2016 NFL Preview: Rex Ryan's Bills defense has to get better

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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When you think of a Rex Ryan team, two things come to mind: an aggressive, stout defense, and a mediocre offense.

Defense is Ryan’s calling card. That’s what made his 2015 Buffalo Bills team so confusing.

Buffalo hit the lottery by gambling on Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. Some teams spend decades looking for a solution at quarterback, and the Bills found one for a three-year, $3.35 million contract. The Bills had a pretty good offense. It ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. They were tied for sixth in the NFL in yards per play, 13th in yards per game and 12th in scoring offense. Taylor played well. They had a strong run game. The offense was better than anyone figured.

If Ryan’s defense was better, the Bills’ long playoff drought would have ended. Nobody expected that script.

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The Bills’ defense was 24th in DVOA, tied for 19th in yards allowed per play and in the most shocking stat, ranked 31st in the NFL with just 21 sacks. The Bills had 54 sacks the season before Ryan arrived. Ryan’s defenses are known for the dizzying ways in which they create pressure, and they always create pressure. In 2015, there were no answers. The Bills were not effective rushing the quarterback and players questioned the scheme, which they said was too complicated.

Ryan led 10 defenses, as a head coach or coordinator, before the 2015 Bills. None of them finished worse than 11th in yards allowed. Nine of the 10 finished eighth or better. Then his first Bills team ranked 19th in total defense. It wasn’t just Ryan’s worst defense, it was his worst defense by a significant margin.

It’s not like Ryan forgot how to coach last season. The struggles made more sense after the season, when Ryan admitted he made a mistake trying to combine his scheme and parts of the 4-3 scheme that was so successful for Buffalo in 2014. Ryan has said he plans to run a pure version of his preferred hybrid scheme this season. That should help.

“In a way, I tried to merge a couple things, two systems and things like that, and quite honestly it didn’t work. So we’re going to be all in, we’re going to play Buffalo Bills defense, and we’re not going to be fun to play,” Ryan told ESPN Radio after last season.

It’s not like the Bills had a bad season, but Ryan invites overreaction. When you’re as confident and vocal as Ryan, being a part of a nice, patient building process becomes impossible.

The Buffalo News reported right after last season ended that owner Terry Pegula told Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley that the Bills needed to make the playoffs in 2016 or he’d make changes. That report was quickly refuted, and Whaley got an extension a few days later. So I’m not sure exactly what happened or how accurate the report was. But it’s a reminder that there is always a certain level of volatility when Ryan is your head coach. When you come in with a ton of bravado and start predicting playoff berths, and then do it again after going 8-8, you can’t then ask for patience if you don’t make it.

I like Ryan. He’s good for a game that is filled with robots. I thought he was a great hire for Buffalo last year after Doug Marrone stabbed the franchise in the back. But Ryan’s first season in Buffalo wasn’t ultimately successful. It had to kill him that his defense kept Buffalo from making the postseason.

If the defense plays to normal Ryan levels and the offense is as efficient as it was last year, the Bills can make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. If not? You can bet it won’t be a quiet offseason in Buffalo. Calm and Ryan don’t mix well together.

Rex Ryan is looking for better results in his second Bills season (AP)
Rex Ryan is looking for better results in his second Bills season (AP)

The Bills’ salary-cap issues are surprising because they’re one of the few NFL teams that isn’t investing much at quarterback. Taylor’s cap hit last year was less than $900,000, and this year it’s just $3.1 million. That’s a steal at quarterback and you’d think the Bills would have cap space to burn. Instead, the Bills had very little cap space to spend in free agency. All of the outside free-agent signings were bargain-basement deals. According to Spotrac, linebacker Zach Brown got the only deal over $1 million, at $1.25 million over one year. The Bills didn’t give a two-year deal to any free agent this offseason.

Fortunately for the Bills, they figured out a way to retain left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito. When you have a run-first offense, you need good linemen. The draft should have produced two immediate starters in defensive end Shaq Lawson and linebacker Reggie Ragland, but Lawson needed shoulder surgery and could miss at least the first half of the season. We’ll give the Bills some credit for retaining two good linemen, but they didn’t add much help. Grade: D

The Bills will be one of the best running teams in the NFL again. They have a commitment to the run, as one of three teams that had more rushing attempts than passes last season. LeSean McCoy could have a big year if he stays healthy. Tyrod Taylor is a key piece of the run game at quarterback, and an effective run game helps him be efficient throwing the ball. You can still win in the NFL with a run-first attack, though it has become pretty rare. Assuming the run game is good again and the defense plays like a Rex Ryan defense, it’s not like the Bills were far off last season.

I worry about what happens if Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy or