The first season under Rex Ryan didn’t yield the same results for the Buffalo Bills as they did when he took over as Head Coach of the New York Jets back in 2009, as the team struggled to adjust to a new and complex defense that asked players to take on new responsibilities they didn’t have in recent seasons.
After ranking in, or close to the top-five in nearly every defensive statistic last season, the Bills fell to 20th in total defense, 16th in points allowed, 23rd in passing and 16th in run defense. However, the most glaring regression came from the defensive line. After recording 111 sacks over the previous two seasons, the Bills managed just 21 during the 2015 season and only 14 coming from defensive linemen.
Rex Ryan is known as a defensive mastermind, as his complex, pressure-laden defenses have tormented opposing offenses ever since he was named Defensive Coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. His track record speaks for itself, as you can see by the data in the table below.
All season long fans were enraged that Ryan failed to adapt his scheme to fit the personnel on hand, which is a valid concern considering the team’s playoff drought and the drastic drop-off in defensive production. On the other hand, Terry and Kim Pegula along with Russ Brandon and the other Bills’ executives paid top-dollar to retain Ryan for five seasons. This is a team that has lacked continuity—both in management and coaching positions—which is a big part in why the team hasn’t made the playoffs in 16 years. So, knowing Ryan’s history and the success his teams have enjoyed, it makes sense to use his first year with the team installing his scheme, evaluating who fits and who doesn’t, in order to ensure that he can obtain the pieces needed to sustain long-term success.
So, where do we go from here?
Rex Ryan’s Defense
When Rex Ryan was hired, it was assumed that he was going to run the same scheme that the Bills did with Mike Pettine, who served under Rex with the Ravens and Jets. However, Pettine primarily utilized 4-3 Under fronts, whereas Ryan continued to run his multiple defense—whether that be a 3-4, a 4-3, a 5-2, a 2-4-5, a 1-4-5 or a 46.
It’s a complicated system that relies on the linebackers and defensive backs to know their responsibilities and communicate various checks to each other. When Ryan went to the Jets, he had familiar faces from Baltimore in players like Bart Scott, Dawan Landry and Jim Leonard in place to ease the adjustment. This year, IK Enemkpali was the only Jets player that was brought over and he’d only played a grand total of 40 defensive snaps in Ryan’s defense.
Base Fronts, Player Responsibilities
Rex Ryan will use a wide variety of fronts but for the most part, the Bills operate out of either a 4-3 Under or a 3-4 as their base.
The 4-3 Under is often time confused with a 3-4 front, as they both feature a five technique defensive end and a stand-up edge defender. However, the 4-3 Under blends both one and two gap concepts into one front that allows personnel flexibility without being vulnerable against the run or pass.
In an under front, the defensive linemen shift to the weakside of the offense and the strong-side linebacker plays outside the left defensive end. This look appears to be a 3-4, as there’s a five-technique defensive end/tackle playing over the right tackle and a nose tackle playing a zero-technique over the center, but it’s essentially a 4-3 as the remaining linemen are responsible for just one gap.
Ryan utilized this front with the Jets often as well.
However, as the season grew on, Rex’s game plans shifted more and more to fronts based on 3-4 concepts, particularly with his sub-packages.
In a traditional 3-4 defense, you have three down linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. The defensive ends play the five-technique, aligning directly over the tackles and are two-gap defenders, meaning that they’re responsible for the gap on either side of the tackle. They need to be strong at the point of attack to force runs outside and allow the edge rusher a clean path to the quarterback.
The nose tackle is the most important piece in a 3-4 front. They line up directly over the center as a zero technique, or shaded over the center’s shoulder as a one technique, and like the defensive ends, the nose tackle is a two-gap defender. The defensive alignment alone attracts double teams to the nose tackle, so you need a big, strong and powerful player that can anchor against multiple blockers in order to keep the inside linebackers clean to make plays.
Although it’s not an ideal position for him given the mega-contract he signed in the offseason, Marcell Dareus played the nose tackle position at an exceptional level in 2015. He racked up 48 tackles, 37 against the run (6th most) and 27 pressures (3rd most), despite seeing double teams on 50.5% of his defensive snaps.
Defensive linemen that can two-gap are essential to Rex Ryan’s system, but his multiple fronts have allowed players like Muhammed Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata to flourish as pass rushers by shading their alignment.
Here, you see Rex Ryan’s Jets in a 3-4 alignment—three down linemen, two edge defenders and two inside ‘backers. The left defensive end is still at the five technique and the nose tackle is at the one technique as two gap players. However, by shifting the right end outside the shoulder of the left guard, this makes him a one-gap player—meaning he’s free to penetrate the “B” gap in a one-on-one matchup.
