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Attitude adjustment: Bills HC Rex Ryan counting on top three picks bringing the pain on defense

He rips the tape off his knuckles while speaking in four- and five-word bursts of energy. His arms chop. His eyes lock in. His lip snarls.

Shaq Lawson is 6 foot 3, 270 pounds of mean.

Of course the Buffalo Bills’ new outside linebacker remembers his first big hit in Pop Warner.

“I sent a kid to the hospital one day,” Lawson said. “I knocked him out so bad. I was playing running back at the time but I ran him over. I was 10 years old, running the ball, and I trucked him.”

He throws a shoulder with a scary “Bam!” sound effect.

“Kids were crying. And they sent him to the emergency room.”

Reggie Ragland? He’d truck over defenders as a running back, too. Even when his high school coach, Kevin Rose, moved him to defense full time, Ragland stayed on offense for the first 10 scripted plays to set a tone, to bruise.

“He had runs on offense,” Rose said, “these beast-mode runs where people just bounced off of him.”

Told that Lawson once sent a kid to the ER, Adolphus Washington says “Wow" with his eyes wide in awe. He pauses for a second. Then he offers his own, uhh, fondest memory. As a high school freshman, Washington once smacked a ball carrier so hard from Winton Woods (Ohio) H.S., the kid threw the ball in agony and “squirmed” all over on the field.

“Yeah,” Washington said, “I hit him pretty hard.”

These are the three forces of nature Rex Ryan handpicked to reignite his defense. Politically correct, they are not. When Ryan’s defenses in Baltimore and New York were at their punishing best — finishing in the top 10 nine of 10 seasons as a coordinator/head coach — they were driven by such brutal punishers.

Ryan seeks violence. His defense needs players with loose screws.

The 2015 Bills scared no one. The 2016 Bills, Ryan hopes, are a recreation of past masterpieces.

“Defense wins championships,” Washington said. “Defense is where you need that nastiness, where you don’t care about hitting somebody or, God forbid, hurting somebody. But you need that group of guys that want to win.

“Every guy’s not like that. It’s going to be a lot harder when you don’t have that. To play this game, you can’t be nice.”

“Bird Flu”

Sure, Bart Scott could’ve swiped at the ball. When he rushed untouched around the left corner in 2006, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t even see him. Instead, Scott unloaded all of his 242 pounds into the quarterback.

He craved the body slam, not the touchdown.

“I could send a message,” said Scott, who spent his entire 11-year career with Ryan in Baltimore and New York. “Today, Ben Roethlisberger refers to that as the hardest he’s ever been hit in his life — including the motorcycle crash.”

Wincing collisions became contagious. Baltimore boasted the perfect concoction of what Scott called “psychopaths” like himself and Jarret Johnson, of physical yet smart cogs like Terrell Suggs and Hall-of-Famers who did it all such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed — the ones who could lay out a quarterback and force the fumble.

The result was domination and intimidation .

A reputation was established. Players loved tracking the injury report during the week for phantom sprains. Scott knew — for a certain fact — that opponents tapped out against them. The Ravens called it “the bird flu.”

“We already knew he was looking for a way out right now,” Scott said. “So when we played teams, they were defeated. … Guys checked out all the time. We already knew it. It was ‘Oh, he’s got the bird flu. He ain’t about that life.’”

Welcome to the maniacal environment Ryan created. His teams were fueled by what Scott calls “goon-goblins,” players who’ll send a very belligerent message to the toughest player on the other side of the field.

Scott made a habit of targeting the offense’s toughest player every Sunday so, no, Richie Incognito isn't a fan of Bart Scott. One game, Scott dinged Incognito, threw his helmet airborne 15 yards and took the 15-yard penalty.

“You find out who’s the tough guy,” Scott said, “and that’s who you attack. ... I’m not afraid of nobody. I’ll fight anybody. There’s nothing you can do to me that I haven’t seen in the streets of Detroit."

Buffalo drew plenty of penalties last season but never built the true “bully” Ryan envisioned. Offenses rolled over his front seven for 108.1 rushing yards per game. The 21 sacks were a franchise low. Alex Smith resembled Joe Montana. Ryan's own players, own stars, blistered his scheme.

Opponents didn’t fear this defense; they laughed.

Yet even as commissioner Roger Goodell steers his product in a flag football direction, one fact remains as true now as it was in Buddy Ryan's heyday: toughness wins. Defense wins. Football remains a game of “confrontation,” Scott explains. And, each January, teams are “confronted” physically. That’s how his Jets teams upset the 13-3 Chargers one year and the 14-2 Patriots in “Can’t Wait!” fury the next — as Scott said they were “kicking (expletive) and taking names.”

To him, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Carolina are all built this way. Built to last.

Built to destroy.

“Football is a test of wills,” Scott said. “To break somebody’s will, you have to go farther than he’s willing to. You have to risk more than he’s willing to risk. So you need people who are willing to sacrifice. The consequences don’t matter to them, what happens to their opponents or themselves.”

Which is exactly how Ryan and General Manager Doug Whaley are trying to build these Bills by selecting Lawson (No. 19 overall), Ragland (No. 41) and Washington (No. 80).

All three bring a very distinct temperament.

“That’s what he wanted,” Scott said. “Add a little nasty.”

Sacrifice

No wonder Ryan brought up Bart Scott’s name when breaking down Reggie Ragland’s game — Scott was the soul of his defenses.

Maybe Lawson is his Suggs. Maybe Washington is his Trevor Pryce. The rookies don’t flinch. They’re ready for the responsibility of turning this defense around.

Lawson: “He got guys from three winning programs, three guys from three great defenses, three helluva guys that made plays, that led their defense in the right way and that’s what they brought us three in for — to change, to get this team back to the playoffs.”

