The offseason begins by evaluating your team. The most disappointing unit on this defense was the defensive line.
Many fans were calling for Rex Ryan’s job for the way he handled this defensive line. The “cold front” were the defining group of our organization, the identity of the Bills the last few years. As soon as Rex was hired, their productivity was expected to skyrocket. The creativity in Rex Ryan’s scheme; all of the exotic blitzes and personnel groupings led many to believe that Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus and Jerry Hughes were going to have career years.
The 2015 season started out according to plan. The Bills relied on numerous pressure packages that flustered Andrew Luck in their home opener. They blitzed him 25 times, forced 2 interceptions it led to a 34.3 quarterback rating when they blitzed him according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). The defensive line had 2 sacks on Luck, 7 QB hits and 17 QB hurries.
The Patriots executed a flawless game-plan that eventually led to the foundation on how to beat the Rex Ryan defense, with quick passing. Brady dropped back 61 times, and completed 38 passes for 466 yards and 3 TDs. He was sacked two times one time by Mario and one by Hughes. But Brady had has his way against the Bills defense. Rex tried playing coverage but that didn’t work, when he blitzed Brady the defense was torched and the coaches had no answer for that New England offense in week two. From that game on opposing coordinators had a solid game-plan on how to negate the pressure and talent that the Bills were bringing to the table each and every Sunday. The failure of the defensive unit from 2015 can be analyzed from many perspectives, but lets start with injuries.
Injury to Kyle Williams
A key cog in the “cold front” is veteran Kyle Williams. He may be more important to the defensive line unit than anyone else. As I have covered in the Linebacker study, through the first six games the defensive unit surrendered 87 rushing yards a game. After his injury, the defense was gashed for 121 yards a game. Dareus went from 5th in stop percentage (12.3%) when Kyle was in the lineup to 11th with 9.5%. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Stops constitute a “loss” for the offense therefore run stop percentage is the percentage of run defense snaps where the player made a stop. Mario’s run stop percentage went from 4.3% to 1.7% once Kyle was out of the lineup, while Jerry’s went up from 5.9% to 8.1%. The constant double teams of Dareus seemed to help Jerry more than others, primarily because he typically was lined up at Rush LB (play-making position).
So the loss of Kyle was felt in the rush game, but lets look at the numbers from a pass rush perspective. During Kyle’s six game stretch to start the season, he was fifth in total pressures (sacks+QB hits+QB hurries) with 13, tying him with Gerald Mccoy and Shariff Floyd. Kyle was the Bills’ blue collar defender. A guy that could lead on the field by playing to the whistle. He is able to affect the timing of an offense just by his hustle alone. Marcel had a total of 12 pressures in that very same stretch. Corbin Bryant was then plugged into the lineup, and he filled in admirably. He had 22 total pressures in 10 games but Dareus’ pass production fell off a bit. Marcel only produced 17 total pressures. Again, part of that was due to the injury to Kyle and part of that was the overhaul in the scheme.
Once Kyle went down, Marcel played primarily as a shade NT, therefore he got double teamed often. There were very few opportunities for him to pressure the QB. The double on Dareus allowed the pressure DT; Bryant to stack up some pretty good numbers rather than giving Dareus opportunities to get at the QB. With no pressure up the middle quarterbacks were able to get in rhythm and remain upright in the pocket. But Kyle’s injury wasn’t the only reason the defensive line’s production dropped. The scheme definitely had a hand in that department also. Lets go over the scheme that Rex brought to Buffalo.
It has been widely discussed by Rex and talking heads about what he tried to install this year on defense. In an interview on the Mike and Mike show, Ryan stated the following:
In a way, I tried to merge a couple things, two systems and things like that, and quite honestly it didn’t work. So we’re going to be all in, we’re going to play Buffalo Bills defense, and we’re not going to be fun to play.
Rex talks about merging the two systems and not many people really understand what he means by that. The casual fan will just think oh he tried merging his complex system with rushing four. No, there is more to it than that. When you merge systems, you try to incorporate the language of the scheme. Such things as the play-names, terms for recognizing formations, audibles etc. You are not just merging the philosophy of rushing four defensive lineman. Each play has certain landmarks, coaching points, audibles; it’s a language. What do I mean by a language? Take a look at what I mean, here is ONE play-call from Rex’ 2010 playbook with the Jets. It is explained in the caption box below.
