There was, if only for a fleeting moment, hope that continuity – which has become the favorite buzzword at One Bills Drive since the end of the 2015 season – would be maintained in the area of the 2014 team that needed it the most.
Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula understood as well as anyone that, apart from the fiasco that was Doug Marrone’s stunning decision to bolt from his contract as head coach after a 9-7 finish, they had a very good thing going with their defense.
The last thing they wanted was for that to follow Marrone out the door.
“Have every intention of keeping” Schwartz, a high-ranking Bills official texted a Buffalo News reporter on Jan. 11, 2015, as the team was finalizing an agreement to make Rex Ryan the new head man.
Jim Schwartz had been the Bills’ defensive coordinator for the ’14 season. Under his direction, the Bills ranked fourth in yards allowed, led the NFL with 54 sacks, and resided in the upper tier of other key statistical categories on defense. There were no complaints from players about being bad fits for the system. There were no questions about whether the Bills had the right talent to succeed on that side of the ball.
Schwartz, who declined to comment for this story, had two years left on his contract. But as soon as reports surfaced about Ryan’s hiring, there was speculation Schwartz would be gone. After all, defense was Ryan’s forte. And his 3-4 base scheme, which relied heavily on blitzing to pressure the quarterback, was an apple to Schwartz’s orange, a 4-3 approach that mainly depended on the line to generate heat.
No way would those clashing philosophies – and accompanying egos – ever be able to co-exist. How could they?
“Rex wants to win, whoever is doing the ‘D’ doesn’t matter,” the high-ranking team official insisted in another text on Jan. 11, 2015. “It’s what’s best for the team.”
In a perfect world, that seemed logical. In the real world, it looked like a pipe dream.
According to those close to the situation, Schwartz fully expected the Bills to hire another offense-oriented head coach. Once Ryan entered the picture, Schwartz had no idea of the role he’d fill on his staff. Would he actually remain the defensive coordinator? Or would he merely retain the title, a requirement if he stayed under contract, while someone else ran the defense?
Schwartz knew there was only one person who could answer that question, but, according to a former Bills defensive assistant coach on Marrone’s staff who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Ryan wasn’t saying. Not to Schwartz, anyway.
Soon thereafter, reports surfaced that Ryan intended to have Dennis Thurman, his defensive coordinator with the New York Jets, serve in the same capacity with the Bills. Schwartz still didn’t hear from Ryan … even when Thurman began moving his belongings into what had been Schwartz’s office. Finally, on Jan. 13, 2015, Ryan and Schwartz had their first conversation. It was then that Ryan officially informed Schwartz that his contract was being terminated.
So much for continuity.
So much for Ryan’s declaration, during the news conference introducing him as the Bills’ new head coach, that his approach to defense would deliver better results than what the Bills had under Schwartz, who after being out of coaching in 2015 became the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles last month.
Ryan made another unfulfilled promise – that the Bills would reach the playoffs in 2015 – but it’s fair to say the largest disappointment in going 8-8 during his first season at the helm was the shocking regression of the defense. The many variables that can influence landing a postseason berth, not to mention the significant question mark hovering over the quarterback situation at the time of Ryan’s hiring, made such talk ring a bit hallow even to the most optimistic Bills fan.
But the defense was supposed to have been rock solid. Its success in 2014, its abundance of high-priced talent, and Ryan’s sterling defensive coaching record were tangible reasons for hope. When it got worse – falling from fourth to 19th overall and first to 31st in sacks, while Tyrod Taylor brought improvement to quarterback and the running game vaulted from 25th to first in the NFL – that opened the floodgates to second-guessing.
And the biggest second guess was the decision to part ways with Schwartz and a scheme that seemed perfectly suited to the players executing it.
Falling off a cliff
“It’s hard not to take offense when Rex gets up and says last year’s defense wasn’t good enough. ‘We’re going to be No. 1, I guarantee it!’ ” the former Bills defensive assistant said. “We went from top five in just about every category to bottom 10 in just about every category with pretty much the same team, and a better player” in rookie cornerback Ronald Darby.
