New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton once joked about how his offense practiced against a Gregg Williams-coordinated defense:
“On the first snap in 7-on-7 drills, he has 11 guys blitzing,” Payton quipped.
Ready or not, the Buffalo Bills’ offense will step into Williams’ line of fire in Sunday’s season opener at MetLife Stadium.
Williams has ranked among the top five defensive coordinators in the NFL in blitz rate – the percentage of plays on which he rushes five or more – each of the past five years, according to Football Outsiders.
Way back with New Orleans in 2011, Williams’ defense blitzed on a whopping 49.6% of pass plays, tops in the NFL. Blitz rates have come down a bit leaguewide with the increase of spread offenses. But last year with Cleveland, Williams’ blitz rate of 37.1% was second in the NFL. And last year Williams rushed six or more men on 12.9%, tops in the NFL.
Does aggressive blitzing directly correlate with success? Not necessarily.
Williams’ Browns defense last year ranked 30th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed. The Bills’ defense, ranked No. 2 in yards allowed, blitzed on 22.4% of pass plays last year (which ranked 16th), according to News charts.
Is Williams going to be afraid of attacking second-year quarterback Josh Allen? Hah! You can bet the Jets will test the ability of the Bills’ quarterback and new offensive line to execute its protection calls.
“You have to be ready to communicate,” said Bills coach Sean McDermott. “You have to be ready to adjust. Gregg has a long history of that. ... He puts a lot of pressure on the offense and likes to get after quarterbacks, and young quarterbacks.”
Asked what he likes most about Williams’ approach, Jets coach Adam Gase told Buffalo media Wednesday: “Variety. You’re never really sure what he’s going to bring that game. Obviously, going up against him every day was really good for our offense here because you feel completely prepared entering the season because you’ve seen every possible look imaginable.”
Actually, the book on Williams is he likes to play a lot of Cover 2 (two-deep safeties) and Tampa 2 (two deep with the middle linebacker dropping to the intermediate middle) on early downs.
The way to attack that is efficient possession passing – can Allen accurately execute that game? – and a good running game.
The preference for Cover 2 should work well for Williams this year because he has stout front-seven defenders that the Jets think can contain the run without over-committing defenders to the line of scrimmage.
Blitz Rates of Gregg Williams' defenses
Source: Football Outsiders
What makes Williams’ blitzes especially tough is when the offense gets behind schedule – second- and third-and-long. (Let’s not forget the Bills averaged third-and-8.3 for the season last year, worst in the NFL, according to Sharp Football). With the offense behind the sticks, Williams sends blitzes from a dizzying number of pre-snap looks.
Bills fans will recall when Williams was Buffalo’s head coach, he talked with pride about the number of packages he used. He reportedly has more than 40 defensive fronts in his Jets playbook.
With Cleveland last year on passing downs, Williams alternated between two variations of a nickel package -- a 3-3-5 alignment (45 percent) and a 4-2-5 (19 percent).
Williams will need to be creative in manufacturing pressure because the Jets don’t have elite edge rushing talent. Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is New York’s best edge guy. He had seven sacks last season.
Williams also doesn’t have great cornerbacks. So the Jets might be a year or two away from fully capitalizing on Williams’ schemes.
One thing Williams always has needed is talented, smart safeties to execute the complex schemes without busting coverage on the back end.
The Jets have one of the best young safeties in the NFL in Jamal Adams. Expect Williams to use Adams a ton in rushing Allen on Sunday.
Williams faced a no-win situation when he was head coach of the Bills, with a team in salary cap jail and a front office that had shortcomings, but he also was too brash for the head-coaching position. He had too much Buddy Ryan in him. His ideal fit in the NFL is as a coordinator.
His defensive track record is excellent, even when he has lost. In 2017, his defense ranked 14th on an 0-16 Browns team. In 2016 with the Rams, his defense ranked ninth on a 4-12 team.
The “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans always will be part of his legacy. But it shouldn’t remotely overshadow the fact that in 2009, Williams coached up the No. 25-ranked Saints defense to win a Super Bowl by holding Peyton Manning — in his prime — to 17 points in the big game.
That is a skin on the wall that is worthy of the Assistant Coaching Hall of Fame (if there were such a thing).
“That is real,” Gase said of beating Manning.
The 30,000-foot view: The Jets took a ton of heat for good reason when they fired General Manager Mike Maccagnan in mid-May after letting him pick a new head coach and spend nearly $200 million in total free-agent contracts. They should have hired a new GM at the same time Gase was chosen as the new head coach. The Bills did the same thing in letting Doug Whaley stay on after Sean McDermott was hired. The difference was McDermott was in total control. There was immediate fallout for the Jets. Third-round pick Jachai Polite, who Gase didn’t want, already has been cut. But the Jets have gotten their house in order. They made a good hire in naming Joe Douglas the new GM. He learned under Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore and spent the past three years in Philadelphia. He’s good, and he’s joined at the hip with Gase.
Weak link: The Jets are weak at cornerback. No. 1 corner Trumaine Johnson is coming of an inconsistent year and just returned to limited practice Wednesday after missing the past month with a sore hamstring. You’ll recall Robert Foster beat Johnson on the first play of the game last year in New York for a 47-yard catch. Daryl Roberts, a former seventh-round pick who played two-thirds of the snaps last year, is the No. 2 corner. The new slot corner is Brian Poole, signed from Atlanta. There’s little depth behind them. Given the Jets’ stoutness up front, look for the Bills to play a lot of three-receiver sets and empty formations. But it’s also worth it to bunch up with bigger people (two tight ends), use play action, max-protect, and test the deep coverage ability of the corners.
Bills WRs vs. Jets CBs. Rather than pick out one matchup, like Cole Beasley vs. Poole, call it a collective key to the game. When the Jets are playing Cover 2, Allen needs to hit Beasley because the underneath throws should be available. But given the Jets’ weakness at corner outside, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll needs to find a way to scheme up some deep shots to take advantage of the speed of John Brown and Foster.
Sam Darnold vs. Leslie Frazier. Look for the Jets to play up-tempo, going no-huddle to try to keep the Bills off balance. Gase loved doing that with Peyton Manning. Now he has another elite QB talent to tutor. Darnold will get the ball out of his hands fast. One knock on Gase in Miami was his offense dinked and dunked too much. But Darnold is a good downfield thrower, unlike Ryan Tannehill. Frazier will need to dial up some pressure on third downs. Frazier blitzed Darnold five times in 25 drop-backs (roughly the Bills’ regular rate) in the loss to the Jets last December.
Le’Veon Bell vs. Tremaine Edmunds. The Jets gave $35 million guaranteed to the former Steelers star. Bell is known for his patience and cutbacks, so Edmunds can’t get caught overpursuing. The Jets’ offensive line is decidedly average, aside from big left guard Kelechi Osemele. Bell ran behind one of the top three O-lines in the NFL in Pittsburgh. How fast can Bell and his new O-line, which like the Bills did not take a snap together in preseason, get in sync?
Stat for the road: Is the Bills’ pass offense ready to graduate to the big leagues? The Bills have ranked in the bottom five in passing four years in a row and in the bottom 10 in 13 of the last 16 years. The Jets’ defense gave up 250-plus passing days nine times last season and 225 or more 11 times. Allen cracked 225 just once (245) last season. Bills QBs have hit 250 yards just six times in the last 50 games.