I highlighted the play-call in yellow at the very top of the image- LASER SKUNK FZ, what does that mean? LASER= The defensive front= 4-3 Under Skunk FZ= The play-call. It is a zone blitz where the MIKE LB blitzes first through the call side B gap, and the down $AFETY blitzes between the MIKE and NT (A gap). Each of those boxes has the offensive formation highlighted green. The defenders must know how to align versus each and every formation an offense throws at them. So those terms must be universally recognized by everyone on the defense. In the bottom left hand corner you see a box titled Coaching Points. These are details that need to be stressed by the staff when certain things occur. Such as the adjustment that I highlighted in red. If you look at the Twins offensive set you will see the MABEL call that is outlined in the coaching point. When the WILL LB (Bradham/Lawson) has a detached #2 WR/a guy in the slot, he and the RUSH LB (Hughes) must check MABEL. ALL this means is that the WILL and RUSH LB are switching assignments. Normally the WILL has the 3rd rec/hook to curl and the Rush LB drops to the seam/flats. On MABEL calls, the RUSH LB takes the 3rd rec/hook to curl and the WILL has seam to flats because he is aligned out wide with the #2 WR.
As you can see defensive plays have a language of their own. It is complex and very fluid. A single play-call has tiny variations that need to be memorized by the defenders. So merging two systems can be troublesome to the defenders and to the coaching staff. If there are certain terms, play-calls, audibles that are “new” (merged language) to the staff they may have trouble sending in the proper calls in. Or the calls may come in late because the coaches haven’t adjusted to the merged systems and or different personnel groupings. That is why you heard the players and coaches mention that they were still learning each other.
There are people that don’t believe Rex when he said he tried merging the two systems. I tend to believe that he did try. But from what I see on film, I really do think he tried to combine his scheme with what the players did well. A cavalcade of issues arose pretty early in the season. I think that the players were so shell shocked on how much they had to think on their feet, that they were overwhelmed. Like learning anything, it takes time and experience. Something in the NFL most players and coaches aren’t afforded. In the first game there were definitely signs of both schemes. Here are a couple looks from the opening drive by the Colts. I like to use opening drives because most of the time those drives are where coaches show their hand the most. Each coach is trying to pinpoint how the opposing coach will call the game, or how coordinator is going to match-up. Here are some images from that first game:
So as you can see Rex indeed played both systems. But once the season progressed Rex transitioned to his defense more and more. So of course the defensive line production suffered. But why?
To understand that question you have to know the responsibilities of the defensive line. According to Rex, the defensive line enjoys a lead role in his defense. A defense that has its roots in the 4-6. He describes their role in his defense:
“With this role comes a greater responsibility and a higher level of difficulty than in most other defensive schemes. More than any other defense, the defensive lineman in the 46 package must be a dependable player, capable of dominating his opponent and maintaining the integrity of the defensive front.”
Integrity of the defensive front is so important because the defensive lineman are primarily two gap players. Which means defenders have two responsibilities on any given play. So how did the defensive line produce given totally different responsibilities this year? Lets take a look:
According to PFF
A lot was made of the coaches dropping the “cold front” into coverage when their primary purpose is to rush the passer. So look at the snaps in coverage. The only significant difference was Jerry Hughes compared to last year. Hughes only dropped into coverage 12 times last year, compared to 58 times this year. Mario dropped 28 times this year versus 13 times last year. Kyle and Dareus dropped into coverage 9 times and 0 times respectively in 2014. So when the defense dropped lineman into coverage, how effective were offenses?
Take a look at the chart below. This chart shows how productive teams were when the coaches dropped lineman into coverage. The Bills gave up 3,972 yards and 30 passing touchdowns against the pass in 2015. Five TDs and 510 yards from 2015 were given up when the Bills dropped at least one defensive lineman into coverage. They only generated 2 interceptions, 4 sacks and 5 touchdowns. The incompletion vs. completion ratio was just about even. So the Bills surrendered 13% of their passing yards when the defensive lineman below dropped into coverage. Advanced statistics like that are analyzed by the team in the off-season. That just gives you an idea of how small of a percentage those play-calls were.
Coverage numbers per PFF. There were a total of 6 plays where two defensive lineman dropped into coverage. Sack yards were subtracted prior to the totals.
The big drop was obviously in sacks. The defensive line didn’t get sacks. Injuries, scheme and lack of execution all played a hand in the decline. This scheme has produced sacks in year past, but in 2015 the Bills opponents used quick passing to defeat the scheme. For example, in the first meeting between the Bills and Pats, Brady got rid of the ball in 1.96 seconds. The Bills played their merged defense in the first meeting, and by using four defensive lineman, it made it difficult to disguise coverage. In the first half of the second game Brady got rid of the ball in 2.89 seconds. By that time Rex was in the midst of his transition. He used a lot more 3-3-5 and 3-2-6 defenses which allowed him to disguise easier.
