In pursuit of a defensive rebound
Rex Ryan's first season as Bills coach was a journey into bizarro-land. After being carried by his defense during his six years with the Jets, the exact opposite happened in Buffalo. Former 49ers coordinator Greg Roman oversaw an effective offense that finished 12th in the NFL with 379 points, thanks to a rushing attack that led the league in yards (2,432) and touchdowns (19). But the other side of the ball, Ryan's domain, was a borderline disaster. The Bills sank from fourth in the league in yards allowed in 2014 under coordinator Jim Schwartz, to 19th. They also went from 54 sacks to just 21, the fewest for Buffalo since the stat became official in 1982.
For Ryan, who coordinated some great Ravens defenses from 2005 to '08 and created the scheme that led New York to back-to-back AFC championship game appearances, Buffalo's performance was embarrassing. "Yeah, we were terrible," says Ryan, sarcastically adding, "And I can't coach defense anymore for some reason."
The Bills had little cap space with which to sign free agents, so they have to rely on draft picks and internal improvement to rebound defensively. To help the latter, Ryan brought in his twin brother, Rob Ryan, the former Saints defensive coordinator, and also retired All-Pro safety Ed Reed, who played for Rex Ryan with the Ravens and the Jets and is now Buffalo's assistant defensive backs coach.
Those voices are needed because last year players struggled to master Ryan's scheme, in which each unit, from the line to the linebackers to the DBs, has its own strategy on a given play. When choreographed well, the defense calls to mind the Bolshoi Ballet. When it's not, it resembles a mosh pit. The Bills underestimated the learning curve involved in switching from Schwartz's simplified 4--3 to Ryan's swarming 3--4. It didn't help that they were unable to sign former Ryan players who knew the system.
Buffalo will get no instant boost from its rookie class. First-round pick Shaq Lawson of Clemson, a pass-rushing outside linebacker, may not be back until midseason after right shoulder surgery in May. Reggie Ragland, selected in the second round from Alabama, will most likely sit out the year after tearing his left ACL in training camp.
To replace Ragland and to pair with Zach Brown, an underrated linebacker brought over from the Titans, the Bills signed two free agents off the street: former Patriots and Bills 'backer Brandon Spikes, and David Hawthorne, who played for Rob Ryan in New Orleans. After releasing Mario Williams this off-season, Buffalo is still searching for bodies at outside linebacker while Shaq Lawson and Manny Lawson (non-football injury list/pectoral) try to make it back.
The positive news: The defensive line will improve simply because Kyle Williams, who missed five games with a right knee injury, is back. Powerful third-round pick Adolphus Washington (Ohio State) will start at defensive end, while nosetackle Marcell Dareus remains one of the best in the NFL (though he will miss four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy). The secondary, which could be one of the best in the league, is led by its corners: As a rookie last year Ronald Darby showed that he is a legitimate complement to standout Stephon Gilmore.
Despite these strengths, the success of the defense will depend largely on how Rex Ryan patches the holes at linebacker. One thing he hasn't lost is his trademark bravado. "I've said all along our defense will be much improved," he says. "And I'll stand by that."
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
It was news when cornerback Stephon Gilmore showed up to training camp. In the final year of his contract, he was expected to hold out for a long-term deal. Gilmore's history of shoulder and wrist injuries makes it tough for GMs to assess his value, but when he's on the field, there's no doubt about his worth. With long arms, sturdy mechanics and short-area read-and-react ability, he's a top-level corner. When Rex Ryan took over in Buffalo last year, he thought Gilmore would play the Darrelle Revis role in his blitz-happy defense. But with 2015 second-round pick Ronald Darby showing elite cover skills, the 6'1", 190-pound Gilmore didn't need to shadow the top receiver. Instead he usually played the right side, Darby the left. For most teams, having two bona fide cover corners is a luxury. But in a scheme like Ryan's, which relies on matchup coverages downfield, it is imperative. Without Gilmore, the Bills could not play their aggressive style of defense.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 8--8
2015 Record: 8--8
SEPT. 11 atBAL
SEPT. 15 vs.NYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 vs.ARI
OCT. 2 atNE
OCT. 9 atLA
OCT. 16 vs.SF [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atMIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 vs.NE
NOV. 7 atSEA
NOV. 20 atCIN
NOV. 27 vs.JAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 atOAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 vs.PIT [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 vs.CLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atNYJ
= PREDICTED WINNER