With Mario Williams reportedly being released, the Bills would ideally bring in a true nose tackle and allow Dareus to slide down the line to the one, three or five technique where he’d see more one-on-one matchups and be more of a playmaker.
In a 3-4 alignment the offensive guards are typically uncovered, so the inside linebackers need to be capable of taking them on in the hole if they aren’t double-teaming one of the defensive linemen. There are just two off-ball linebackers in 3-4 defenses, compared to the three in 4-3 systems, so these inside ‘backers need to have the size and strength to take on blockers in traffic, but also the speed and range to chase down a running back in the flat or drop into coverage.
Rex Ryan’s defenses have featured some of the better inside linebackers to play the game, guys like Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Peter Boulware and David Harris, and the team’s thrived because they understood their role and performed what was asked of them.
In Ryan’s defense, the weak side inside linebacker (away from the tight end) is the “Mike” and the strong side linebacker is the “Ted.” Both have very different skill sets and very specific responsibilities, especially against the run, so they’ll typically switch which side of the field they line up on depending on the strength of the offense.
The “TED” is typically a physical banger used to take on guards and fill his gap in order to free up the Mike to make plays. The following play against the rep is everything you want to see from the front seven in a run situation, as the defensive lineman move their guys off the ball, Nigel Bradham takes on the lead blocker that gives Preston Brown a clear lane to make the stop.
The “Mike” who plays to the weak side is expected to be the playmaker of the two inside linebackers—think Ray Lewis and David Harris—and will not always have a gap assigned to him, meaning he’ll be free to roam and make plays. He’ll need to have some athleticism and speed to chase down plays, rush the passer and drop into coverage just like the Ted.
Neither Preston Brown nor Nigel Bradham had very good seasons, but both have the requisite skills to fill the positions if they can learn the system and be more patient. However, it’s likely that the team looks to upgrade the position to move Preston Brown to the “TED.”
The edge defenders in 3-4 systems typically get the glory in this defense, as they’re the ones getting the one-on-one matchups to rush the passer. In Rex Ryan’s defense, the two outside linebackers have defined roles, just as the inside ‘backers do.
The “rush end” will typically play to the weak side of the offensive formation, typically on the right side where he’ll face the left tackle. Terrell Suggs and Calvin Pace thrived at this spot under Ryan and this is currently Jerry Hughes’ role with the Bills.
The “SAM” or strong side outside linebacker will primarily play on the left side, aligning outside the shoulder of the tight end. This player will typically be a bit bigger than the rush end, as he’ll see more double teams when rushing the passer and he needs to be strong enough to set the edge and force runs back inside. He’ll also have more coverage responsibilities than his counterpart. Adalius Thomas and Bryan Thomas were playmakers at this spot with the Ravens and Jets, with Manny Lawson now playing the position with the Bills.
The 4-2-5 nickel front is the basic sub-package that most defenses operate out of, by replacing a linebacker (typically the SAM) for a third cornerback. However, Rex Ryan’s defense utilizes concepts from the 3-4 so his base nickel package is versatile. Below you can see that the Bills have four down-linemen with two inside linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties—a 4-2-5 front.
What makes this a good sub-package is that it allows for a lot of flexibility both with coverages and alignments. It’s an easy front to sub into, as the edge defenders simply walk down to the line of scrimmage and get into a two-point stance instead of a three-point stance.
Since it’s likely a passing situation if you’re in nickel, the defensive tackles align a bit wider and are one-gap players so they can pin their ears back and rush the quarterback.
The Bills used a 2-4-5 formation often in their sub-packages, utilizing two defensive tackles and four linebackers—two edge defenders at a wide alignment in a three-point stance and two inside linebackers. This front gives offenses a different look with the potential of one of the edge rushers dropping into coverage or sending an inside linebacker as a blitzer.
The Bills struggled in these alignments because the defensive tackles allowed the offensive linemen to get to the second level, sealing out the linebackers too often, allowing for big gains on the ground. Finding a linebacker that can effectively stack and shed these linemen, or at least hold their ground for a defensive back to fill would improve this aspect of the defense drastically.
The Bills’ defense struggled adjusting to the complexity of Rex Ryan’s defensive system in the first year under his tutelage, so the coaching staff will need to go back and look at the film to figure out what can be done to put their best players in positions to succeed.
The linebacker play was especially bad, but Preston Brown noted that defensive calls were coming in late, and to his credit, this is a difficult system for a young linebacker to master. The team has talent throughout the front seven, but with another offseason for the players to fully absorb the system, combined with the coaching staff making the necessary adjustments for the defense to succeed, we *should* see an improvement in year two.
In the next part of this series, I’ll look at more of the nickel packages, defensive back responsibilities and coverages the Bills ran this season to see what the team could be looking for in the offseason.