It was a defensive season that fell short of expectations in 2015 for the Bills. There were deficiencies in some areas that had been strengths and adapting to and effectively executing yet another new scheme took far longer for some players than anticipated. And while it's ultimately on the players to perform, it won't keep the Bills defensive staff from working to find more effective answers within Rex Ryan's scheme.
At about this time in the NFL offseason coaches are back at work. They've submitted their player reports on the 2015 roster. Now begins the period in the offseason where they begin to formulate plans for their respective schemes for 2016.
On the defensive side of the ball there will be a concerted effort to develop effective answers to some of the areas that proved to be trouble spots for the Bills last season. Whether it was a broad issue like developing a consistent pass rush (31st in sacks) or being more stingy in the red zone (21st red zone defense) or something more specific like points allowed on an opponent's first possession in the second half (53 – 30th), Buffalo's defensive staff will be hard at work devising solutions this winter.
"The first thing you do is you go through all your cut-ups, all your calls, but I think when you're looking at specific trends in the league, like zone read was a big one a few years ago," said head coach Rex Ryan. "We had to devise a way to defend it. We'll look at similar things, but more specifically we look at how people attack us."
"We make the determination is it the scheme? Is it the player? Is it a combination of the scheme and the player? Then we seek to make corrections if it's the scheme or you ask is this player good enough for us to win a championship," said defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. "It's about a lot of checks and balances really."
Thurman says most of the staff's time is spent seeing if there's a way to improve the effectiveness of the scheme. There's a lot of give and take between the coaches to come up with what is best for the unit as a whole with the personnel they know they'll have on the roster come September.
"We evaluate our players first, so we have our plan with them. A lot of plans are impacted by them. So we rank our players," said Ryan. "Then we look at our scheme specifically. So talks about tweaks and changes begin to take place after the Super Bowl. It takes a long time."
Sometimes the only solution to a particular problem with the scheme is to start over.
"If we've gone as far as we can go with it then the decision becomes, 'Hey let's throw that thing out.' We'll come up with something else," Thurman said. "That there we'll put that on the back burner. All of it is based on if it's something we can move forward with or if it's something that we need to shelve and go with another call."
One area that seemed to be a trouble spot for Buffalo's defense was the concerted effort by opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out before any effective pass rush could get within a step or two of the opposing passer. The Bills weren't the only victims this past season.
Finding a solution to a quarterback getting the ball out quick is extremely limited up front. Answers lie in developing answers in coverage or finding better solutions to things like rub routes and pick plays, which have become popular the last few seasons.
"All these screens and pick routes are things we'll be looking at," said Ryan. "Scheme-wise you're always going to look at altering your schemes, but it's tough. The thing about coaching defense is you're the black chess piece. You don't get to go first. You have to react to the offense. You can't just say, 'Well they're going to run this so we're going to attack this.' That's not the case because they can run it a million different ways. We've just got to do a great job of preparing and have our guys fundamentally set."
Knowing that burden exists for any defense in football, Ryan adheres to a quote he once heard from a Hall of Fame head coach and three-time Super Bowl winner.
"Bill Walsh always said you've got to have 11 good players on defense. You don't have to have 11 good players on offense because you control the football and how you use it," said Ryan. "But on defense you better know what the hell you're doing and have good players at every spot. If not you get exploited. You can't hide when you're on defense."
That's why as much as opposing offenses can dictate the style of play to a defense, Ryan believes if you've got 11 men that can effectively play in unison you can neutralize even the most successful NFL offenses.
"It has more to do with us," he said. "We'll attack what we're getting from opponents, but we've got to be fundamentally sound. You can't overload on one specific thing when you're on defense. It's about making our team better and knowing who we are, and then making adjustments from there."