This is the seventh of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the linebackers.
By Vic Carucci
News sports reporter
In 2014, linebackers Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown established themselves as solid components at the core of the Bills’ defense.
They provided much of the interior muscle that gave the Bills, already known for their pass-rushing dominance, a more complete defense than they had the year before.
However, in 2015, Bradham and Brown were viewed more along the lines of misfits.
If the narrative sounds familiar, it should. As was pointed out in the sixth part of this series, the defensive line saw a startling decline from its dominance in the ’14 season and that, too, raised square-peg-in-round-hole discussions.
The popular explanation is that most of the problems stemmed from the drastic change from the scheme that former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz employed to the one Rex Ryan introduced when he became head coach. The linemen complained publicly and so did at least one linebacker: Brown.
For the linebackers, the biggest changes were, generally speaking, greater involvement in pass coverage and much more complicated and extensive communication within the front seven. The latter adjustment proved particularly challenging for Brown, who had the responsibility of relaying signals from the sidelines to the rest of the front seven.
Given how much ground the unit lost from 2014, slipping from fourth to 19th overall, it’s hard not to question whether the scheme was or still is the right fit for the players.
Ryan, who has supreme confidence in the long-standing success of his X’s and O’s, isn’t buying that, of course. And General Manager Doug Whaley rejects the notion that an overhaul of defensive personnel is necessary to get better fits even if the Bills did have the salary cap room to do so on a wholesale basis.
During his season-ending news conference with Ryan, Whaley preached patience with the defense.
“Change is uncomfortable for everybody,” he said. “But I think with everybody buying in and everybody on the same page, we’re on the same page, on the same direction, we’ll be OK. Again, I think it’s just another year together and another year under this regime, the consistency is going to get better.
“I look at it this way: I have complete faith in this guy next to me (acknowledging Ryan). I mean, it’s been 11 years you’ve been a coordinator and a head coach, and this is only the second time he’s been out of the top 10. And the other time was 11th? So I have complete faith in what he and his staff can bring to us and if you look at it, I think the biggest thing we have to improve on in defense is consistency. There are times we’ve played lights out, so I think it’s just tinkering.”
The breakdown follows:
Signed: Preston Brown, Randell Johnson, Manny Lawson, Kevin Reddick, Tony Steward, AJ Tarpley.
Pending free agents: Nigel Bradham, Ty Powell.
What went right: Not a whole lot.
Lawson, who completed his 10th NFL season, was the most consistently effective member of this group. He also was the one incumbent who benefited the most from the scheme change.
In 2014, Lawson had pretty much become a forgotten man as a reserve who barely saw the field. In 2015, he became a significant contributor in a stand-up linebacker role in the Bills’ base defense that took advantage of his considerable intelligence as much as anything else. The analytics website Pro Football Focus had him as the 29th-ranked linebacker in the NFL, which is considerably higher than any of the Bills’ other players at the position.
In playing 63 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps, Lawson consistently put himself in the right place to make plays, and also worked well with Brown to relay calls and adjustments to others within the front seven.
Ryan has gone out of his way more than once to mention how bright Lawson is based on his strong scores in intelligence testing when he entered the NFL from North Carolina State in 2006. It was widely believed that was both a genuine compliment for Lawson but also a jab at some of the defensive players who were struggling to understand the complexities of Ryan’s defense.
Although Lawson was far from spectacular, he did not seem to have any trouble with grasping the X’s and O’s from the new defensive playbook.
What went wrong: Plenty.
In what was particularly reflective of the Bills’ shortcomings at linebacker, the team fell from 11th in rushing yards allowed per game in 2014 to 16th in 2015 and from 14th to 25th in rushing yards per play.
Brown, who led the Bills’ in defensive snaps at 98 percent, and Bradham, who missed the final five games with an ankle injury, struggled in pass coverage. Their tackling generally left something to be desired as well. Pro Football Focus had Bradham as the 79th ranked linebacker in the league and Brown 88th.
Perhaps one of the loudest alarms concerning the issues of players struggling to grasp Ryan’s defense was sounded by Brown when he noted that signals from the sidelines often got to him – via the headset in his helmet – late. That no doubt led to some frantic moments before and during the snap and there were busted assignments because some players either didn’t have enough time to move to where they were supposed to be or the signals weren’t properly relayed to them.
With Ryan’s scheme designed to have an answer for pretty much anything an offense can send its way and, therefore, waiting until the last possible moment to make substitutions, the Bills sometimes had problems getting proper defensive personnel onto the field.
Where they go from here: By most accounts, the biggest way the Bills intend to improve this area is likely the same way they intend to improve their defensive line: through more teaching and learning. That will be Ryan’s No. 1 answer to the question of why he felt the need to hire his twin brother, Rob, as assistant head coach/defense.
Rex also took the meaningless victories in the final two games, against Dallas and the New York Jets, as indications that the light bulbs were finally beginning to turn on with his defensive players.
“If we started the season today, would the results be better than they were during the season? I think so,” the coach said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt because the fact we are way more familiar now and I think that’s a big part of it.”
With the Bills tight on salary cap space and planning to put the bulk of their free-agent efforts into retaining offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito, Bradham could be a longshot to return. That would be especially true if a team playing a defensive style similar to what the Bills used in 2014 were to pursue him.
In general, the team is likely to look more toward bargain-basement veteran linebackers familiar with Ryan’s defense to add in free agency.
Next: Defensive backs.