When the Buffalo Bills hired Rex Ryan to become the team’s new Head Coach, fans were giddy with excitement about the exotic, blitz-heavy hybrid defensive scheme that he’d terrorized opponents with for years coming to Buffalo. Under Ryan’s protégé Mike Pettine in 2013 and Jim Schwartz in 2014, the team combined for 111 sacks, the highest total in the NFL. Young players like Stephon Gilmore, Nigel Bradham, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus had made great strides in their development, bringing major expectations for Rex’s 2015 unit, which he claimed would be ranked No. 1 at his introductory press conference.
However, through the team’s first eight games the defense has disappointed, racking up just 13 sacks—the 4th fewest total in the league. While the 93.6 rushing yards per game allowed ranks 6th, they’re surrendering 260 yards-per-game through the air, 24th in the NFL.
When Ryan was hired, it was assumed that the Bills would be running the same scheme that the team had so much success with in 2013 under Mike Pettine. After all, he had just come from the Jets’ staff and was under Rex Ryan for his entire professional coaching career. The Bills did run a hybrid defense in 2013, but the base front was a 4-3 “Under.” An under front combines concepts from both the 3-4 and a 4-3 and is flexible enough for different types of players to thrive in.
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.
The strength of the Bills’ defense is it’s front four, which features dominating game-changers in Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes, who are all highly-paid talents. This type of front allowed each of them to do what they do best.
For Mario Williams, that’s lining up just outside an offensive tackle’s shoulder, using his length and athleticism to power his way through, or around him. For Kyle Williams, that’s lining up at the three-technique between a guard and tackle, where his quickness, technique and leverage allow him to disrupt backfields, despite his lack of size. For Marcell Dareus, that’s lining up at the zero or one technique—over the center, or between the center and guard—where his strength, power and explosion allows him to take on and defeat double teams or combo blocks and still get into the backfield. For Jerry Hughes, this is lining up wide at the nine-technique outside the shoulder of a tight end, where his get off, turn the corner and convert speed to power lets him face slow-footed tackles in space.
This year, Ryan’s scheme has been based within 3-4 concepts, which is a big reason why we haven’t seen the amount of sacks and pressures as we did over the last two seasons. For the first few games, it was discussed that the problem was that quarterbacks were simply getting rid of the ball quickly—utilizing three-step drops and the short passing game to negate the Bills’ pass rush. While this definitely was a factor when facing passers like Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton, etc., it’s not something that’s limited exclusively to the Bills. Every team relies on the quick game today, but team’s aren’t just ignoring 2/3 sections of the field to hold off the Bills’ defensive line.
Buffalo’s defense has surrendered 30 passes of 20+ yards, the ninth-highest total in the NFL. So, while the time from snap-to-throw is definitely part of why Buffalo hasn’t gotten after quarterbacks this year, there’s a lot more that’s hindering the pass rush.
Here, Marcell Dareus is at the nose, where he’s responsible for controlling both “A” gaps (between center and guard) with Mario Williams and Kyle Williams as the five-technique ends and their job is to control the “B” and “C” gaps (inside center/tackle, between tackle/TE). Mario is shaded towards the outside shoulder of the tackle, but his responsibility is the same. Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson are the outside linebackers and are “D” gap players that will either blitz, fill against the run or drop into coverage.
This alignment is fine for Dareus and Hughes, as Dareus has the skill-set to play the nose, while Hughes is playing his typical role as a widened, stand-up edge player. For Kyle and Mario Williams, two players who specialize in disruption and generating pressure, this front negates that ability. Instead of fighting through one gap in order to get into the backfield, their priority is occupying two gaps, usually while double teamed. This is the grunt work of 3-4 defensive linemen, as they won’t show up much on the stat sheet.
While these roles are crucial to the success of a 3-4 defense, Mario and Kyle Williams aren’t two-gap players. Kyle is undersized with short arms, which makes double teams an extremely difficult task. Mario has the ideal length for the five-technique, but his truly rare athletic ability is almost put to waste when asking him to two-gap, rather than rush the quarterback—especially when you consider that he’s making $100 million.
Now, the base defense isn’t the issue, as only one of the four linemen are really put in a difficult situation, but it’s the various blitz packages and fronts Rex Ryan is employing that has really put the players at a disadvantage throughout the season. For example, Kyle Williams has been used extensively as a stand-up edge rusher. Williams’ 6’1” 300 pound compact frame isn’t going to strike fear in any offensive tackle, as they know he can’t bend the corner and they’ll only see a bullrush.
