Not that Rex Ryan needed any help in his first game as the Bills' coach, but he certainly had history on his side in Buffalo's regular-season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Rex had his father Buddy, one of the greatest defensive coordinators in the game's long history, in attendance. And the late Lou Saban, head coach of the 1964–65 teams that won the American Football League championships with outstanding defense, was honored on the team's Wall of Fame at halftime.
The defense Bills fans saw throughout the 27–14 win over the Colts lived up to the ones Saban put on the field decades ago and came close to what we once saw from Buddy and the Bears in the 1980s. A team loaded with talent was taken over the top by Rex's defensive acumen, and Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck was suffocated by it all in an impressive opener for Buffalo.
Luck, who led the league with 40 touchdown passes a season ago and was supposed to reach another level with the additions of running back Frank Gore and receiver Andre Johnson, could do very little against Ryan's schemes. Luck completed 26 of 49 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was hit five times, took two sacks and was under the gun throughout the game.
Ryan knew exactly what he would be facing in the Colts' quarterback, and he was ready.
“We were mixing everything,” Ryan said of his approach against Luck. “It was tough, because we had a pretty decent player we'd never played. So we mixed it up a little bit on him. That kid, he gets the ball out of his hand quick, he’s smart. That was real competition out there. But yeah, you mix it up, we mix personnel groupings and things like that. I thought the guys for the most part did a good job, but we did have some blown assignments in there. Some mental things where we just didn’t get the calls out. But that’s a great problem to have, and we can fix that with the volume in practice.”
No question about that. It was the second straight season in which the Colts found themselves on the wrong end of a 24–0 deficit to open the year, and there was no near-comeback like Luck almost engineered against the Broncos in Week 1 of 2014, when he caught fire with two touchdown passes late in the fourth quarter of a 31–24 loss. This time, the Colts didn't score until there was 54 seconds left in the third quarter, when Luck hit second-year receiver Donte Moncrief with a two-yard touchdown pass to end a 16-play, 65-yard drive that took over eight minutes. The Colts' only other touchdown came with six minutes left in the game, when Luck hit tight end Dwayne Allen with a six-yard touchdown pass.
Beyond that, nothing went right for Luck, who was harassed constantly by Buffalo's defensive front. Under all that pressure, he threw two interceptions and came close to more. Buffalo's tight coverage ensured that his receivers wouldn't get much after the catch, and T.Y. Hilton, Luck's primary target, left the game with a knee injury after catching seven passes on 14 targets for 88 yards. Gore finished with 31 yards on just eight carries, and Johnson caught two passes for 45 yards—not the contributions the Colts were looking for from their new guys, but this was more about Ryan's defense than anything else.
A scary thought: Buffalo did this without tackle Marcell Dareus, who just signed a new seven-year, $103.2 million contract with $60 million guaranteed, but missed this contest due to a one-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
"The first couple plays were positive, we had it going and then it was self-inflicted negatives," Luck said. "Penalties sort of shut that drive off, we would get going again and then throw an interception and shut that drive off. Broken record, sort of. They forced us into those errors. They are a good team and they made it hard for us to do things that we wanted to do. That’s a heck of a front four and they beat us pretty badly."
Not that Buffalo's defense was filled with slappies before Ryan showed up. They already had perhaps the NFL's most formidable front four, and they finished second to the Seahawks in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive rankings in 2014. But wherever he goes, Ryan takes his bravado and belief with him, and it was made very plain in the season opener.
Next up? The Patriots, who travel to Buffalo next Sunday. The Bills will be up against an even stiffer challenge next week, but here's one observer who's convinced that this defense will be ready for whatever it faces. Ryan will get to New England tape soon enough.
As he said after the game, "After I have a couple of beers, then I’ll be thinking about it."