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Bills’ defensive line goes from being terrors to just terrible

This is the sixth of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the defensive line.

By Vic Carucci

News SPorts Reporter

How could it have all gone so wrong for the Bills’ defensive line in a matter of a year?

How could the one area of the team that presumably had the fewest questions entering the 2015 season, the place that figured to serve as the foundation for the playoff run that the head coach promised, fall so short of lofty expectations?

It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t.

The same starting group that generated 40 of the Bills’ NFL-leading 54 sacks and was primarily responsible for the team ranking fourth in the league in defense in 2014 was still intact. The head coach, Rex Ryan, had a sterling reputation for muffling opposing offenses largely on the strength of his team’s pass-rushing prowess.

Surely, with all of that talent up front and mostly solid players through the rest of the unit, the Bills would again routinely terrorize opposing quarterbacks – and a revamped offense would take them the rest of the way into the postseason.

Then, the games were played and it didn’t take long to realize that the defensive line wasn’t anywhere close to being as good as it was the previous season. In fact, it got worse. It became an embarrassment, especially for Ryan, as the sacks dwindled to 21 and the overall ranking dropped to 19th.

Why? The players, especially the linemen, wasted little time pointing at Ryan’s scheme in comments to the media. Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman pointed at execution.

In the end, there wasn’t a clear-cut understanding of how it all unraveled, although the popular theory is that Ryan made a mistake by forcing the defense to adapt to his ways – by trying to fix something that wasn’t broken and breaking it.

Ryan had an entirely different perspective. During an appearance on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” show last Monday, he said his error was trying to “merge” what the Bills did defensively in ’14 with his defense, and “quite honestly, it didn’t work.” He then promised the Bills would be “all in” with his scheme in 2016, which seems to be a lock given last Sunday’s hiring of his twin brother, Rob, as assistant head coach/defense.

The breakdown follows:

Signed: T.J. Barnes, Corbin Bryant, Stefan Charles, Marcell Dareus, Lavar Edwards, IK Enemkpali, Jerry Hughes, Cedric Reed, Max Valles, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, Jerel Worthy, Jarius Wynn.

Pending free agents: Alex Carrington.

What went right: Very little.

Mario Williams, who led the team with 14.5 sacks in 2014, finished with five. That gave him a tie for the club lead with Hughes, who had 10 the year before. Dareus, whose 10 sacks in ’14 helped him get a new contract worth more than $100 million, had a paltry two sacks.

There were essentially two highlights: the steady pressure that was applied to Tom Brady in the 20-13 Monday Night Football loss at New England on Nov. 23 and the exceptional work done to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into throwing two decisive interceptions in the meaningless (for the Bills) season-ending win that knocked the New York Jets out of the playoffs.

The Bills appeared to be onto something in the game at Foxborough, Mass. From the outset, Brady was clearly flustered and frustrated, yelling at his offensive linemen on the sidelines and searching for answers from his coaches. Afterward, it appeared that, despite losing, the Bills might very well have turned a corner defensively.

They hadn’t. They proceeded to lose three of their next four games – with the pass rush going back to being mostly non-existent – on the way to elimination from the playoffs for the 16th year in a row.

But then came the season finale, which provided hope to many players who thought that their frustrations and wishes were finally being heard. They spoke about having more give-and-take with Ryan before and during that game, as well as the previous week’s meaningless victory against Dallas. They praised him for asking them what they were comfortable doing, especially in the late stages against the Jets, and granting their wish to use the four-man rush that hurried Fitzpatrick into the interceptions.

For the linemen, it felt like a throwback to the previous year, when former Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz employed the wide-nine look that regularly allowed Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes to line up far outside of each blocker and tear after the quarterback. Dareus and Kyle Williams also had the freedom to give chase inside.

For one game, at least, they didn’t feel burdened by Ryan’s strategy of having the line work in a tighter formation, with ends and tackles sometimes being asked to drop into coverage. That might very well turn out to be little more than a brief, happy memory.

What went wrong: Pretty much everything.

This was a miserable group throughout the season. Mario Williams was the most vocal, repeatedly spouting off to reporters about the fact he was often being asked to drop into coverage and not being utilized properly. Hughes and Dareus offered variations of the same complaint, and even linebacker Preston Brown chimed in.

Mario Williams’ frustrations reached a point where he, for all intents and purposes, checked out mentally and wasn’t putting forth a full effort through the second half of the season. That was noted, anonymously, by at least one of his teammates.

But Williams presumably felt he had nothing to lose, especially after it was leaked to the media that the Bills intended to release him and his massive salary to clear $12.9 million in salary cap space.

One of the biggest blows to the team was the knee injury that caused Kyle Williams to miss the final 10 games of the season. The Bills lost his physical presence inside, which consequently caused Dareus to draw more blocking attention, as well as his considerable experience, intelligence and leadership.

In many ways, the defense in general and the line in particular looked rudderless. That, in large part, was due to Kyle Williams’ absence.

Where they go from here: One of the first orders of offseason business is to say goodbye to Mario Williams. If, as Ryan professed, the Bills are going to be “all in” with his defense, then it is reasonable to assume Williams would be “all out” once again – regardless of his salary.

When motivated and playing at his best, Williams can be highly impactful. But that guy didn’t show up for most of the season, and it’s time to move on.

The Bills would figure to be targeting an edge rusher, either at end or outside linebacker or both, with their first-round draft pick.

Kyle Williams wants to return and the Bills appear to want to keep him, but he will be 33 at the start of training camp and his trying to return from major knee surgery. He also has a cap hit of $8 million, with a base salary jumping from $4.5 million to $6 million and a $500,000 roster bonus to go along with $1.5 million in prorated salary.

Even if he’s able to return and play at the level of a starter, the Bills need to be addressing their long-term future at defensive tackle.

Next: Linebackers.