“Merged” Systems: Do You Buy it?

Rex Ryan was again in front of the microphone for the media this week at One Bills Drive. The Head Coach discussed the recent hirings of Quality Control Coach Kathryn Smith, Assistant Defensive Backs Coach Ed Reed and his brother Rob Ryan as an Assistant Head Coach/defense.

The press conference was very interesting for many reasons. Rex opened up about each of the hires. How he met Kathryn, what responsibilities she will carry. How the addition of Ed Reed will benefit the team in the preparation aspect of the game. Even how his brother and the current staff will all pitch in to create the best defense that they can.

The most intriguing portion of the press conference for me was when Rex was asked about the “merging” of the two defensive systems. In an interview with Mike and Mike last week Rex said that he tried to “merge” the defensive systems and it failed. When I heard that last week, I have to say that I was skeptical. I felt like it was an excuse. When asked about it at the press conference on Friday, Rex used the first Pats game as an example on how he “merged” the systems :

We play New England for instance, we ran nothing but the defense that was played the year before. And you know, I knew better, I thought going in the first game, that is not how you play this guy.

That definitely raised some eyebrows, well it did for me anyways….

Many believe that Rex didn’t try and “merge” the systems. They think that he was stubborn and didn’t play to the teams’ strengths. Do you think Rex “merged” the systems, or is it just another excuse? I want to analyze that topic from two angles. From an analytics perspective and of course with film.

What the Numbers Say

The numbers are just one tool that can be used to analyze the team. The chart below breaks down the snap counts of the defensive line in 2014 and 2015 courtesy of Pro Football Focus. It definitely shows you how different the defensive game-plans were against the Pats.

Your average fan will look at that New England quote, look at these rush snap numbers and snaps in pass coverage for the defensive line last year versus this year and call Ryans bluff. Immediately say, Rex is just making up another excuse on why his team didn’t perform. When you look at the defensive game-plan simply from a numbers perspective, you can see that the 2014 and the 2015 philosophies were different. Schwartz wanted to play a simple, coverage based defense. He rushed and relied on his front four to create pressure. He barely dropped his defensive line into coverage. In two games against the Pats last year he dropped the “cold front” into coverage only 2 times! In the first game against the Pats in 2015, Rex dropped the “cold front” into coverage 14 times! So, is Rex skewing the truth a little? Yeah, based on this chart you could conclude that.

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF). ****Kyle Williams did not play in the second game due to injury. Courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF). ****Kyle Williams did not play in the second game due to injury.

When you look at the numbers, it is hard to agree with him. Based on the numbers how could he run the exact same defense as last year? But, Rex expounded on what he meant:

I realize that we never played a 9 tech every snap and didn’t rush the passer 100 % of the time.”

There’s some truth to that, if you look at the pass coverage numbers in the first game you can see he dropped the “cold front” into coverage quite a bit. Did he try to play coverage and rush four, by using the wide 9 technique? Yes, in that first game he did. Did he mix in his defense? Yes, absolutely. So I think it is safe to say that he truly did try to merge the schemes. But was rushing four and playing coverage, a Jim Schwartz approach effective in that first game? No. So his plan to rely on the front four back-fired and they got lit up.

As a defensive coordinator, you have to ask yourself do you blitz Brady or do you play coverage? You have to disguise and mix up what you are doing versus him.

The chart below is how Brady performed against the blitz. I think it is easy to categorize Schwartz’ scheme as coverage based, where as Rex’ scheme is more pressure/disguise based. So try and look at the following numbers from those two mindsets. Look at how the QB performed in the games against each of those philosophies.

In two games against the Bills in 2014 the quarterbacks of the Patriots were not blitzed much, so their production output was simply lower against the blitz. Well, in the first game in 2015 the Bills were cut up by Tom Brady, the Bills pressured him more than they had in 2014. They blitzed him on 17 drop-backs and he completed 68.8 percent for 123 yards and 1 TD. Keep in mind he dropped back 61 times, so 72% of the time Brady was not blitzed. So the rush four, coverage philosophy didn’t work in the first meeting of 2015. Why? I’ll get to that later..

Per Pro Football Focus Per Pro Football Focus

Blitzes don’t tell the whole story about Rex’ defense, because he isn’t necessarily a blitz happy play-caller. His scheme is built on pressure not blitzing.