When the Bills had the “cold front”, they obviously utilized more four defensive lineman looks than three lineman and a Rush LB (Rex’ scheme). Rex tried using the “cold front” in the very same ways that Richardson and Wilkerson were utilized with the Jets. Specifically, by blitzing the ILBs and dropping a defensive lineman into coverage. But he had very little success.
But what I find interesting is the Bills defense of 2015 versus Rex’ defenses in prior years. Look at this chart again.
Specifically, in 2009 and 2010 when Rex’ defenses were in the top 5 overall. If you look at the players who were DEs and defensive tackles, you can see that they didn’t drop into coverage that often. Compare Kyle, Bryant, Dareus, Ik Enemkpali and Mario Williams all of whom dropped into coverage 75 times. Now look at the same positions from the 2010 Jets defense, guys like Shaun Ellis, Devito, Pouha and Gholston (rotational player) dropped 29 times. Maybe not significant enough, but look at 2009.
In 2009 team, they dropped into coverage 14 times (Ellis, Pouha, Devito and Douglas). Almost seems like Rex used those defenders in a totally different manner.
The 2014 Jets team was 6th in overall defense but 24th in points allowed. They were exposed for many reasons, but want I want to focus on is their defensive line.
Start with Wilkerson, Harrison, Douzable and Richardson. Now keep in mind Richardson was used as a Hybrid DE/OLB. So he dropped into coverage often, either way those guys dropped into pass coverage 79 times. Very similar to our 2015 Bills.
It is almost like two different kinds of defenses run by Rex Ryan. The 2009-2010 teams’ defensive lines were different types of players compared to the 2014 Jets and 2015 Bills teams. The 2009 and 2010 teams defensive ends and defensive tackles seemed to resemble a traditional 3-4 set of players. Strong, stout two gap players. Not the most athletic bunch, who didn’t get to the QB often. Once Wilkerson and Richardson were drafted, Rex was able to really run the scheme he had envisioned. Now it had pitfalls, due to reasons outside of the defensive line. Such as losing Revis and Cromartie, bad drafting by Rex and Idzik just to name a few. But the versatility in Wilkerson and Richardson allowed Rex to become even more multiple. They could really do it all, especially if you compare it to the 2015 Bills players.
From a run defense perspective the 2014 Jets defensive line made their share of stops. Wilkerson was #2 on the team, Richardson #4 and Harrison #5. How did the 2015 Bills defensive line stack up in terms of stops?
Hughes was #1, Dareus #3, Mario #9, Kyle #15(injured), Bryant #7 on the team. Who was #2? Safety Corey Graham, that should not happen. People will say, but in this scheme the defensive line are supposed to occupy lineman for the linebackers to make plays. True, but having versatile defensive lineman who can stop the run and rush the passer allows Rex run his multiple defenses. It allows him to call so many different plays. Not having Kyle in at defensive tackle or more importantly at the 5 tech DE position the second half of the season caused everyone’s production to drop. You can also see how if affected our linebacker core in the stops department also, those guys should be leaders in that department. The scheme is predicated on those guys making plays in the backfield.
One final reason why there was a decline in production in sacks was because of the strict assignments that the defensive lineman are asked to execute. On certain pressures or just play calls in general defensive ends such as Mario are asked to rush in a certain manner. They weren’t able to freestyle as often in this scheme as in Schwartz’ scheme. Here are a few examples. Explanations are in the captions below the images.
As you can see, the defensive line had specific assignments on some plays. Specific guidelines to each play, which is why Mario and others showed frustration. They were not used to the strict parameters on most of the play-calls. Which led to some players not “buying” in. The scheme is one that tries to get a specific player unblocked. Sometimes Mario wasn’t that called player and based on his body language you could tell he was not happy with his role in the defense.
The Bills need players that understand their role and execute their assignments from play to play. Just because their number isn’t called on a specific play, breakdowns in the offensive blocking could still lead to good things if they play 110 %. At the same time, this defense needs guys that can be difference makers when their number is called.
Where do we go from here?
The injury to Kyle Williams, the attempt to merge two systems, the transition to a new scheme later in the year all contributed to the Bills failure on that side of the ball. So what moves are forthcoming?
It goes without saying, but I think it is time to cut ties with Mario Williams. He didn’t produce when Kyle was in the lineup, he didn’t produce when we transitioned to a new scheme and he flat out quit on the team. Yes, part of it was the scheme, but when you watch him closely you can see he wasn’t giving it his all. Bills fans do appreciate what he did over the last few years, but it may be time to move on. With his age and pass rushing abilities diminishing, paying him 19.9 million next year is out of the question. The ways in which defensive lineman are utilized in this scheme versus the wide 9 is completely different. The Bills need to release him and use the spare money to re-sign other key role players.
