Manny Lawson noticed the difference immediately. The Buffalo Bills’ defense had its first meeting of the offseason, and the veteran outside linebacker actually heard voices other than the ones belonging to coaches. ¶ It wasn’t like that a year ago. Coaches spoke, players listened, mostly in silence. So it was assumed they were comprehending. No questions? No requests to go over something a second, third or even fourth time? ¶ Nope. All good. We’ve got this thing down. ¶ That is, until they got on the field. ¶ That’s where it all fell apart, where a general – if not total – lack of understanding showed itself in the form of a unit that went from fourth in the NFL in yards allowed in 2014 to 19th and slipped in multiple other categories as well. Minimal pressure on the quarterback, dramatically fewer sacks, utter embarrassment for defensive mastermind Rex Ryan. ¶ Through May and June, however, things were very different in the defensive meeting rooms at One Bills Drive. Players spoke up. They asked questions. They made an effort to get it right in the classroom so that they wouldn’t get it wrong on the field. ¶ “Last year, there’d be silence and a lot of questions asked in the locker room,” Lawson says. “This year, there’s not silence in the meeting room and no questions being asked in the locker room.”
The locker room is the place to compare notes, not compile them. The teaching happens in the meeting room and on the field. Seeking answers from a teammate in the locker room because you didn’t understand what the coach was saying in the meeting room is the equivalent of copying off of someone else’s homework.
That happened far too often with the Bills’ defense in 2015.
It isn’t happening now.
“I think it’s just really more so players taking ownership,” Lawson says. “We’re the ones that are out there on the field. If we don’t understand it, the coaches can’t play it for us, so we’ve got to do it.”
“I can tell on film that guys are out there playing faster, guys are noticing formations, guys are making the calls and they’re sticking with it,” says defensive lineman Corbin Bryant. “If we need to change it, on like motions and things like that, guys are hitting it on all cylinders.”
Often during the offseason, discussions between coaches and players didn’t end in the meeting room. Players were literally jamming the hallway outside the coaches’ offices as they sought extra tutoring or followed up on something that might have happened on the field.
“It’s unbelievable,” Rex says. “We’ve got a million coaches, but you can go in that hallway and there’s almost as many players as there are coaches, which is way different than last year. Never happened last year.”
Lawson is one of the veteran members of the unit setting the example. He has been driving home the point to fellow members of the Bills’ defense that they must take it upon themselves to not simply hear what the coaches are saying, but to absorb the material.
He has been telling them they need to invest the time in studying. They need to recognize physical skill only takes them so far. They need to understand that struggling to grasp a defense doesn’t make it bad. What’s bad is not making the effort to grasp it.
And when they don’t get something, they can’t allow that to go unspoken.
“If you don’t know something, ask,” Lawson says. “Because it’s only going to help us to know. If one person is out there clueless and doesn’t know what to do, that can be a touchdown for us on the defensive side and that can cost us the game.”
Coaches also accountable
Of course, it isn’t all on the players. Coaches are accountable, too, for their ability to do the teaching and connecting with their helmeted students. The Bills had failure in that area, and Ryan responded by shaking up his defensive staff. The biggest change was adding his twin brother, Rob, as assistant head coach/defense.
Then, in response to complaints by tackle Marcell Dareus and other defensive linemen, John Blake replaced Karl Dunbar as defensive line coach, while Ed Reed took over for Donnie Henderson in the secondary.
“Oh, man, we have so many coaches that are there to take us step-by-step through what they want us to do,” Bryant says.
“I think, first off, our presentations are much better,” Rex Ryan says. “Your great teachers have a way of trying to reach guys through videos, music, whatever, anything, to grab their attention. Then you teach it, you explain it – I think we’re doing a good job of explaining it – but the players are way more open (to learning). They’re asking questions and they’re understanding it’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just, ‘You guys do this!’
“We want feedback, and I think late in the year, we started to understand that a little bit.”
Rob Ryan is big on using multimedia when introducing a particular defense. For instance, for material that might reference Philadelphia, he’ll have Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” blaring from a speaker. For calls labeled “Rocky” or “Apollo,” he’ll show movie clips of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the ring.