With Williams out of position and Jerry Hughes lined up behind him, the Giants easily gain 12-yards on the ground here.
Rex made his name by rolling out weird, funky, exotic fronts and pressure packages, but with the Ravens and Jets, they had the ideal personnel in the front seven to execute them. Now, Buffalo has some extremely talented players, but for the most part their ideally suited to play in a 4-3.
Here’s an example of a head-scratching front the Bills used this year against the Cincinnati Bengals. Dareus plays his typical nose tackle spot, and Stefan Charles is at the three-technique. Mario Williams kicks even further inside to the three-technique defensive tackle position, while inside linebacker Nigel Bradham walks down and aligns as a traditional defensive end. Hughes and Manny Lawson are the outside linebackers.
The Bengals run a power from the shotgun with the left guard pulling across the formation. Cincinnati’s offensive line blocks down, away from the direction of the play. Mario Williams gets turned around, and Dareus gets moved off his spot, resulting in a jumble of traffic that middle linebacker Preston Brown gets stuck in.
Cincinnati’s right tackle easily drives Bradham, who’s clearly not a defensive end, out of the play and the pulling guard successfully seals out Manny Lawson, creating a wide open lane for Gio Bernard to score from 16 yards out. This is a case of getting too cute X’s and O’s wise and putting players in bad positions for no reason.
Another issue many fans have with the scheme is how often Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman have their defensive linemen dropping into coverage. In 2013 under Mike Pettine, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams dropped into coverage a combined 30 times all year. Hughes, who was more of a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker dropped into coverage 94 times.
Eight games into the 2015 season, Dareus, Kyle and Mario Williams have dropped into coverage a combined 34 times, with Hughes dropping 43 times. Reserve defensive linemen have accounted for another 21 snaps in pass coverage. The zone blitz was made popular by Dick LeBeau’s Pittsburgh Steelers, as a way to occasionally confuse a quarterback, but the Bills haven’t had much success at all when doing so, and they’ve even asked linemen to play man coverage at times.
Here, against Cincinnati, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes (stud pass rushers who’ve combined for 47.5 sacks and 226 pressures in 2013-’14) drop into a zone coverage behind a three man rush. This does nothing to confuse Andy Dalton and he hits his receiver for a 20-yard gain right down the seam.
In the same game, the Bills send inside linebacker Nigel Bradham on a blitz, and drop backup edge rusher IK Enkempali to drop into coverage against Gio Bernard, one of the quicker, shifty pass-catching running backs in the league. Enkempali is 6’1” 275 pounds with a chubby/stocky build and ran a 4.78 at his pro day. Dalton sees this obvious mismatch and hits Bernard on a wheel route for a touchdown.
It’s head-scratching to see some of the league’s most ferocious pass rushers moving away from the passer, rather than toward him on roughly 17% of passing plays this year. Rex talked up his schemes and blitz packages prior to the season, saying that a quarterback will see eight guys showing blitz, but they’ll never know who’s coming. Now, that’s great if it’s generating pressure or resulting in sacks, but it’s not. Inside linebackers Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham are sent on blitzes about 13% of the time, 76 for Brown, 74 for Bradham, but those 150 blitzes have yielded just 1 sack, three QB hits and nine hurries.
For comparison, in 2013, Kiko Alonso blitzed 68 times all year (6.8% of his snaps) and Bradham was sent on 4.4% of his. There’s a trickle-down effect with dropping defensive linemen into pass coverage—that rusher needs to be replaced, whether by a defensive back or a linebacker, which creates a void in the defense.
This could be part of the reason the Bills have allowed quarterbacks to complete 64.3% of passes between the hashes for 1,122 yards and eight touchdowns, at a 7.7 yards-per-attempt average.
The Bills’ defense has been under-achieving all season, especially when you consider the outstanding cornerback play by Stephon Gilmore and rookie Ronald Darby, who are 1st and 2nd in the league in passes defensed. Having such great coverage on the backend should allow the defensive line to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. But, Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman seem to be over-thinking and over-complicating their scheme and attempting to fit square pegs in round holes all over the field.
The Bills aren’t built to come from behind and the defense that was one of the best in the league just a year ago doesn’t seem to strike the same fear in opposing offenses, playing passive and reactionary, instead of setting the tone and creating confusion like they can, and should.
The Bills are still alive and well in the race for the NFL playoffs, but the defense needs to get back to the basics and put their players in positions to succeed if they expect that 16-year dream to finally become a reality.