Buffalo’s defense in 2015 was a unit that never reached its full potential. There were missteps along the way by players and, by his own admission, Rex Ryan as they tried just about everything to put the defense on the fast track to success. Though the week to week performance by the defense had more than its share of shortcomings the players and coaches believe they found the right formula for future success in 2016.
It came too late to save their playoff hopes in 2015, but late in the season Buffalo’s head coach reinforced his statement at the beginning of the campaign that this was the Bills defense, not his, with actions.
“Rex came up to us in a meeting before the Eagles game and he asked us, ‘What do you guys feel comfortable playing,’” said defensive tackle
According to Bryant that was the first time Ryan, who encourages players to come to him, approached his players in an effort to develop a better give and take.
“That was big for us because he put trust in us to go out and run the calls that we feel comfortable with so he can feel comfortable on the sidelines making his different calls,” said Bryant.
Buffalo’s defensive performance that week wasn’t stellar. They gave up 23 points and had problems on third down, but held the Eagles run game to 3.4 yards per carry and Sam Bradford had a passer rating of just 77.4.
The following week the Bills inconsistent defense resurfaced as Washington jumped on them with three touchdown drives early and never looked back. After the game players didn’t blame Ryan or the coaches. They pointed the finger squarely at themselves. It appeared to be a moment where for many players it finally clicked.
Ryan’s scheme might be far more demanding than their system from 2014, but the old scheme wasn’t coming back. And there might be some unorthodox assignments in the new scheme that don’t fit the traditional requirements of a specific position, but if there’s total trust in the system it will yield positive, if not dominant results.
Buffalo’s defense regrouped in Week 16 against the Cowboys as the players and coaches collaborated more on what would work against Dallas. Players became more engaged in planning with the coaches through the course of the week.
“We’d say, ‘Well let’s take this out. We haven’t been doing this well in practice all week. So let’s take this out and put this in,’” said Bryant. “We said, ‘This is something we do well, which is rush four. We do that well. Whatever coverage the DBs like to do they did whatever they do well.’ That really helped us out in the final quarter of the season.”
Their pass rush scheme against the Cowboys effectively took Jason Witten out of the Cowboys passing game as he was forced to stay in to block with the Bills not tipping their hand pre-snap. Witten was targeted just twice and had one catch for 12 yards.
Dallas QB Kellen Moore threw for just 186 yards against the Bills and completed just 13 of 31 passes. A week later against Washington he threw for 435 yards and three touchdowns going 33 for 48 passing.
Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t fare much better than Moore did against Buffalo in the season finale. Coming in hot and winners of five in a row, Fitzpatrick had thrown 13 touchdowns and just one interception during the Jets streak. Against Buffalo’s defense he completed just 16 of 37 attempts for 181 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
It’s a small sample size of new found defensive success, and by no means is it convincing yet, but Buffalo’s players and head coach believe they’ve found the right balance of Ryan’s inventiveness and player feedback to craft a weekly plan that is not only unique, but capable of being effectively executed.
“The communication has to be a two way street,” said Ryan. “It doesn’t just flow in one direction. It has to be both. It has to be back and forth communication and I think they realize that if I’m asking your opinion about something, I want it. It’s not like I’m going to ask your opinion and tell you what your answer is. Sometimes I think it takes a while to get, maybe what was done in the past might have been different than how I like to see things.
“There are times when you go in and say, ‘Okay guys, game’s on the line here’s what I’m thinking – you got two calls here. What do you want to play? Here’s the options, but a lot of times its ownership. When you build that in and say, ‘You know what, let’s play this one Rex.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s go get it.’
“There’s ownership there and that is how I’ve always operated. I want players input. It’s not my defense. I want it to be our defense and that’s the way it works best. I think we started seeing that a little bit more as the season went on.”
“I think throughout the year we were both learning each other,” said
On the surface it might not look much, but after almost a full season it appears the defensive players have come to realize that while Ryan’s system is in stark contrast to the one they ran the year before, it can maximize the strengths of the players on that side of the ball if all 11 men are working in unison.
“Definitely getting a year under our belt is going to help us,” said Brown. “It’ll be a lot easier for us. We’ll understand what’s going on in different situations. We’ve got so many checks and things, but it’ll just be second nature to us.”
That combined with Ryan’s personal familiarity with his defensive personnel will only serve to put Buffalo’s defense in a far better position to succeed in 2016.
“Am I confident moving forward? Yes, I am. We have a lot of tremendous football players and I know those players now. I know them way more than I did. It’s going to help that they know me as well. We expect to have a lot better results. I can’t tell you who is going to be here or not going to be here. But I do have confidence in the core players that we have. I have confidence in the guys that I coach with.
“Having to go through this (past season) has me much more confident now that we will get this thing right. I’ll get it right.”