2015 Bills Defensive Study: Linebackers


The offseason begins by evaluating your team. The linebacker position is where evaluations should begin.

The off-season for the Buffalo Bills has begun. Players have already packed up their lockers and headed home for the foreseeable future. Players and coaches alike will now take a few weeks to decompress but then will have to put their mind back on football very soon. For coaches that usually starts with evaluating. In order to know who you are going to draft in April, you must evaluate and know where you need to get better.

The Bills will start evaluating their team by figuring out what players will be returning to the team in 2016. But they will also watch film and closely scrutinize where they need to improve. Not just in personnel and match-ups. But teams also evaluate where they need to improve in game scenarios and situations. For example how did the team fare on 3rd downs? Or how did they play in the red zone? It is quite obvious where the Bills will need to improve; on defense. The defense will be looked at from every angle. How in the world did the defense fall off that dramatically? The obvious answer is the scheme, and that is correct. The scheme had a lot to do with the issues on the defensive side of the ball. But it is not limited to that. So I want to examine some issues that arose on defense that may have caused the defense to struggle. We will start with the play of the Bills linebackers. The play by the Bills linebackers were a major reason the defense did not live up to expectations in 2015.

What led to our linebackers being some of the worst in the league overall? Lets get the easy answer out of the way, injuries.

How injuries affected the Linebackers

Injuries were the key factor in the defensive letdown this year. Losing starters Kyle Williams, Nigel Bradham and Aaron Williams impacted what Rex could or couldn’t do on defense. Look at some of the numbers when the Bills had Kyle and when they didn’t.

The Bills gave up more passing yards with Kyle in the lineup mainly due to some big passing numbers in the Patriots and Bengals games. But as you can see, most of the numbers are similar except for the rushing yards a game. The Bills gave up about 34 yards a game more in the run game. That is pretty significant. If the Bills gave up an average of 87 rushing yards a game on defense it would have put them in the top 5 in the league. Instead they ended up surrendering 108 yards/game and ranking 17th in the league. Kyle is a guy who is a tremendous run stuffer, and a guy that can take on double teams as well. That just gives you an idea on how losing a player of Kyle’s caliber can really affect your defense.

Once he was lost in week six, teams began to have more success in the run game. A successful run game led to shorter down and distances for the quarterback. It made it easier on the play-caller and allowed the QB to get rid of the ball quicker. Think about it, if you don’t have many long distance situations the QB doesn’t have to hold onto the ball. What numbers will be affected by that? Sacks…..I don’t believe teams were going to allow us to record the gaudy sack numbers again this year just based on how well we played last year. I believe that the plan was to quick pass us quite frequently but nonetheless you can see how that game-plan and the Bills inability to stop the run was a recipe for disaster once Kyle was injured. The Bills linebackers did not have as many opportunities to make plays because lineman were getting to the second level. Take a look at how it affected the linebackers in the run game:

With Kyle. Watch how Kyle’s abilities and Dareus’ play affect the run stopping of Brown….Kyle slants and shoots the gap. Having Kyle and Dareus in the lineup kept lineman off of Brown, plain and simple regardless of the scheme.

Without Kyle. Bryant is unable to take on the combo block and deter the center from getting to Brown. Not the best example, but you get the gist.

Ok, so now you have a defense that has no Kyle Williams. You’re giving up more rushing yards a game and not getting the sacks because offenses are throwing the quick passes. What adjustments do you make as a coordinator? Look at how the scheme vastly affected the defenses inability to defend the middle of the field and why.


After doing some research I realized that one of the issues that the 2015 Bills defense had was defending the middle of the field. An area that the Bills linebackers are primarily responsible for.

According to Football Outsiders (FO), the Bills are the 6th worst team (34% DVOA) at defending the middle of the field. DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. The worst teams at defending the middle of the field are Chicago (57.4% DVOA), Jacksonville, San Francisco, New Orleans and Detroit. The best teams at defending the middle of the field are Carolina (-20.6 % DVOA), Denver, Dallas, Indianapolis and Houston. Here are the numbers courtesy of Football Outsiders:

Football outsiders only has these rankings from 2014-present so I couldn’t get a full sample from when Rex Ryan began as head coach in 2009. So why did the defense struggle to defend the middle? Why did the Bills linebackers struggle in that area? Based off of last years numbers it is possible that the scheme is the main culprit for the Bills having trouble defending the middle of the field. Under Jim Schwartz the Bills were ranked 13th over the middle. The Bills fielded pretty much the same defense as last year. The personnel was the same but the scheme was different. For this defense to go from 13th last year to 27 is drastic and it raises red flags. Is it the personnel? Is it the play-calling? What is so inherent in the scheme that has caused Rex Ryan’s defenses to have such trouble defending offenses over the middle?