Actually, the Bills were in the bottom 10 in four of 12 key statistical categories in 2015: third-down efficiency (23rd), yards per play (24th), rushing yards per attempt (25th), and sacks per pass play (31st).
But their overall numbers did pale in comparison to those from 2014 when they ranked in the top five in nine categories: total yards per game (fourth), yards per play (third), passing net yards per game (third), passing net yards per play (second), passing, percent had intercepted (third), sacks per pass play (first), first downs per game (fifth), third-down efficiency (first), and points per game (fourth).
Throughout the ’15 season, Bills defenders complained publicly about problems they had understanding Ryan’s scheme, which is more complex than what Schwartz ran.
Linemen groused about frequently being asked to drop into coverage rather than rush the passer. Inside linebacker Preston Brown, responsible for relaying signals to the rest of the front seven and to the secondary, noted that calls from the sidelines routinely came in late. The Bills also had repeated problems with late defensive substitutions.
The reaction only added fuel to outside criticism of the defense’s decline. But it came as no surprise to the former Bills defensive assistant coach.
“When you have good guys up front, the last thing you want to do is take away their freedom to be able to make plays on the field by having a blitz package,” he said. “When you blitz, say, with seven guys rushing, you don’t have an inside move (by a lineman), because if you go inside, you’re going to run into somebody else. You don’t have the ability, if the guy’s overset (to the outside), to counter inside. If he’s tight, you can’t just (go) speed-to-power (with the end initially using speed to draw the offensive tackle to step to the outside and then bull-rushing him inside).
“We had just enough stuff. We weren’t as basic as those guys were probably saying. We had enough pitches, but when you’ve got a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball, just bust them on the knuckles, man. Just keep it coming, just keep it coming.”
In 2014, the Bills’ defensive line did exactly that. In 2015, it pretty much came to a screeching halt.
Keith Bulluck played linebacker for the Tennessee Titans for most of Schwartz’s 10 seasons as an assistant coach with the team. He loved Schwartz’s coaching style because it allowed for players to have input based on what they were seeing during the game.
Most of all, Bulluck appreciated the simplicity of Schwartz’s scheming, something he presumes the Bills’ players sorely missed after the coaching change.
“When those guys were up there in Buffalo complaining, I just felt, ‘Maybe that new coach has got them thinking too much,’ ” Bulluck said. “D-linemen don’t want to think. If you’ve got them doing too much thinking, they can’t get off the ball.”
In 2014, the Bills’ defensive linemen barely dropped into coverage. The former Buffalo defensive assistant estimated that Mario Williams and fellow end Jerry Hughes would, at the most, drop once per game; tackle Kyle Williams dropped four times the entire season, and fellow tackle Marcell Dareus didn’t drop a single time. Dareus was seen floating, at times aimlessly, into coverage on multiple occasions last season. The most notable came in the Nov. 29 loss at Kansas City.
A simplified approach
Going back to his eight seasons (2001-2008) as a defensive coordinator for the Titans, Schwartz has always believed that the main, if not only, role of his defensive linemen is to attack. Attack the quarterback. Attack the ball-carrier.
Leave the retreating to others.
“We let the four guys up front eat, we let ’em go huntin’,” said Jim Washburn, who was Schwartz’s defensive line coach in Tennessee and assistant defensive line coach when Schwartz coached the Detroit Lions. “There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat, but ours was to turn loose the front. We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got some really good players up front, they can really run, so we’re just going to let ’em go.’ Because we thought that’s what they would do the best.
“You can’t rig a defense to stop everything. You’ve got too much thinking. The guys that I’ve coached, they don’t want to think. They want to play. You don’t put a plow on a Kentucky Derby horse. Let ’em run and let ’em play. ”
A familiar theme in Schwartz’s defense is players not performing nearly as well when they’re no longer in his system. That happened to Mario Williams, who saw his sacks plummet from 14.5 in 2014 to five. That happened to Hughes, whose sacks fell from 10 to five after the Bills gave him a $45-million contract to prevent him from becoming a free agent. That happened to Dareus, whose sacks also dropped from 10 to five after the Bills gave him a contract extension worth up to $95.1 million.
