* For now, Revis remains in a class of his own. But our prediction for the 2015 season: Stephon Gilmore will prove to be one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks and the cornerstone of the Bills’ defense

By Andy Benoit
August 25, 2015

Since hiring Rex Ryan, the Bills have seen their normally low-key press conferences bloated with an influx of media, with many a reporter making the cross-state trek from New York City. At some point, Ryan is going to make news by declaring that cornerback Stephon Gilmore is in the same class as Darrelle Revis. About a month into the job, he was already characterizing the four-year pro as a shutdown corner. “The guy’s an elite guy, no question about it,” Ryan said.

Many will dismiss Ryan’s prognosis at first. The arrogant reporters in the room will snicker; the obtuse ones will tweet it and forget it; the insightful ones will make a note somewhere but not re-evaluate it until Week 10, when Ryan and the Bills travel to MetLife Stadium to face the Jets on a nationally televised Thursday night stage.

By then, Ryan will have talked up Gilmore several more times, and people will start to wonder if maybe this really isn’t a case of the bombastic head coach just spouting off. Gilmore will have played well through the first half of the season. On that Thursday night, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will make the Revis comparisons one of the broadcast’s key storylines. A camera will isolate on each cornerback. And that’s when people will realize Ryan is right about Gilmore.

Or, he’s right enough. Maybe Revis, one of the best cover corners in history and the best of his era, is technically peerless. But the larger point—that Gilmore is an elite, shutdown artist—will prove to be true. Gilmore is long and strong. He understands angles and timing. He’s fluid and can contort and readjust his body in confined areas. Last season, he was impermeable in both man and zone. That was in a No. 4 ranked Bills defense whose strength was its secondary.

Rex Ryan is a great changeup from predecessors Doug Marrone, Chan Gailey, Mike Mularkey and Dick Jauron—a Mt. Rushmore of boredom that rivals only the actual Mt. Rushmore for the stoniest four faces in a public spotlight.

The secondary must remain the strength under Ryan. He’ll play more man coverage—at least with his outside corners. He needs a superstar man-to-man corner, for many reasons. For starters, Ryan does a lot with blitzes. The main objective of a blitz is to dictate the action early in the down. If the quarterback is being forced to throw sooner than he wants, defensive backs must be right up on the receivers to take away those immediate throws.

Ryan’s scheme also aims to take away certain sections of the field. Locking down a single receiver does this naturally, given that 99 percent of offensive play designs are built for receivers to finish their routes spaced away from one another. Many of Ryan’s tactics are specifically designed for having 10 defenders cover a divided field. This creates a defensive swarming effect, especially between the painted field numbers.

Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore. (Joe Amon/Getty Images)

All coverage concepts are tied to a pass rush design. There’s an illusion that Ryan’s pass rushes are endless. But he really only deploys a certain amount of different pressures—they just come out of an array of different personnel groupings. Offenses will see the same blitzes from the Bills week after week. But those blitzes will sometimes feature linebackers, other times safeties, occasionally even an inside corner. These players will all perform the same concepts, just from different parts of the field. This is called “cross-training,” and it’s what gives Ryan’s scheme its multiplicity.

The only players not regularly part of the cross-training are the outside corners. They’re usually lined up too far from the quarterback to be viable rushers. Having those corners play zone would require teaching all the other defenders those same zone concepts. (Zones only work as a collective effort.) That’s doable, but perfecting them takes time. That’s time away from Ryan’s pressure concepts and related inside matchup zone concepts—which are more intimidating to an offense anyway. So instead, Ryan plays his outside corners on an island, narrowing the focus but seemingly widening the scope of schematic possibilities for the rest of the defenders.

When Ryan has had a dominant man-to-man corner, his scheme has flourished. (Last season with the Jets, his scheme vanished due to a staggering paucity of resources at the position.) That said, it’s fair to wonder if Ryan’s scheme is really necessary in Buffalo: Sure, this defense showed positive signs in 2013 under coordinator Mike Pettine, a former D coordinator with the Jets who installed a variation of Ryan’s system. But when Pettine took the head job in Cleveland last year, Jim Schwartz, a longtime subscriber to 4-3 coverage-based defense, installed his scheme in Buffalo. And it worked very well. Better than Pettine’s scheme, in fact.

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With a strong four-man pass rush bookended by Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams, and filled inside by Kyle Williams and budding star Marcell Dareus, Schwartz didn’t need to blitz. Through a variety of man and zone concepts, he placed more bodies in coverage. Those bodies played well enough for the D to rank fourth in yards and points allowed. Ryan is a phenomenal schemer and defensive leader. But how much better, really, can a No. 4 defense become? Would a jump to No. 1 end this franchise’s league-worst 15-year playoff drought?