Rex Ryan’s scheme is a multiple defense. It has roots in the 3-4, 4-3, 6-1 Umbrella and even the 4-6. But in every set or alignment Rex loves to create pressure. Rex married his father’s 4-6 defensive philosophy with many common base defenses. That is one reason his defense is referred to as a hybrid. He employs many types of defenses and in those defenses many of the player’s responsibilities can be traced back to the 4-6 defense. Rex Ryan stated in his book Coaching the 4-6:

“The 4-6 defense is designed around one simple concept: pressure wins games.”

So wherever Ryan has coached he has brought a defense that likes to attack the offense, one that likes to dictate the tempo. How does his philosophy affect the inability to defend the middle of the field? Here is your answer, Ryan likes to create pressure by blitzing his linebackers. Specifically the MIKE and WILL linebackers in the scheme. It has been a topic of discussion all year. Ryan from time to time likes to blitz linebackers and sometimes have defensive lineman drop into coverage. For the Bills it has been primarily defensive ends that have dropped significantly more than prior years. Specifically Jerry Hughes, he has dropped into coverage 58 times this year (12 last year) and has done a great job at it. Mario Williams dropped into coverage 28 times (13 last year), Dareus 5 times (0 last year), Corbin Bryant 15 times (0 last year) and Kyle Williams 15 times (9 last year) according to Pro football Focus (PFF).

This is a tactic that many teams use on defense. It is an attack that was developed to counter the west coast offense’s quickly timed, rhythmic passing game. It is a way to create pressure without totally sacrificing coverage. Coordinators can create pressure and confusion but still only rush four. Sometimes he brings more rushers than the offense can block but more times than not Ryan tries to disguise where the four man pressure is coming from. Many people think it is a blitz but he is rushing only four defenders, but the Quarterback just doesn’t know from where and who is coming.

How often do linebackers blitz in his scheme? Take a look at this chart. This chart compares the backers from the Bills this year and the New York Jets team last year. As you can see, our linebackers rush percentage outside of Manny Lawson are almost identical to the Jets of 2014. Lawson is the exception here because he didn’t play Will linebacker all year. He dabbled in it once Bradham was injured.

Here is one example of a common four man pressure taken from his 2010 playbook:

This is one play call. Titan package is the personnel, Under is the alignment, and Bee Sting is the play. It is drawn up on how it should be executed versus those formations. This is one play call. Titan package is the personnel, Under is the alignment, and Bee Sting is the play. It is drawn up on how it should be executed versus those formations.

As you can see by blitzing Preston Brown-MIKE LB that puts pressure on the WILL to cover a pretty big area in the middle of the field whether it is man or zone. But the pressure on the MIKE and WILL when they are dropping into a zone is not just their ability to execute their assignments. Most of the issues this year have been mental. Reading and recognizing specific route combinations, knowing the checks etc. Look at the plays below and how motion can slightly change a player’s assignment and how the LBs have to be able to process and adapt.

Look at how the R and $ assignments slightly change from the Twins to Trips motion vs. the Trips to Twins. It’s a slight assignment adjustment for those players and for the WILL. The Will’s assignment is essentially the same for both, he drops to the hook/curl zone, but when the offense motions Twins to Trips he must get to the hook to curl zone but ALSO be cognizant of the #3 WR (3 Rec Hook). The Will must be able to process that immediately. He also has to know that the R and $ assignments are changing too, so when dropping to his zone the WILL must know where the voids will be when they drop to their assignments. Pretty complex huh? This Under Bee Sting play-call can be executed in 16+ different ways all dependent upon the offenses formation, personnel and or motion. By that I mean the picture above is just a snippet of 16 total formation possibilities that offense may show or motion to…

Check out what I mean. This isn’t the same play call as above but a very similar concept:

Brown is circled. He blitzes and the Bills play man coverage behind him. The problem here is the play by Bradham who is supposed to cover the middle. The blitz by Brown and the depth of the route by Decker stresses the underneath coverage. Nigel takes a false step because he is peaking into the back-field and that leads to a bad angle to the #2 WR Decker. That allows Decker to run a “dino” post. It is cover 1 so Decker is coached to attack the DBs outside shoulder. Robey opens his hips, Decker then has the inside leverage on him and the route is deep enough that the underneath help by Bradham doesn’t affect the play. The free safety is cheating to Marshall’s side so he is completely out of position. Execution caused this play to fail. By execution, I mean reading, recognizing and processing of the information by Bradham.

Here is a four man pressure that leaves the middle of the field totally open.

