The bravado is gone, the shine has faded.
The Buffalo Bills defense has not performed to the standard laid out by Head Coach Rex Ryan, a fact which has been clear for a couple of months now. But like most of you, I had hoped for Ryan's 3-4 defensive scheme to suddenly "click" with such a star-studded defensive line.
It just never did. We've seen glimpses of what it could be:
- The opening week masterpiece against next-generation QB Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts set the bar pretty high. There weren't many sacks to be had, but they thoroughly confused the young QB as Buffalo triumphed.
- In Foxboro against New England, Ryan's defensive line came alive. It was as if Ryan slow-played the league waiting for that second matchup against Tom Brady. They weren't victorious over the Patriots, but there were signs of life.
- And while they weren't their completely dominant selves, in their other AFC East games they took care of business by limiting the Dolphins and Jets to 17 or fewer points in the 3 wins.
Yet, it's the New York Jets that sit 2 games ahead of the Bills in the AFC Wild Card standings. Partly to account for this is a softer schedule than the Bills (the Bills had to play the Bengals and Chiefs while the Jets got Cleveland and Oakland). But the other difference is that the Jets defeated Jacksonville, while Buffalo squandered a late lead in London against the Jaguars.
The dysfunctional element of this team appears to be the defense.
When Rex Ryan joined the New York Jets in 2008, his scheme propelled their defense from 18th to 1st in the league statistically in that first year. In Buffalo, the opposite has been true. His opening season as head coach with the 4th ranked defense under Jim Schwartz regressed to 15th with 3 games remaining. And while his early defenses in the Meadowlands were highly ranked, they were in the bottom half statistically in recent years.
When you think of Rex Ryan's defense, you think of a marauding bunch of defenders hovering close to the line, confusing quarterbacks by mixing overloaded pass rush combinations with dropping zone spies to sniff out hot reads. The Indy game was a great example of this, as was the away Patriots loss. When it seems the Bills find their dry spells as a defense, it comes when they become conservative.
Of course, if you're always aggressive with blitzing, teams will learn weaknesses in your coverage scheme. That's why it is wise to be measured in the amount of any one tactic you utilize.
That's why the defensive line has been the biggest talking point, with the 3rd lowest sack total in the league so to date. What seems to be the Bills' Achilles heel is their aggressiveness in base situations. It would be those situations where a defensive line needs the most discipline and effort, when the offense knows exactly what they have coming at them. That's why you pay guys like Mario Williams $20MM a year, so that when they're matched up 1v1 on a right tackle, their talent wins out against the blocker.
Instead it has seemed like those 3 and 4 man rush schemes have fallen flat. When you have 8 men covering 5 guys downfield (or maybe 7 in coverage with a spy on the QB), the bet becomes that those 3 rushers can get to the QB before one of his receivers can find space. Can you blame Ryan for expecting a threesome of Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, and either of the Williams's to fight through the line to get to the passer on their own merit?
But if these players aren't a good fit, the salary situation makes it tough to make a change. Hughes and Dareus were each inked to high salaried longer-term deals recently, putting the 2016 salary of the entire defensive line at around $48MM in its current state. Speculation lurks that Mario Williams could be the odd-man out come the offseason. With his near $20MM cap number next year and his public dissatisfaction with Ryan's scheme, it's tough to see him being a Bill after 2015. Kyle Williams could also be a concern, with his age and recent injury concerns.
Of course, it's not all on the line. There are plenty of missed tackles and blown coverages to go around. There has been a lot of inopportune failure this season, much of which seemed to avoid the 9-7 Doug Marrone Bills. Where they seemed to get plenty of breaks (missed field goals, special teams TDs, etc), these Bills always come up on the wrong end of the luck factor.
The guy who seems to get the lion's share of the blame is Ryan. He was the one who made all the big predictions in his introduction presser after all. But this is a high-priced defensive line that flourished under Pettine in a similar scheme. At some point, you have to wonder if the problem is with the scheme itself, or the well-compensated group of players that haven't produced in it.