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Blanket Coverage: What happened to Rex Ryan’s defense in Buffalo?

In this week's Blanket Coverage, Greg Bedard shines a light on the Bills defensive woes under Rex Ryan. Plus, a message for Bruce Arians and why Packers fans shouldn't go nuts over their new tight end. 

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It was one of last season’s great mysteries. How did Rex Ryan—widely regarded by opposing offensive coordinators as the brightest defensive mind in the league—preside over such an ineffective Bills defense? Buffalo plummeted from fourth in the league in yards allowed in 2014 under then defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to 19th in Ryan’s first season.

Last season is even more confounding when you consider previous first seasons for the defenses run not only by Ryan, but by his former assistants in New York, Bob Sutton and Mike Pettine.

When Ryan was hired by New York in 2009, the Jets’ defense went from 16th in yards allowed and 18th in points allowed to first in both categories. In ’13, Sutton’s first year as Kansas City’s defensive coordinator, the Chiefs improved from 25th in points allowed to fifth. When Pettine joined the Bills in the same role in ’13, Buffalo went from 26th in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed to 20th in both categories. Even as head coach of the woeful Browns, Pettine was able to help improve Cleveland from 23rd in points allowed to ninth in ’14.

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Yet the Bills regressed mightily in Ryan’s first season, including going from 54 sacks under Schwartz to just 21, the fewest in franchise history. Making it even worse was the constant bellyaching by players as the defense went down the tubes, highlighted by Mario Williams’s complaints about being asked to drop into coverage. Others commented that the scheme was too complicated.

There’s no question that Ryan’s scheme is complicated in appearance—which is part of the reason the best quarterbacks have such a tough time against it—but it’s actually rather simple in terms of verbiage and basic concepts. Where it can get complicated is in the checks and adjustments against formations. But if the players are open-minded and put in the work, it can be very user-friendly. (I wrote about the scheme when I visited Pettine in ’14.)

“The verbiage itself is very easy, but you have to understand formations, and sometimes that comes with off-the-field study, that comes with preparation,” Ryan said at last week’s league meetings in Boca Raton. “The ironic thing is once you play in this system, you can ask any of the guys [that played under Ryan], you don’t want to play in another system once you get it down and dialed in. That’s why it becomes great, you take advantage of the player’s mind as well. If you just want to line up and play physically without doing the mental preparation, you’re not going to be as successful.”

The biggest problem, which Ryan now admits, is that he failed to lobby general manager Doug Whaley to bring in players that already knew his scheme. When Ryan arrived in New York, he brought in players at all three levels (defensive lineman Marques Douglas, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard) who had been with Ryan in Baltimore and helped translate the scheme to the newcomers.

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Perhaps the current Bills personnel overrated the success of the ’14 unit; perhaps Ryan’s own bravado (yeah, that’s never been a problem before) didn’t let him see the possible bumps in the road without helper players. In the end, the Bills didn’t bring in any new players at the key spots: edge rusher, middle linebacker and free safety. And the transition was a failure.

“I think that [Schwartz] defense was an easier system mentally so when you try to challenge them, maybe … I don’t know... I just don’t think it was near as smooth as I had hoped,” Ryan said.

With virtually no money to spend on free agency (“We’re in the blue-light specials,” Ryan said of Buffalo’s $7.3 million in cap space), the Bills haven’t brought in any Ryan veterans this season, either. He’s banking on another year in the system for his current players (minus a malcontent in Mario Williams, who was released and signed with Miami).

“We’ve had a year of experience now so everybody is ready to go now,” Ryan said. “I know it took us a little time, but we’re ready for it now.”

Ryan also brought in two big coaching staff additions to help the Bills’ defense rebound: his twin brother Rob, as assistant head coach/defense, and soon-to-be Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed as assistant defensive backs coach.

“There’s nobody, and this is anybody in this league, there’'s nobody that puts the time in that he puts in,” Rex said of Rob. “He’s not going to be surprised by anything that the opponent does. I’m just telling you if he has to go back two years on tape, that’s what he does. He’s been great for a lot of our young coaches to see. [Rob’s presence] is almost like a mentorship as well, even though my brother doesn’t see himself that way. He thinks he’s like 18. I think it’s great for us.”