Brown and Bradham are at the line of scrimmage. Brown occupies two lineman and Corey gets a free shot at Brady. But look at the void the 4 man pressure creates. It is possible that Hughes is suppose to cover the crossing route but that is unknown (look at him peek across the middle to see if any crossers are coming). Amendola initially has a vertical stem/release so Hughes may have thought he was running deep. Even if that is the case, getting to the middle zone is a lot of ground and depth he would have to make up. Brown and Bradham are at the line of scrimmage. Brown occupies two lineman and Corey gets a free shot at Brady. But look at the void the 4 man pressure creates. It is possible that Hughes is suppose to cover the crossing route but that is unknown (look at him peek across the middle to see if any crossers are coming). Amendola initially has a vertical stem/release so Hughes may have thought he was running deep. Even if that is the case, getting to the middle zone is a lot of ground and depth he would have to make up.

But it isn’t all scheme, on this play Darby blows the coverage and lets Amendola run free. But even if he was man on man this is still a pretty tough play to make. On this play, scheme and execution failed.

When you combine this scheme with all of the other issues you open yourself up to some horrendous defense even with all of that talent the Bills possessed. Blitzing the linebackers without really affecting the play are the reasons why the Rex Ryan Bills defense had trouble defending the middle of the field. The linebackers who were in their first year had trouble reading, recognizing and processing information quickly.

But that is not to say that the scheme doesn’t work! Obviously Rex has led top ten defenses most of his career as you can see below. But when you run this defense you must have certain kind of players to run it. Athletic players will only take you so far in this defense…

As good as Bradham and Brown have been in years past they were liabilities in this defense, but not because of their athletic ability. It took them time to digest the playbook. Time to get used to the checks, time to get used to reading the offensive keys etc. As you may have noticed it is a very difficult defense. As I have highlighted part of the problem is the complexity of the scheme. But that goes hand in hand with execution. If it is a complex scheme and players are struggling to learn it then they will struggle on the field. That was pretty evident really early in the season.

Lets compare the two LB units from 2015 and the 2009-2010 teams. After looking at some of the linebacker advanced statistics from Rex Ryan’s 2009 and 2010 season (1st and 2nd years that players were in his scheme) I didn’t see many differences between the linebacker cores athletic abilities and their roles in the defense.

The backers from the Jets 2009 and 2010 defenses actually rushed more than the Bills backers in 2015. They got a few more sacks but overall the numbers were pretty similar. If there wasn’t much difference in stats and athletic abilities, where are the differences? Well first of all, Bart Scott had been in the Rex Ryan defense for many years. Scott had played the Will backer in a Rex Ryan coordinated defense from 2005-2008 in Baltimore. Bart took over the Will LB position in New York in 2009, Ryan’s first year as head coach. So Bart was very familiar with the complexity of this defense. He was a guy that could get the defense and more importantly the linebackers in position to succeed. Those guys knew where they needed to get to in their zone, they knew what coverage they needed to check to. This was extremely important because LBs are the glue of the defense. They must know the defensive linemen’s assignments because it affects them. But they must also know the defensive backs’ assignments because those responsibilities affect the LB core. Scott was the field general that this scheme needed. The other linebacker from 2009 and 2010 was a young David Harris. He primarily manned the Mike LB position.

In 2009 David Harris was in his first year in a Rex Ryan defense, but his third year as a pro. Having Scott there as a mentor really helped Harris grow and learn the scheme. But that is not to say that Harris a high draft pick didn’t struggle. In the run game Harris was the 33rd rated inside backer (5.9%) at run stop percentage (% responsible for a stop/loss in the run game) according to PFF. In pass rush productivity he was the 13th best rated LB grading out at 10.1 (combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush). Finally in coverage he was the 18th best backer grading as a 11.1(how many receptions he allows as primary man in coverage). How does that compare to Brown this year? He was rated 32nd overall in run stop percentage with 6.4, pass rush productivity he was 32nd grading out at 6.8 and finally in pass coverage he was rated at 4th overall grading out at 12.9. All depicted below….

Brown ranked similar to Harris in run stop percentage, worse in pass rushing and much better in pass coverage. Why did Preston struggle so much in the run game and pass rushing this year? In the run game I think most of the issues were not having Kyle Williams in front of him to keep blockers off of him. By issues I am primarily speaking about statistics. His stats definitely suffered this year. You can argue the scheme caused our linebackers to struggle. But let’s compare this year to last year. How do you think Brown graded out last year in Schwartz’ defense? Brown was ranked 27th overall in run stop %, 33rd in pass rush productivity, and was #1 in pass coverage last year. As mentioned earlier, in 2015 Brown was rated 32nd overall in run stop %, pass rush productivity he was 32nd, and finally in pass coverage he was rated 4th. So are his struggles a result of the injury to Kyle Williams or the scheme? Or is Preston Brown the player that his advanced stats depict? I’ll leave that opinion up to you….Lets take a look at Bradham.