“And then what happens, guys learn it that way,” Rex says. “Like, all of a sudden, ‘No, no, this one, you’re supposed to stab.’ ” (Use the inside hand to attack the blocker’s arm pit, a natural pressure point). “Or, ‘This is a hook, you’ve got to come around in a loop. That’s why we call it ‘Rocky.’ So you explain all the things that you do.
“I always say, ‘It’s an MTV generation,’ and everybody’s like, ‘Rex, that was 20 years ago. It’s something else now.’ I don’t know what it is, but you try to be up on it. You can’t just be blah and just go, ‘Here’s the diagrams.’ You try to spice it up a little bit.”
‘Likeable and learnable’
Mike DeVito, a defensive lineman for the New York Jets for Rex’s first four seasons as their coach (2009-2012), remembers the coach’s teaching philosophy well: “Keep it likeable and learnable.”
“That’s really what this defense is,” says DeVito, who retired from football in April after spending the past three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. “It allows a lot of guys a lot of freedom that I think, in a lot of other systems, we don’t have. But along with that comes a lot of responsibility in knowing what’s going on. So, in the classroom, we would go over these defenses ... just over and over.
“We would install them Day One of the offseason program and then we’d work our way up through the OTAs. And when OTAs started, we’d start ‘Defense One’ over again. And then, when minicamp started, we’d start at ‘Defense One’ over again. So by the time we got through (offseason workouts), you had been through the playbook three times. And getting to training camp, it was same thing: Day One, ‘Defense One’ again.
“It was all about mastering the program.”
Last year, Ryan repeatedly praised Lawson for his intelligence. The coach knew he had at least one player who had not only the acumen to fully grasp the defense, but who also put in the time and effort to do so – who wasn’t making assignment errors, who was doing things properly even if they didn’t always allow him to pump up his own numbers.
The essence of Ryan’s defense is the unit working as a whole, with members of the front seven doing as much to allow someone else to make a play as they do to make one themselves.
“It’s a fun defense to play in,” DeVito says. “But there’s a lot to it.”
Lawson got that. He also knew all of the many calls and checks that needed to be made to respond to what the offense was showing before each snap. Late the year, Ryan, no longer able to depend on Preston Brown to be his main signal-caller, gave the duties to Lawson.
“I think it’s just the way I approach the game, being the best that I can be and helping the team out,” Lawson says. “And in doing so, I have to understand what my job role is and what my responsibilities are. And if that means studying, that means studying.”
But it can’t be a good feeling when the players around him aren’t doing the same or simply can’t comprehend the way he does. It can’t be a good feeling when he does one thing, the right thing, and others are doing something entirely different to allow the offense to make a play.
“Definitely not, because this game isn’t won by one person,” Lawson says. “And to try to help guys understand it and they’re just not getting it, and lead us into the direction we want to go, it is hard to see that and be a part of that.”
“Guys have options in this defense,” says Rex. “But to understand it, to play it right, you’ve got to understand why we’re calling it, when we’re calling it, and, specifically, what we’re doing down there. And I think guys have done a great job of that.”
Changing attitude, not scheme
There has been talk among some players that the scheme has been simplified, sort of dumbed-down in order to eliminate – or at least reduce – some of the issues of last year. Lawson doesn’t buy it. Sure, there might be some tweaks here, with a more consistent 3-4 base as opposed to incorporating some of the 4-3 elements that had been so successful in 2014. And there are some adjustments in the verbiage.
But he doesn’t see anything dramatically different in what’s in the playbook.
“It’s more so the guys that have changed than the scheme,” Lawson says. “The guys are now taking the ownership and being accountable to themselves, and to the team, and then understanding what they need to do for us to be better. And it’s helped us a lot.”
How well are players absorbing what is being taught in the classroom? So well that they don’t merely rely on it to guide them on the field.
During practice, players are showing initiative, something that was hardly seen last year.
“What’s really a good feeling is when players try to come up with new ways, within the scheme, to free up other players, playing a non-selfish role,” Lawson says. “And that was happening out there a lot.”
Now that and all of the other encouraging signs, on and off the field, must carry into training camp. That means, when players left One Bills Drive in mid-June for the final six weeks of offseason, they better have “stayed in their books,” Lawson admonishes.
“Come training camp, there’s not going to be as much volume (of material to cover),” he says. “But we’re still hitting the ground rolling and are even better the first day of training camp than we are last day of OTAs.”