the perfect defense for it.”

This sounds like poetry in motion on paper, and Ryan even broke down his defense on paper for The Buffalo News.

But overthinking became a problem. In three straight home losses, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Andy Dalton combined for 921 yards, nine touchdowns, one interception and a 105.1 passer rating. Players started to speak up more to Ryan, which helped, but they never were able to adjust on the fly in time to save this season.

“A belief factor also comes into that when our coach comes in – to believe he knows what’s best for us,” Lawson said. “So we have to believe in his scheme. And then a lot of it is will and want-to. You have to want to do something. You have to understand exactly what’s going on.”

And were players buying in? “Initially not a lot of guys were talking about buying in. But as we’ve gotten the ball rolling, things are starting to change. Some guys voiced their opinions. They heard us with some of the things we’ve changed. I think now we’re buying in.”

With, of course, only three games to go.

In Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bills had some scattered success against quarterback Sam Bradford (77.4 passer rating) and held the Eagles to 3.4 yards per carry on the ground. Even then, big plays doomed the Bills. Maybe Buffalo turned a corner, to some extent, but nothing happened in time to save the Bills’ season.

As Lawson explained, players are hesitant to voice concerns because “you’re afraid of the consequences.” But Ryan was, indeed, open to their suggestions and they sincerely believe they have moved in a positive direction.

“If you don’t feel like you understand this and you talk to him, he’ll have a conversation with you,” Lawson said of Ryan. “It’s not coach-player. It’s man to man. That’s how he approaches the game. It took us a while to understand that. But I think now that it’s all understood, we just have to implement it.”

Penalties haven’t helped. On defense alone, the Bills have 45 flags this season for 422 yards. But overall, what has made Ryan’s defense great – its complexity, it’s ability to adjust – was quite possibly its downfall in 2015.

No one’s questioning the talent in this locker room. The results in 2014 speak for themselves. But the X’s and O’s seemed to confuse players for too long and they never played fast, loose, free.

A play can change, Lawson said, based on personnel, motions, shifts, “everything” with Ryan.

“So it takes a while for guys to understand. I think that’s one of the things we need to work on and improve on.”

And maybe Year Two of the Ryan era is different. It’s now too late to save Year One.