In 2014, Bradham was #21 in run stop %, #2 in pass rushing productivity, and #4 in pass coverage last year. In 2015 Nigel Bradham was 25th in run stop %, 20th in pass rush productivity and 4th in pass coverage. So you can see that the only significant dip was in pass rush productivity. Bradham was injured this year and he rushed the passer 30 more times this year than last year. Nigel had 14 total pressures (sacks+QB hits+QB hurries) last year and 9 total pressures this year in 11 1/2 games. So as you can see Bradham had his struggles mainly in the run game this year. Whether the Bills bring Bradham back or not they will need a guy who is able to rush the passer and stop the run with better efficiency if they plan on running the same scheme.

Lawson is a wild card because of the multiple positions he plays but here are his 2014 stats vs. 2015 stats. In 2014 he was considered a defensive end and he didn’t take 50% of the snaps so his stats aren’t significant enough to report in my opinion. In 2015, Manny was 16th in run stop %, 29th in pass rush productivity and #3 in pass coverage.

In the pass game I think the Bills will need to adjust their scheme this off-season. Rex and the players bit off a little more than they could chew. Rex tried utilizing the massive amount of talent in ways that defenses haven’t before. The guys struggled, so some tweaks will need to be made.

Such as blitzing a guy in Brown 143 times when he doesn’t blitz well is not smart. Brown ran the 40 yard dash in 4.72 so you know he really doesn’t have the speed to get to the QB. Not to sound like a broken record but having Kyle would’ve allowed Brown not to blitz as often, but who knows.

The Bills’ linebacker core wasn’t athletically challenged. They have the physical abilities to play in this scheme. Where they ultimately need to improve is in the playbook. Guys need more time in the playbook. By mastering the playbook the on field production and efficiency will vastly improve.

So where does this leave us at the linebacker position? Last year they were getting stats and making plays and were a top five defense. This year, in a scheme that makes linebackers the play-makers, are there any on our roster?

Changes to the LB core

There are many questions that surround this defense as a whole. Mainly the direction that they will go and who they will let go. If the Bills cut Mario and let Bradham walk that will possibly change the defensive philosophy. I think Bradham is going to get a decent raise. Too much for the Bills to take on when they have to re-sign Glenn and or Incognito. Will the Bills become more of a complete two gap team then? If so, those kind of alignments need a different set of linebackers.

Look at the odd man alignment below and try to picture where the linebackers will play. Manny Lawson (S or W), Jerry Hughes (R) and Preston Brown (M or W) can be LBs in a traditional two gap system and I am mainly speaking in regards to an odd man front such as a 3-4.

When the Bills are in a 4-3 reduced (Below) defense, who will be the SAM or the WILL? Lawson can play either or. But depending on where you put Lawson one of the LB spots will be vacant. Hughes will be the R in a reduced front so you are still short a LB. Think about these scenarios: Keep Lawson at Sam and leave Preston at Mike and bring in a WILL. Keep Lawson at Sam, move Preston back to Will where he excelled last year and bring in a veteran MIKE LB. Or do they keep Lawson at Sam, Brown at MIKE and draft or bring in a WILL? There are many more scenarios but these are just a few that the scouting department, Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley must examine. Especially before free agency and the draft.

The Bills had trouble defending the middle of the field for many reasons. As explored in this article the linebackers were part of that problem. They were a talented bunch physically but talent will only take you so far. Being able to play fast is dependent upon players knowing the play-book inside and out. Players in this defense must be well versed in the playbook. It was made public that some of the guys were not able to learn the playbook well enough to play fast. That is fine, the guys that will be back will have the whole off-season to digest the playbook. I think they will be fully prepared mentally.

Preston Brown, Manny Lawson and even Jerry Hughes to an extent will be much better in this scheme next year. They will be counted on to produce like linebackers should in this scheme. Injuries will not be a valid excuse, there is enough talent on that defense to overcome the loss of a few players. The scheme will also not be an excuse, the coaches will make their tweaks and the player will have to execute the defense. They are professionals and should carry themselves like it.

I am not surprised that the Bills are going to overhaul the defense. They are going to let a bunch of players walk and maybe even cut a few. But they must replace those guys with players that fit the defensive philosophy of Rex Ryan. Doug Whaley and Rex must put together another successful off-season by bringing an influx of smart, modestly priced veterans in and then adding play-makers at the linebacker position and on the defense as a whole in the draft. Rex and Whaley will need to address the linebacker position this off-season there is no doubt about that. Many believe that they have to in the first round. But that is dependent on the direction Rex is going with the scheme, what players will be brought in, where the LBs on the roster will play etc.

With all that has gone wrong on defense. The scheme, the lack of execution, the players speaking out against their coach. I firmly believe in the men running the organization. Doug Whaley has shown that he can draft and bring in talent that fits the defensive scheme. They have a head coach that has always coached up really good defenses. It is ok to be disappointed in the 2015 season, but they will get this defense back on track and it begins at the linebacker position.










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