Ragland: “Anytime you get guys that know how to win, you can start a culture.”

Washington: “We’re going to do that to the best of our ability — we’re definitely going to bring the violent part.”

After committing to Ohio State for football, Washington still remembers the gaze of fear in players’ eyes on the basketball court where he averaged 23.1 points per game and 14.3 rebounds per game. Lawson? He has one more hit to share. In a 58-0 wipeout of “The U,” he beat the left tackle on an inside move, the left guard was late to help and Lawson drove quarterback Brad Kaaya into the dirt with Big Ben-like trauma.

As Kaaya lay on the turf, Lawson thumped his chest twice.

“Gave him a concussion. That was some hit,” Lawson said. “I had to hit him. We had to get him knocked out of the game before he gets started because he’s a good quarterback.”

Really, Shaq?

“You don’t mean no harm to knock somebody out,” he said, catching himself. “But it just happened, you know?”

Yes, this trio possesses the attitude that intoxicated those Ravens defenses. They’ll sacrifice their bodies. But will they sacrifice production? Will they buy in? In this scheme, edge rushers don’t have the green light to rack up 15 sacks a season. All three must embrace the X’s and O’s, unlike Mario Williams, because the X's and O's will ultimately funnel their rage in a winning direction.

So this week, Scott spoke on the phone with Ragland about such sacrifice.

In this defense, Scott explained, the 6-foot-1, 247-pound Ragland will be the one “breaking the wall down.” He’ll often need to mash into the line and create plays for others. Lawson? If he’s Ryan’s new Suggs, he can’t tee off from a Wide-9 technique every play. Rather, he’ll need to “play the run on the way to the sack.” Washington? He can count on more double-teams.

Those Ravens defenders weren't just "psychopaths." They were smart, unselfish and understood the big picture. Through Ryan's constant pressure, simulated pressure and confusion, any 1 of 11 players could be the beneficiary.

Heat-seeking missiles must be missiles with a purpose.

“Attitude’s great but at some point you have to deliver,” said Brian Billick, the head coach of those teams. “That’s what generates that attitude. It doesn’t matter what bravado or what you want to say or whatever mantra you want to have, at some point you have to deliver to back it up.”

Added Scott, “Everybody’s going to eat if we’re successful. You could have a million sacks and be the worst defense — you’re not going anywhere.”

Time will tell if these three buy in. Right now, they’re saying the right things. Washington assures nobody can run around and hit whatever moves. Lawson repeats he’ll play any position necessary. And in their convo, Scott detailed the linebacker “fraternity” to Ragland, the long-term goal of a Ryan defense.

Alabama used the same exact playbook, he said. Only the terminology changes for Ragland, so Scott is simplifying concepts for the rookie.

No doubt, there will be a point this season when the Bills hit a rut. The Ravens did. The Jets did. And back then, Scott remembers leaders standing on a table to shout “We’re not bucking the system! We’re staying the course. It works.”

In Buffalo, he sees new assistant coach Ed Reed as a voice of reason. Veterans, he thinks, will get it now.

These rookies? “Rex’s resume speaks for itself,” he claims.

“What an honor for Rex Ryan — the descendant of Buddy Ryan — to say ‘I think you have what we need to get the job done,’” Scott said.

The challenge

In hiring Rex Ryan, you get full Rex Ryan.

You get the hiring of his twin brother. You get a head coach introducing Donald Trump at a rally. You get a coach leaping out of an airplane and eating dog biscuits. And, now, you get a coach dead-set on bringing violence back to his defense.

Ryan’s reaction to a 19th-place finish wasn’t to land a finesse linebacker who can run, wasn't to retreat to a Jim Schwartz-like scheme players loved. No, he never gave into Williams. Instead, the coach found three players who remind him of better days.

“The biggest thing that jumps out at me,” Ryan said, “is how they play and how passionate they are about it. They love to play football.”

Allow Washington to translate the cliche.

“They were nasty guys,” he said of those Ravens teams. “They were violent. I’m pretty sure he wants the same out of this group and that’s what we’re going to give him. … It’s going to take time but I definitely think we’ll get there.”

In college, Lawson, Ragland and Washington went a combined 76-9 with two championships the last two seasons. After 16 playoff-less winters, the Bills hope their attitude is infectious. They want a defense equipped for fourth and 1 in a January blizzard.

To Scott, that’s when the line is drawn. There’s no finessing your way out of fourth and 1 in the playoffs.

He sounds like a player itching to deliver one more hit, a player who just might live vicariously through Ragland.

“If you have tough guys, they don’t mind that," Scott said. "It’s ‘I might knock myself out but I’m blowing everything up.’ The guys who are willing to lay it on the line for that inch, that’s what he sees in Shaq and Reggie. ... That’s the intangible thing that you can’t really measure. Not in the literal term, but this guy’s willing to die. How I played — and it’s what he sees in these guys — when I went in that hole, I didn’t care if I came out as long as you didn’t come out either.

"I think Rex sees a lot of crazy in them and he’s going to use that crazy to his advantage. They can say whatever they want — ‘Reggie can’t cover’ — well he’s not going to be covering a lot when he’s hitting your quarterback blitzing or he’s laying your running back out."

Of course, the Bills need to get to that playoff game first. Another lackluster season and there will be repercussions.

Ryan could be gone. And Dad won’t be happy.

“If he finishes 20th again, Buddy will write him off his will,” Scott said. “You’re going by ‘Rex.’ You’re not saying ‘Ryan’ until you get your defense back in the Top 10. It’ll be ‘Rex-dot.’”

It's on these three players, one crushing hit at a time, to change the culture.

 

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