In Ryan’s scheme, substitutions were made liberally as he attempted to match just the right defense with whatever the offense was showing. That prompted hesitation before calls were made to determine the corresponding front and coverage, and players were sent running on and off the field.
Once the play clock hits 15 seconds, the communication system between the sideline and the signal-caller, Brown, automatically shuts off, meaning that sometimes the entire call isn’t heard. Facing opponents, such as the New England Patriots, that run a fast-paced, no-huddle offense only further complicates the communication process.
This generally wasn’t a problem in Schwartz’s scheme because he mainly used one-word calls. Those could be colors, names, cities, even cartoon characters. A typical call in Ryan’s defense might go something like this: “46 Nickel Delta Weak Double Dog Trade.” The same call in Schwartz’s scheme would simply be, “Delta.”
When Schwartz arrived in Buffalo, he found a defensive playbook with language similar to what Ryan used. That’s because the Bills’ defensive coordinator in 2013 was Mike Pettine, who had been Ryan’s defensive coordinator with the Jets.
According to the former Bills’ defensive coach, Schwartz asked Marrone if he wanted him to keep the same terminology, shorten it or meld the two systems.
“And his only directive (to Schwartz) was, ‘Do what you think you need to do,’ ” the assistant said.
Schwartz chose to start over with more concise language that was easier to remember and quicker to recite.
That didn’t mean his defense was so simple and basic that it didn’t have answers for offensive adjustments. “It was all designed for something,” the coach said. “But it wasn’t a catastrophe if something else went out there (in the way of personnel grouping).”
The Bills’ defensive linemen – just as the ones who played for Schwartz in Tennessee and Detroit – loved the “Wide Nine” front he employed. The idea to go that route formulated in with the Titans in 2006.
A renowned numbers wizard, Schwartz concluded that, on average, teams were passing 52 percent of the time on first down. The “Wide Nine” was identified as a solution to allow the Titans to pressure the quarterback while simultaneously being able to play the run, especially on stretch plays, and also enhancing the ability to defend play-action throws. Washburn, who last month became a senior defensive assistant for the Miami Dolphins, said he “stole” the “Wide Nine” from Mickey Andrews, who was the defensive coordinator at Florida State at the time.
“So we took our ends and widened them and then took our tackles and rather than (have them) reading (the guards and center), we attacked (with) them,” Washburn said. “We had a guy that was responsible for the A gap and a guy (responsible for the) ‘three technique’ in the B gap. We took the end on the tight-end side and instead of putting him in what people call a ‘six’ or ‘seven technique,’ we put him a little bit wider and we called him a ‘nine technique.’
“All we did was say, ‘Let’s go rush the passer on first down, but if the run occurs, let us fix it up where we can still play the run and be just as good.’ We took a lot of crap from people saying, ‘They’re just worried about sacks.’ But it was tedious work trying to figure out how to do the back end to relate to the front. They have to tie together. There are certain things we had to do with the safeties and linebackers to accommodate the front to play it. The burden was a little bit on the back end to fit all the run gaps.
“And the longer we stayed in it, the better we got at it and it ended up being really good for us.”
The feeling was mutual among members of the 2014 Bills defense.
They loved what Schwartz allowed them to do, and everyone, including the Bills’ ownership, saw it. The owners didn’t want it to go away, even after giving Ryan a five-year, $27.5-million contract. But they deferred to their new head coach.
With Ryan vowing to fully implement his scheme in 2016 and hiring his twin brother, Rob, to help him coach it, only time will tell if there will be any more regret over the performance of the Bills’ defense.
As far as Bulluck is concerned, that won’t be an easy sell to the players.
“It’s hard, because you went out there, you tried the scheme your coach told you to try and you didn’t have success,” he said. “It’s the offseason now, so they’re amongst their friends and family. And Marcell is like, ‘Last year was some BS,’ because he didn’t do his numbers. It’s going to be difficult.”