Rob Ryan is actually from the Bill Belichick school of defense, but he’ll bring fresh eyes and ideas from his stints as a defensive coordinator for the Raiders, Browns, Cowboys and Saints. And the Bills’ safeties should have no problems with their assignments under Reed, who knows Ryan’s scheme from his days with the Ravens and Jets.

“When we had him his last year with the Jets, he was the pied piper. They all followed him and they all learned the game,” Ryan said. “That’s why I know this guy is going to be a great coach and I would not be shocked if Ed Reed ends up being a head coach in five years. That’s how quick this dude is going to rise. He’s teaching guys how to study tape, how to get things, playing the game. We have to do a better job of that.”

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Settle down

Free agency doesn’t need to be tweaked: Sorry to disagree with former boss Peter King, but I just don’t think there needs to be a free-agent visiting period added to the schedule so a team like the Texans can avoid spending $37 million on a guy (Brock Osweiler) the coaches have never met. For one thing, no one put a gun to the Texans’ head to give Osweiler that contract in the opening hours of free agency. They very well could have flown him in or gone to him (as Rex Ryan famously did with Bart Scott in 2009) as free agency started to size him up in person. They didn’t do that. Also, from rookie contracts to franchise tags, don’t NFL teams already have enough leverage? Do we really need to give them another tool so they don’t unwisely spend their gobs of money?

I’m sure Osweiler’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, is just fine with the system. He gets to keep all suitors involved in a bidding war, without anyone having his client in for a visit. Can you imagine if Osweiler visited five teams and one of them started leaking bad stories about his visit, muddying the bidding waters?

Even if there was a free agency visiting period, if I’m Sexton and had an in-demand, first-day free agent like Osweiler, there is no way I would let him visit any teams. My response to visit requests: “Go watch the tape, call anybody you want and then get back to me with a number.”

Sure, a visitation period might keep some teams from making a mistake, but boohoo, I really feel for NFL teams.

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Patience with Jared Cook

Cook is certainly talented and a huge athletic upgrade on tight ends the Packers have had fielded post-Jermichael Finley, but he’s very inconsistent as a receiver, blocker and route runner. Packers fans should just be happy if he’s healthy and approaches 60 catches.

Go nuts

NFL even more tone deaf: The NFL may have swapped one PR guru (Paul Hicks) for another (Joe Lockhart), yet as hard as it might be to believe, it has become even more tone deaf in the process. In response to the New York Times story about the NFL’s flawed concussion research and ties to the tobacco industry, the NFL threw a tantrum with two lengthy published responses and this tweet from another one of its representatives. The NFL’s response has me itching to re-read Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Instead of having a subdued response to an article that, considering the amount of information previously released by other outlets, isn’t all that Earth-shattering, and saying something along the lines of, “We’ve attempted to rectify any mistakes we’ve made in the past thanks to the ever-evolving science around concussions and will continue to be vigilant in the future as we partner with different centers of knowledge to fully understand how football impacts the human body,” to make it go away quickly, the NFL attempted to throw down the gauntlet with a threat to sue the Times. Here’s what makes this p.r. situation different than most (especially for Lockhart) and makes the NFL even more foolish than it already has: Nobody but your 32 owners and suits at Park Avenue are even remotely on your side. Everybody thinks or knows you manipulated concussion data and information for years to suit your bottom line, so why even fight it?

What Lockhart will soon figure out that the NFL is a lot different than his last high-profile job as a White House spokesman during the Bill Clinton era. If the other political party launched an attack, you could bluster a counter because you had as many or more people on your side. With the NFL, no one is on your side when it comes to player health. No. One. The best tactic: Brush it aside, talk about the future and count your billions. That’s the NFL way.

You can do better, Bruce Arians: The Cardinals’ coach was asked by The MMQB at the league meetings to defend football. He did just that, and made many valid points. And then he ended with this, “People that say, ‘I won’t let my son play’ are fools.”

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