In the two games against the Pats in 2014 the coverage based scheme created 21 total pressures. In the first game against the Pats this year, the “merged” defensive system created 12 total pressures. In the end, that game-pan of not blitzing, hurt the Bills. Brady was pressured, but it didn’t affect their pass game much. The Bills surrendered 343 yards and two TDs.

Look at the second game, where the game-plan was more to Rex’ strengths. He learned from the first match-up and went with more of his style. The defense played really well in the 20-13 loss. In the post game press conference Rex was asked why they played so well in that game? His response was:

…..quite honestly it was more true to playing Bills defense, to play our defense, and I think we understand that a little better than in week two.

What does he mean by “Bills defense?” Rex means “his defense”. A well disguised , pressure based defense. One that created 27 pressures that night! Twenty seven pressures when he only blitzed on 11 drop-backs, shows that the Rex Ryan defense was present and effective that night. That pressure total exceeded the total pressures created by the Jim Schwartz led defense all of last year. Something else worth mentioning was that Mario only played 42 out of 69 snaps in that game because of an injury (PFF).

As you can see the numbers paint very different pictures. People will look at how often the Bills “cold front” dropped into coverage and say Rex is full of it. He didn’t run the defense they did last year and there is some truth to that. BUT, you can not just look at those numbers in terms of how many times the “cold front” rushed vs. dropped into coverage. You need to look at it from the perspective of the game-plan. When he says they played the same defense against the Pats in week two, he means that they played a lot of coverage. How they run coverages, such as “rat” coverages etc. They attempted to create pressure by primarily rushing four and not blitzing. Did it work? I don’t think that game-plan worked. How could you say that a coverage based, rush four scheme was effective in that game? It didn’t work for many reasons. But the coaches had to do something, and that something was running zone blitzes and dropping defensive lineman into coverage. Teams zone blitz and drop lineman into coverage to counter quick, timing based pass games. They want to confuse, and interrupt the timing of the QB. Compare the week two game-plan to the second match-up versus the Pats and you can see that when Rex utilizes his defense and his philosophies they are much more effective against the Pats. That was one of the main reasons the Bills hired him. Now that the numbers are analyzed, lets take a look at the validity of how the Bills approached the Pats in week two with film. Lets see if the Bills utilized a lot of the same philosophies as last year. Specifically the wide 9 techniques and a coverage based scheme.

What the Film says

The numbers show that the Bills indeed attempted to play coverage against the Pats in their first meeting. But numbers can be deceiving. So I went back and looked at the film to see if Rex did indeed merge the systems. I wanted to see if Rex actually used some wide 9 and if he really relied on the front four to create pressure, because numbers didn’t really paint that picutre. So I was skeptical before I started watching the film.

So I broke down all of the pass attempts in the first half of the Bills vs. Patriots game just to get an idea of Rex’ approach. Surprisingly, out of 27 pass attempts, the Bills were in the four defensive lineman, wide 9 look for 12 plays. I classified the alignment as wide 9 based on their alignment and the fact that only four defensive lineman rushed the passer. There was only one other play where the Bills were in a wide 9 and they didn’t rush four, instead they ran a zone blitz so I put that in the zone blitz category. When the Bills were in a wide 9 alignment the Pats gained 90 yards out of the 158 total yards through the air in the first half.

Here is a wide 9 alignment. Ball came out quick huh?

Rex threw some of his 3-4 and hybrid alignments also.

Now that you have an idea of how Rex tried attacking the Pats in that first meeting based on the numbers and film would you agree with him? Did he play a lot of the same schemes and philosophies of the defense from 2014 in that Pats game? I believe so. I know it is only half of the game but even from that sample you can get an idea that he really did try merging systems. After the first game a reporter asked Rex the following question:

Q: Was your plan on defense to play more coverage than attack?

A: Yeah, we were going to put it on our front four. We thought we had an advantage there. Ball came out a lot of times and if you turn some people loose…Regardless of the coverage. We were mixing in two man, a bunch of different things. But shoot it’s to their credit. You know I’ve been on the wrong end of it a few times when the kid gets hot and Brady was hot and if you make a mistake on top of it he kills you.-Courtesy of the Buffalo News

The Bills had no answers for the Patriots offense that day. Nothing went their way and the reason for that was the quick trigger of Brady. I went back and looked at the film from that game, and timed Brady on every pass from the first half. I then compared it to the 2nd match-up between these two teams. Check out these statistics. The chart below shows the completions, attempts, yards gained, TDs and the average snap to throw time. As you can see Brady got rid of the ball in an average of 1.96 seconds! That is amazing. Even on some of the deep throws he would take three steps, get the ball out right around 2 seconds and give the WR a ball that he could run under. My theory after researching the numbers and watching the film is that Brady was able to see the decipher the defensive coverage easily. The fact that Rex played coverage, didn’t really bring much pressure and couldn’t really disguise too much because he was trying to rely on the “cold front” allowed Brady to get rid of the ball quickly.