Generally, the only dynamic way to improve an already high-level defense is to instill in that defense more big-play opportunities. Force turnovers and generate sacks. But under Schwartz the Bills ranked third in turnovers and first in sacks. In Ryan’s two best years with the Jets (2009 and 2010) they never ranked higher than eighth in either category. Turnovers aren’t as readily available in Ryan’s system because linebackers and safeties are often vacating passing lanes to rush the quarterback. And cornerbacks, who are in press-man all the time, have their eyes on their receiver instead of the ball. Ryan’s scheme isn’t about creating big defensive plays, it’s about creating mayhem. From mayhem comes incompletions and punts. Those 2009 and 2010 Jets led the league both years in lowest completion percentage allowed.

This isn’t a criticism of the Bills’ hiring of Ryan; the organization was blindsided by Doug Marrone’s departure and Ryan was one of the premier available coaches. And, from a PR standpoint, he’s a great changeup from predecessors Marrone, Chan Gailey, Mike Mularkey and Dick Jauron—a Mt. Rushmore of boredom that rivals only the actual Mt. Rushmore for the stoniest four faces in a public spotlight.

But in order for this team’s story to end differently under Ryan, the Bills will have to do more on offense. Ironically, Ryan inherits the same conundrum here that plagued him in New York: an offense that can run the ball but must work around its quarterback. The Bills aren’t even entirely sure know who that quarterback will be. Too bad Stephon Gilmore can’t throw.

Bills Nickel Package

1. The sense you get from the Bills is that Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who comes over from San Francisco, are not very high on EJ Manuel. That’s a damning commentary on the third-year pro’s passing ability. Because Manuel offers mobility at the quarterback position, a valuable dimension for an innovative ground game designer such as Roman. Think what that would do as part of a group featuring the terrifying speed and misdirection prowess of LeSean McCoy and Percy Harvin. In fact, given the dimension that a read-option element could bring to Buffalo’s ground game, don’t be surprised if Tyrod Taylor, the untested 26-year-old ex-Ravens backup, winds up taking the most snaps at quarterback this season.

2. The Bills need a big year from left tackle Cordy Glenn and an immediate impact from third-round rookie John Miller, who was drafted to stabilize the left guard situation. If those guys can hold up in one-on-one, the Bills can give chip-blocking help to right tackle Seantrel Henderson and then spread the field with four wide receivers. They’d be dangerous out of this set. Sammy Watkins and Harvin are both horizontal and vertical threats. Watkins can run the full route tree. So can Robert Woods, who has excellent crispness at the intermediate range. The fourth receiver would be Marquise Goodwin, a track star (literally) who can lift coverages. Overall, it’s a staggering amount of collective speed, particularly when you consider that the man who would be giving Henderson the chip block help is LeSean McCoy. He makes for a pretty fast check-down receiver late in the play.

3. In the scenario above, you get back to the same problem, though: who throws to these speedsters? Roman will have to design simple passes that get his weapons the ball within five yards of the line of scrimmage. That’s why the misdirection element of Harvin and the underneath shiftiness of Woods are so crucial. It’s also why ex-Dolphins tight end Charles Clay was at the top of Roman’s offseason priority list. Clay’s versatility diversifies an offense while also simplifying it. He’s a ball-handling threat out of the backfield, in the slot, split out wide and, of course, out of his natural line of scrimmage tight end position. And he presents opportunities to run a hurry-up. If defenses choose to treat Clay as a wide receiver—which many have; in 2013, the Patriots shadowed him with star corner Aqib Talib—Buffalo can repeatedly hand the ball to McCoy against a lighter box.

4. There are two key dark horse figures in Ryan’s defensive scheme. One is inside corner Nickell Robey. The third-year pro is excellent in coverage and might be the best slot blitzer in the NFL. The other is safety Aaron Williams. He’s grown more comfortable in space over the course of his five-year career and has the ability to match up to certain receivers in man coverage.

5. The second-round selection of cornerback Ronald Darby was a curious one. Gilmore has the No. 1 corner spot locked down. Robey is a long-term solution for the slot. At the No. 2 spot, Leodis McKelvin played very well last season (prior to fracturing his ankle in mid-November), often operating on an island. (He might miss the first bit of the season but is expected to return.) And previous No. 4 corner Corey Graham was decent, at times even terrific, when pressed into starting duties. McKelvin’s contract runs through 2016, Graham’s through 2017. Both have annual cap numbers under $5 million. Robey recently signed a new extension: two years, $4.1 million (a bargain). So why did GM Doug Whaley invest a second-round pick on another corner? Even if Graham becomes a safety, a second-round pick on another corner is an awfully large expenditure.

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