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Analysis by Tyler Dunne: Final game puts significant focus on the defense

Rex Ryan insists it’s not about Rex Ryan even though you know it’ll absolutely be all about Rex Ryan.

His actions speak louder than words – no easy feat with the Buffalo Bills head coach. Replay his celebration Nov. 12 after knocking off the New York Jets on the national stage. He football-spikes his headset. He doesn’t so much fist pump as he throws an imaginary sledgehammer. Camera zeroed in, he mouths a string of profanities.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman puts an arm around Ryan and he hardly notices. He’s in his own tornado of a trance.

A bear hug with Jonathan Meeks. A bear hug with Bacarri Rambo.

It was obvious that beating his former employer meant something to him.

“No, I don’t think so,” Ryan said on Monday with a smirk. “No.”

So what happened to these two teams since?

The Bills trended one direction … the Jets trended the other. The Bills will undergo offseason soul searching … the Jets will think Super Bowl.

This isn’t the “Rex Effect” anyone in Western New York expected.

Ryan is relieved this Week 17 game against the Jets – let’s call it “Rex Bowl II” – won’t be in prime time. Green Bay/Minnesota has been flexed to NBC’s Sunday Night Football with the Bills facing the Jets at 1 p.m.

“Let’s wait till next year,” Ryan said. “Let’s see if we don’t get one for next year. That would be great. But for me, yeah, I am happy it is at one.”

Make no mistake: Week 17 absolutely puts Ryan and his defense right back in the spotlight. Knock off a potent Jets offense with his hodgepodge band of second-, third- and fourth-stringers that wouldn’t make some NFL rosters and there’s a sudden, unexpected feather placed in Ryan’s cap. This tormented franchise heads into the offseason with a shred of hope.

Lose to the Jets? Finish up at 7-9? The theory that Ryan is an average, at best, head coach gains more steam. Buffalo’s defense statistically got worse with his arrival, New York’s defense statistically improved with his departure. A bad loss to the Jets at home would trigger the boos and pour salt into the wounds of this battered bunch.

This game absolutely means something. No matter how much Ryan will downplay it all week.

“First off, it’s about getting the win,” Ryan said. “We know we’re facing a team that’s red hot, a team that’s probably as talented as anybody out there. When you look at it – even from a statistical standpoint – I think the defense is sixth and the offense is eighth. This team is a complete football team. No surprise they had the record they had. But just to get a win – I don’t care if we’re playing East Carolina, you want to get a win. Period. There’s no question about it.”

If he’s not throwing shade at Orchard Park High School, it’s East Carolina. Ironically, both offenses would give the Dallas Cowboys a run for their money. Kellen Moore and his popgun passing game were difficult to watch. But the Bills’ defense is also skin and bones itself at this point.

No way did Ryan ever envision these snap counts from Sunday’s game back in August (percent is of all defensive snaps):

• CB Mario Butler 46 snaps (78 percent)

• CB Ron Brooks 31 snaps (53 percent)

• DT Jerel Worthy 21 snaps (36 percent)

• LB AJ Tarpley 30 snaps (51 percent)

• DT Stefan Charles 23 snaps (39 percent)

• DT Corbin Bryant 52 snaps (88 percent)

• ILB Kevin Reddick 11 snaps (19 percent)

• S Bacarri Rambo 58 snaps (98 percent)

This defense was hard enough for the Day One starters to grasp. Inside linebacker Preston Brown, the one relaying the calls, said calls have been coming in late and that “Everybody has been kind of doing their own agenda on our side of the ball.”

So the Bills rank 20th overall (360.1 yards per game), 31st in sacks (20) and 15th against the run (107.2 yards).

Now, the Bills are down to reserves at each level. For Ryan, this should be a personal, career-defining type of challenge. Such turmoil – injuries, players not buying in, more injuries – has pushed Buffalo to the point of disaster. That probably makes calling plays tougher than ever for him.

“Probably not as easy as everybody thinks I guess,” Ryan said. “But you know what, it’s where we’re at. What I admire about our group is they’re playing hard. Some of these young guys stepped in – we had Tarpley playing all over the place. He’s playing the old Manny Lawson – Will, Mike, Sam, just throw him anywhere.”

Ryan then proceeded to praise a player the team actually cut one month ago. An undrafted rookie who’s essentially Plan D at inside linebacker. On Tarpley’s interception, Ryan said the linebacker was actually dropping back to safety to cover the post.

“The kid, I just love the way he plays,” Ryan said. “Do I wish he had a bigger NFL body? Yep. And that’s what the offseason’s about. Build him up. Get some bumpers on him. All that. Get him bigger, stronger. Absolutely. But one thing I know he is, he’s a football player and he’s got instincts. I love that kid.”

Of course, the team-wide tackling was also abysmal. Several times, the Bills squared up a pedestrian Cowboy, mano a mano, and couldn’t make a basic point-blank tackle.

“There were some guys who really tackled well,” Ryan said, “and some guys who really couldn’t.”

No player had a rougher game than Rambo who, Ryan admitted, was playing with “one shoulder” through his 58 snaps. If that’s the case, if Rambo is so powerless, the head coach should’ve taken him out of the game.

“Well, that’s a good point,” Ryan said. “And for some reason, it never jumped out at me at the time.”

So in Rex Bowl II, he’ll be playing Jonathan Meeks at safety instead.

That’s been the story of Rex Ryan’s defense in 2015: No continuity, minimal belief, constant flux and confusion.

The biggest problem has been the one with the biggest paycheck: end Mario Williams. Incredibly talented, incredibly accomplished, Williams either has not bought into Ryan’s defense, is a declining talent or both. Whatever the case, he’s been a placeholder this season. Not a playmaker, not even close really.

Sunday was another go-through-the-motions game from the vet. He totaled zero tackles with zero quarterback hits on 54 snaps. A total non-factor. Was he dropping into coverage? Yes. Twice on third down the first drive alone, in fact. Williams often has a point when he complains about his role. He’d be best rushing from a nine technique all game.

But Williams also had many one-on-one opportunities to rush – even against a tight end – and did nothing.

Ryan could deactivate Williams in the finale to send a message to the entire team. But he also needs all the healthy bodies at his disposal, too.

So, here the Bills trudge into Week 17, a shell of themselves defensively. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Chris Ivory will resemble Hall of Famers after what Buffalo faced this past weekend.

Now, this season of extinguished hype ends with a dash of promise or an absolute thud that’ll make many question whether or not Ryan is the right head coach for the Bills.

It’s only one game. But this one game carries a ton of significance.

Simply watch Ryan’s body language when the clock strikes “0:00” on the Bills’ season to understand why.


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