One year into the Rex Ryan-led era of Buffalo Bills football, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. Injuries and public discontent with the defensive scheme, among other issues led to the team failing to make the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season.
With a year of film on the new offenses and defenses, we can start to get an idea of the philosophies and concepts that both Rex Ryan and Greg Roman favor on their respective side of the ball.
Today, I decided to take a look at what Rex Ryan and the Bills defense asked from their safeties—a crucial position within a complex scheme that relies on communication and everyone being on the same page.
Before going right into the film, let’s highlight some basic coverage concepts in order to understand what was trying to be accomplished on a given play.
There’s countless different combinations of coverages that can be ran, but they’re ultimately dictated by the location of the safeties. There will either be one safety playing the deep 1/3 or two split safeties each responsible for the deep ½ of their side of the field.
Cover 1/Man-Free & “Robber”
Rex Ryan is an aggressive play-caller that wants to shut down the run, crowd the middle of the field and pressure the quarterback. Cover 1, also known as Man-Free is a coverage shell in which defenders play man coverage across the board while maintaining outside leverage. A free safety will play the deep 1/3 and is the last line of defense. Cover one provides an eight-man front, as you can roll the strong safety down into the box or out into the slot. This coverage is designed to eliminate out-breaking routes, while funneling inside receivers to the free safety and the underneath defender.
Rex Ryan has an aggressive mentality when it comes to defense, priding himself on stopping the run and pressuring quarterbacks via a combination of excellent man coverage and exotic blitz concepts. But, when you send an extra defender to blitz, you’re ultimately creating a void in the defense, so if having quality cornerbacks is crucial to running this coverage.
A wrinkle within Cover 1 is the “Robber” concept. When playing Robber coverage, the defense will typically come out in a two-deep safety shell that will cause opposing offenses to think they’re seeing a Cover 2 look. However, as the snap unfolds, the free safety rotates back over the top and the strong safety moves down into an underneath zone where he’ll roam until a receiver comes into his are that he can “Rob.” With the cornerbackers and cover linebackers playing outside leverage, they’ll look to funnel them into the “hole” to be blown up by the safety.
The defense will make further adjustments once they see the offense line up. The free safety usually dictates the defensive coverage adjustments. The FS looks at the offensive alignment and the offensive personnel package and will then call out the coverage to the secondary (and possibly the LB’s). When the safety makes a call, he repeatedly looks around and yells out a coverage scheme. It is the responsibility of the other defenders to ensure that they know the coverage. You will often see a corner call back (See: Stephon Gilmore) or signal to the safety the call to ensure that the correct coverage will be in place.
Cover 3 is another coverage ran with a single-high safety. It’s design allows it to be very flexible and can be played with man-cover principles. In the traditional Cover 3, the two boundary cornerbacks and the free safety are each responsible for a deep 1/3 zone of the field while the four underneath defenders are each responsible for their own underneath zones—as curl/flat defenders on the boundary and hook/curl defenders on the inside.
The free safety is key to this coverage, as he needs to have the speed, range and anticipation to take away posts, corners, go’s and other vertical in-breaking routes. The strong safety can play in the box to support the run.
Coaches have added wrinkles such as the “Cloud” which would keep just one cornerback playing the deep 1/3rd with the strong safety and free safety defending the remaining 2/3rd. This allows the cornerback to play as a flat defender where they can be more aggressive.
Cover 2 is probable one of the most popular coverages in football, as it features simple concepts with flexibility. In Cover 2, there are two deep safeties that are each responsible for the deep ½ of their side of the field against both the pass and the run, as they have to be able to come and fill the alley between the corner and defensive end.
The two-deep, five-under coverage is designed to congest all areas of the field and force check downs or throws to the flat.
Just like with the single-high looks, the cornerbacks need to press the receiver, get outside leverage and force an inside release so the safeties don’t have to cover as much ground. After jamming the wideouts, they’ll sink down to the flat, as the two outside linebackers are seam/hook defenders and will cover the intermediate areas outside the hashes. The middle linebacker drops into a hook zone (In Tampa 2 defenses, they drop to a deeper depth that emulates a three-deep-look.)
Cover 4 or “Quarters” looks similar to Cover 2 in that there’s two deep safeties, but it’s as much of a man defense as it is zone. Each cornerback and safety on either side of the field is responsible for the deep 1/4th of their side of the field. There’s a lot you can do with quarters coverage, as you have the flexibility to have your corners play press or off, just as long as the safeties are aware of everything around them.
Cover 4 relies on a concept called “pattern matching” which marries principles from man coverage to zone.. Essentially, defenders will drop to their designated landmarks in coverage, matchup on whoever comes into their zone, but will use a series of calls to alert their teammates when they’re about to release a receiver from one zone to another.
When executed properly, pattern reading can prevent smaller receivers exploiting their speed advantage over bigger linebackers on crossing routes. It also acts as a defense against pick or rub routes—two quick switch routes that routinely cause the defenders to collide into each other while springing the receivers open. Pattern reading requires the entire back seven to work as one and constantly communicate.
This was one of the Bills’ biggest issues throughout the season as there were far too many situations when a defender blew their assignment on a pattern matchup, often resulting in a touchdown or a big gain for the opponent.
Safety Play In Rex Ryan’s Defense
Now that we’re familiar with some of the basic coverages and shells that teams will use on Sunday’s, we can take a look at the film in an attempt to understand what Rex Ryan wanted opposing offenses to see.
Rex Ryan’s defense is at it’s best when they force offenses into negative down-and-distance situations. The best way to do that is by stopping the run early and forcing the opponent into stressful, one-dimensional situations by playing tight coverage and frustrating the quarterback. In week one against the Indianapolis Colts, that’s exactly what the Bills were able to do as they sacked Andrew Luck three times and pressured him on another 18 dropbacks.