So how did the defense fare in the second game versus Brady? The defense passed the eye test in that meeting. Brady was holding onto the ball, getting pressured, taking hits, constantly throwing balls away. He was under duress unlike anything we have seen in a long time. As I mentioned before, in that second game Brady was pressured a total of 27 times (sacks+QB hits+QB hurries) according to PFF. What was the difference? Rex played his game, he ran a defense that dictated the tempo. He didn’t just let Brady pick him apart. He was able to mix up pressures, create simulated pressures by using odd defensive front alignments. With no Kyle Williams, Rex was using more 3 down lineman sets which caused confusion to Brady because he didn’t know where the 4th rusher was coming from. With the defense being disguised better, Brady was forced to hold onto the ball longer. In that first half he attempted 23 of his 40 passes, only completed 12 for 154 yards and 1 TD. His snap to throw average was almost one second longer.


Take a look at what the Bills did by using different hybrid defensive fronts, more to Rex’ liking.

The Bills are in a 3-2-6 defensive alignment. Brady thinks one of the LBs is blitzing, instead they double Gronk. He has to dump it to Amendola who is stopped short of the first down.

The Bills are in a 3-2-6 defensive alignment. Brady thinks one of the LBs is blitzing, instead they double Gronk. He has to dump it to Amendola who is stopped short of the first down.

Awesome disguise by the Bills. Brady has to get rid of it before the routes develop.

Bills are in a hybrid defense. But Hughes, Bryant, Williams and Lawson appear to be the four pass rushers. The two ILBs show double A gap blitzes. Can be confusing though, because Lawson usually drops into coverage.

Bills are in a 3-2-6. Another odd man front that created pressure by only bringing three rushers. The ILB doubles the crossing WR, which totally takes away the primary WR.

After doing a ton of research and many hours looking at the film, I would agree with Rex Ryan. I believe that he honestly did try to merge two systems. It was pretty evident in the first Pats game. As the year went on injuries started to mount up and the team struggled. I do think he began transitioning to a traditional Rex Ryan scheme. Not only is his scheme completely different from what the Bills had last year, but the scheme or game-plan changes on a weekly basis. Much like the systems the Pats have in place, a Rex Ryan defense likes to create new game-plans every week. They don’t keep it simple, or do the same thing every week like a Schwartz led defense. Not that there is anything wrong with that, his philosophy works well. But as we saw early in the season, when Rex tried merging the two systems, and calling games in ways that he was not really used to, the defense struggled.

Hopefully for Bills fans, Rex can get the right guys for his system. It sucks that this year was a failure, because this team was talented. Too many things that could go wrong did and the season ended with everyone looking to the defensive side of the ball with a ton of questions.

Rex concluded the press conference on Friday by saying:

I’m a competitor, above everything else I’m a competitor. And I believe in myself, but I believe in this team. I believe in the coaches I have, I believe in the players I have. And to put, you know hey, I’m linked with something that under achieved that bothers me.

That chip on his shoulder and the fact that he feels that he has to prove himself all over again gets me excited for next year. The 2016 season will make or break his career as a Head Coach. I started out this piece trying to prove him wrong, but I couldn’t find significant evidence to do so. So I guess I buy “it”, for now……

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6 comments on “Merged” Systems: Do You Buy it?

  1. eric says:

    Nice legwork by you. For us casual fans, you really gave us much better understanding of what Rex was doing on those two Sundays.Great perspective!! Thanks

  2. Erik Turner says:

    Appreciate you taking the time to comment! Perspective is all I want to bring to the Bills fan base. Trying to see the game differently, this game is soo complex. It isn’t as easy as some think. hahaha

  3. Ben says:

    Great analysis and a solid comparison of what is beneath the numbers to get to what is really going on.

  4. Erik Turner says:

    Thanks! Its only a sample. But I was trying to test the statements Rex made. As a person who has played, coached and studies the game I believe that he tried to merge systems.

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