As far as Kyle Williams, I think he is a guy that you HAVE to keep. Yes, he is due nearly 8 million dollars next year, but he is a great leader on and off the field and he can produce in this scheme. He did in 2013, and using him at a 5 tech DE in the base defense and DT in pass rushing scenarios really lets Rex open up his playbook. Kyle Williams will need to restructure though. He will be 33 years old, his value is not at 8 million a year. If the Bills can get him down to at least 5 million a year, he is worth that in my eyes, for at least another season.
What do the Bills do with Marcel Dareus? He got a huge contract this past year and he is worth it, if used correctly. Using him at nose tackle is wasting his talent. Yes, he can do that job, but you want Dareus to be in a position to attack the quarterback, not just occupy double teams. The Bills should look to move him back to the 5 technique defensive end position when they are in their base 3-4 defense. He played that position in college, and he played it in 2013. Just imagine him being lined up over or just inside the tackle and having Hughes rushing the passer from the edge. That will cause offensive coordinators to lose sleep at night.
TJ Barnes is a Bills defensive tackle that could compete for the starting nose tackle position if Dareus is moved to the 5 tech. TJ Barnes was signed the first week of December, when the Bills were in the thick of their transition to a 3-4. Barnes is the epitome of a 0 tech/nose tackle. At 6’7″, 346 pounds he is a force that has to be double teamed when the Bills are in their two gap defense.
Not much to say on Jerry Hughes, if anyone is going to benefit from Rex’ scheme it is this guy. This defense is geared towards the Rush LB being a play-maker. His production definitely showed how effective he can be in this scheme.
The Bills signed Jerel Worthy in late November. He is more of a 3-4 defensive end in Rex’ scheme and only played in 24 total snaps in the last two games. He is under contract til 2017 and his production and role in this defense is still to be determined.
The Bills have a few key free agents at the defensive line position. Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant played tremendously when they were in the lineup. I think both restricted free agents should be tendered and brought back for at least another year. Charles fits Rex’ scheme really well. He is strong enough to play the nose tackle position but has also shown flashes when put at the 5 technique. He was used at the 5 tech mainly in run defense situations but he held the point of attack really well.
Bryant also offers the Bills versatility, he produced when Kyle went down. He fits the 4-3 defense as a 3 technique defensive tackle better than the 3-4 defensive end or nose tackle. But when he was put in at the 5 technique, he showed the discipline to complete his assignment.
Alex Carrington is another versatile player and an asset to this defense. 2015 was a contract year for Alex. Combine that and the fact that he suffered a knee injury, I would be surprised if the Bills bring him back immediately. Keep him in mind next season if the Bills need defensive line help, he has shown the ability to execute in this scheme.
The Bills also have two players that they signed off of practice squads late in the year. Both of whom have been learning the scheme and will have a solid chance to make the squad in 2016. Max Valles and Lavar Edwards are two players that Rex is trying to develop for 2016. Valles is a versatile player who can rush the passer but also has the size and strength to play SAM LB to set the edge in the run game.
Edwards was signed to eventually play the 5 technique defensive end position. He is 6’4″, 277 pounds and he ran a 4.8 forty yard dash coming out of college. He is a player that also can rush the passer, but he also can drop into coverage. Something that he was asked to do often in Les Miles’ defense while at LSU.
The 2015 season was a disappointment to everyone. The defensive line failed in just about every way possible. The coaches tried merging defenses which was a complete mess because the defensive line had trouble adjusting. Rex didn’t always use the defensive line correctly either. Untimely zone blitz calls, led to the defense giving up some big plays against the pass. But the players are also responsible for the decline in production. The scheme has been successful in this league. As you saw in the chart, defensive lineman who have played in this scheme have produced much better than the players did in 2015. Players were often out of position, confused and lacked conviction in their assignments. Once the injures piled up, the team began to transition to Rex’ scheme. Which was almost like starting from square one. But, towards the end of the year the defense began to play faster and the coaches and players found a middle ground.
If the Bills defense is going to get better, the Bills’ players and personnel need to be on the same page. So far this off-season, it seems like players are understanding that Rex isn’t the leader of this team. He is a players’ coach, which means he allows the locker room to police itself. He is a coach that wants his players to “own” their responsibilities, schemes and team. Rex and Whaley brought in some new coaches that should help the players “own” this team.
In his book, Rex wrote that he likes to coach techniques according to one acronym; “KILL”. Which means “Keep it Like-able and Learn-able”. The new coaches; Ed Reed and Rob Ryan will be tasked with teaching this complex scheme in ways that will be like-able and learn-able. If you approach this off-season with that in mind, the Bills appear to be on track for a successful season in 2016.