Communication Is KEY
A lot of this cohesion was because of veterans like Aaron Williams being vocal and making sure that his teammates—particularly rookie Ronald Darby, who was making his professional debut—were continuously aware of their assignment on a given play.
Watch the clip below that shows Williams calling out the alert when the Colts’ receivers reduce to a tight split. His instructions are taken and the result is an incomplete pass.
You can’t blame the struggles of the entire defense on the loss of one player, but little things like that can go a long way as we saw in the following game against New England when Duke Williams blew an assignment in the endzone and got chewed out by Nigel Bradham immediately after.
Safety Play vs Run in Rex Ryan’s Defense
Aside from basic team communication, Rex Ryan’s defenses have put their opponents in sub-optimal situations by eliminating their rushing attack. He’ll squeeze his defenders closer to the line of scrimmage and use constant pre-snap movement, so his defenders can’t declare their intentions until the last second.
This is a big reason why Ryan’s defenses have often featured bigger strong safeties that sacrifice some athleticism for downhill power that play extensively in the box (think LaRon Landry, Kerry Rhodes, Yeremiah Bell, etc.), while using his free safety about 25-yards off the line of scrimmage as a last line of defense.
Corey Graham, who was playing the safety position for the first time in his career after making the switch from cornerback, was typically the “box” safety for the Bills after Aaron Williams went down with a season-ending neck injury early in the year.
Corey Graham thrived in his role as a run defender, recording 43 tackles in 346 defensive snaps against the run—the fourth-most among safeties in the NFL.
In this play, the Giants are running an outside zone play to the left. Corey Graham essentially playing a linebacker positon is now a “D” gap defender, responsible for forcing any runs that come in his direction back inside. The Giants’ offensive line can’t create any movement at the line of scrimmage, so the running back is forced to turn back inside, where Graham is waiting to make a play.
Rex’s defense didn’t really call for traditional “free” or “strong” safeties, as the tempo in today’s game is too quick to ask defenders to run across a formation anytime an offense sent a player in motion. This meant that Corey Graham and Bacarri Rambo both had to be aware of the checks, calls and rotations based on offensive motioning for both sides of the field, in addition to being able to provide value as a run defender in the box and in deep pass coverage, while occasionally rushing the quarterback as a blitzer.
Here, Rambo is the left safety at the top of the screen. He reads his keys quickly and diagnoses the run, before showing off his closing speed and patience maneuvering through traffic before making the stop.
Late in the season against the Washington Redskins, the Bills were without their starting linebacker, Nigel Bradham, so Corey Graham played extensively in the box and even at inside linebacker. He performed better than most would’ve expected, as the following play highlights. With Graham lined up just a few yards behind Jerry Hughes, the Bills have an eight-man front against the Redskins, who backed up against their own goal-line in “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends).
Washington runs an inside zone to try to get some space, but Graham shows off his veteran skills, staying patient and waiting for the rushing lane to open up before shooting through it and making the stop.
Safety Play vs the Pass in Rex Ryan’s Defense
Buffalo’s defense featured one of the most talented cornerback duos in the league between Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, but it was the safety position that struggled to stay consistent against the pass. As a group, the Bills’ safeties combined to allow 67 receptions on 98 targets (68.3%) for 862 yards, 324 yards-after-catch, 14 touchdowns and picked off just four passes.
In the following clip, the Bills are showing a two-deep shell against the Miami Dolphins with Corey Graham as the free safety. Prior to the snap, strong safety Bacarri Rambo cheats towards the line of scrimmage, showing a Cover 1 or 3 look.
Whether the Bills switched coverages or not, we won’t know, but if it was Cover 1, then Stephon Gilmore would stay with the receiver running the crosser. If it was Cover 3, then Corey Graham would be responsible for picking him up as he came across the middle of the field. Graham takes a false step and can’t recover in time, putting himself in a trail position, while Rambo seems to be playing a hook zone, and lets the receiver get on top of him. It’s a blown coverage and an easy touchdown for the Dolphins.
However, it wasn’t all bad, as the following play against the Philadelphia Eagles indicates. It’s a testament to Corey Graham’s film preparation as he sniffs out the underneath swing pass and blows up the play before it has a chance to develop.
Philadelphia comes out in a five-wide “empty” 2×3 formation. #1 and #2 to the left of the offensive formation run slants while #3 runs a swing route to the flat.
The two slant routes are intended to create traffic to free up Ryan Mathews to gain yards after the catch, but Graham is keyed in on his man.
Buffalo’s corners are in man coverage and in a trail position on the two receivers running slant routes, so if on Corey Graham to make the tackle in space or it’s going for six.
In addition to coverage responsibilities, safeties in Rex Ryan’s aggressive scheme are often used as extra blitzers.
Between Corey Graham, Bacarri Rambo and Duke Williams, the Bills’ safeties were sent on blitzes 85 times. Those rushes resulted in two sacks, 12 quarterback hits and nine hurries, meaning they were getting a pressure on a little over 25% of their blitz attempts.
The Buffalo Bills’ defense definitely underachieved during the 2015 season, but fans can’t place the entirety of blame solely on Rex Ryan’s shoulders. It was the team’s first year in one of the most complex and multiple defenses in football. A defensive scheme that’s had a proven track record of success everywhere he’s been, so that fact alone, coupled with the costly injuries to key players at each level of the defense all contributed to the team’s unexpected decline. Hopefully with a full year and another offseason to nail down the nuances of the scheme, the 2016 Buffalo Bills will look like another team than the one we witnessed this past year.