Wait a minute. Was that actual communicating going on between the Buffalo Bills’ coaches and members of their defense before and during Sunday’s 22-17 victory that knocked the New York Jets out of the playoffs? Were Bills defensive players, several of whom have been on a season-long rant about the scheme not fitting their skills, really being asked for their input on the game plan and the calls?
Just when it looked as if Rex Ryan was going to stick to his guns until the bitter end of a bitter season, he relented. Just when it seemed that his defense of his defense – which, in a nutshell, is that it has worked exceptionally well for many years with two previous employers – was going to overshadow any of the carping by Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes (among others), Ryan changed his tune.
Not publicly, perhaps, but privately.
“The past two weeks, what Rex has been doing is asking us what we feel comfortable playing,” defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “And that has helped us execute at a higher level. Saturday nights before the game, he’s like, ‘Do you guys feel uncomfortable with anything? If you feel uncomfortable with anything, we’ll take it out.’ ”
These exchanges came too late for the Bills to avoid missing the playoffs for the 16th year in a row or plummeting from fourth in the NFL in defense last year to 20th before Sunday’s game.
But it arrived in time for the Bills to finish their season on a winning note, beating the Cowboys and Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium to close the year at 8-8.
On Sunday, Ryan picked the perfect time not to take the “I’m-the-coach-and-what-I-say-goes” approach. It came at the 2-minute warning, with the Bills clinging to their five-point lead and the Jets facing a third-and-9 from their own 45-yard line.
The coach asked his defenders what they would be comfortable doing in that critical situation. The players didn’t need a whole lot of time to think before answering.
“We felt comfortable rushing four,” Bryant said.
And as the Bills’ defensive line made its push, Dareus broke through to hit quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick just before he released a throw intended for Brandon Marshall. Linebacker Manny Lawson intercepted, and that allowed the Bills to run the clock down to 44 seconds before the Jets took over again at their own 18.
On a third-and-1 from the New York 27, the Bills sent another four-man rush after Fitzpatrick. This time, he threw an interception – his third of the game – to linebacker AJ Tarpley to seal the outcome.
Why the vote for the four-man rush?
“Because we knew we could beat them up front,” Bryant said. “You’ve got Mario, you’ve got Jerry, you’ve got Marcell Dareus, and, you know, I do a little bit myself.”
Bryant was grinning. He was satisfied with the win. He was happier with the idea that there just might be a breakthrough occurring that could very well allow the Bills to field the type of defense in 2016 they were hoping to have in 2015.
“Things look promising,” he said.
Williams isn’t going to be a part of whatever the Bills’ defense does next season. Multiple media reports say the team is planning to release him to clear $12.9 million in cap space. His production was forgettable, although he did get one of the Bills’ two sacks Sunday. And if, in fact, Ryan had decided to go earlier to his new approach, Williams and the rest of the line might have been able to do more to allow the Bills to reach the postseason rather than merely play the role of spoiler.
For Hughes, what the Bills showed defensively against the Jets was all about “communication, communication.” But not just between coaches and players. It also was the players talking with each other on the field.
In previous games, there were problems in that area. Sunday was different, a reflection that, finally, players were beginning to grasp what had apparently been so difficult for them to understand.
“I think, today, everybody was able to kind of put it together,” Hughes said. “You kind of started to see the connection you would see when guys are really two years deep into a playbook – how everyone was understanding what the coach wanted us to do. And we were going to go out and execute.
“I think that was missing throughout the season. Today we might have put that together. Hopefully, we can grow from today, use that to kind of boost next year.”
The Bills’ offense had a hand in Sunday’s win as well. Sammy Watkins repeatedly humiliated Darrelle Revis, once widely regarded as the best cornerback in the NFL, for a career-high 11 receptions for 136 yards.
Tyrod Taylor was solid, completing 18 of 28 passes for 182 yards, with no interceptions. He led the Bills with 53 rushing yards, which proved particularly vital after Karlos Williams, replacing injured starting running back LeSean McCoy, exited the game early with a knee injury and Mike Gillislee finished with only 28 yards on 24 carries. Taylor and Williams each had touchdown runs.
It was, in many ways, a typical Bills-Jets game. The Bills simply match up well against their AFC East rival, regardless of the coaches and to some extent the rosters, registering their fifth straight win against them and second sweep in as many seasons.
“We’re very familiar with what they do,” Bryant said. “We’re able to adjust to what they’re doing a lot faster because we know them. So, yeah, you can say that” the matchup usually favors the Bills.
“But I feel like this year, as a front, we matched up well against everybody. We had some bad breaks. We had some penalties, we had some turnovers on offense. But I feel like, as a team, we can match up against anybody. And they know, especially in this stadium, they’re going to have a long day.”