Following an 8-8 finish to the 2015 NFL Season, Buffalo Bills Head Coach Rex Ryan promised that big changes were coming. Throughout the year, the defense struggled to develop the identity of the Rex Ryan-led units of years past. They struggled pressuring opposing quarterbacks, finishing with just 21 sacks despite having over $250 million invested in their front four. Coverage breakdowns in pattern matching were a regular occurrence in the passing game, there were times when headsets weren’t working and players grumbled about the system.
Mario Williams was the most outspoken defender, questioning why he was dropping into coverage so often as well as why the team not only struggles with their defensive substitutions, but why they even sub so much, stating,
“My mindset is, if you’re an attack defense, you don’t let anything else dictate what you do, Williams continued. “We’re gonna put who we’re gonna put out there, and then we’re gonna execute and make plays with the guys out there. I don’t care – I don’t need to wait on you to make a decision. And whoever seems to be missing personnel, so that we’re actually trying to switch. So we’re trying to switch men. It’s not like we’re trying to switch plays. We’re trying to switch men as they’re coming out of the huddle.
“That’s happened a few times in 10 years with me. A few times. That’s 10 years. But like you said, game in, game out, I don’t know how in the world that keeps happening.”
Second-year middle linebacker Preston Brown, who’s responsible for receiving and communicating the play-calls to the rest of the defense noted that play calls were continuously late.
“I don’t know who that guy is [in the coaches’ box], but we talk about it in the meetings,” Brown said. “It’s been an issue with the personnel coming in and out. I mean, you can see it on games: People are running in and out; we’re changing plays here and there. So it’s definitely been an issue.”
Rex Ryan is a candid character and will be brutally honest about his own flaws and of those around him. On Mike & Mike In the Morning, Ryan talked about how he initially tried to “merge” the system from last year with his own, which essentially went against his philosophy as a coach.
“In a way, I kind of merged a couple of things, two systems (his and the one used in 2014) and things like that. And quite honestly, it didn’t work, so we’re going to be all in and we’re going to play Buffalo Bill defense.”
To me, this doesn’t seem like a cop-out, as we saw games that looked like what you’d expect from a Rex Ryan defense when they played the Indianapolis Colts, the New York Jets and the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. In those games, the defense was pressuring the offense and forcing turnovers, whereas in other games, they didn’t seem as aggressive.
New Hires Bring Knowledge & Much Needed Assistance
Shortly after announcing that defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson wouldn’t be returning to the Buffalo Bills’ coaching staff, Rex Ryan announced the hiring of his brother Rob as Assistant Head Coach/Defense, who shares the same coaching philosophy that they learned from their legendary father, Buddy Ryan. Rob’s defenses have struggled in recent years, but he won two Super Bowls with the Patriots as a linebackers coach and has experience coaching every level of the defense. When I first heard this news, I scoffed, seeing it as Rex just helping out his brother who’s failed miserably in his last two stops. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
In another surprising move, Rex hired future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed as an assistant defensive backs coach. Reed played under Rex for eight seasons and knows the defense inside and out. While simply being on the staff isn’t going to turn Buffalo’s defenders into Hall of Famers, Reed’s knowledge of the scheme coupled with the respect he garners from the younger players, he’ll be a valuable asset to the team.
These two moves show that Ryan is going all-in with his defensive scheme in 2016. After all, with the exception of his last season with the Jets, he’s fielded dominant defenses for over a decade. When Rex went from the Ravens to the Jets, he brought along veteran players familiar with his system like Bart Scott, Marques Douglas and eventually Dawan Landry and Jim Leonhard to help the players learn the scheme. He didn’t have that luxury this season, so having Rob Ryan and Ed Reed on the staff, Rex can now delegate some of the teaching and focus on his duties as a head coach.
Furthermore, he promoted Kathryn Smith to Quality Control Coach-Special Teams, making her the first female coach in the National Football League. A quality control coach is a nameless and thankless job, responsible for scouting opponents—watching film, charting tendencies, formations, personnel packages and assisting with putting together game-plans.
While it remains to be seen how any of these coaching additions will work out, it’s clear that Rex Ryan is confident that his defense can be successful and it’s good to see that he’s bringing in extra help in order to get the job done.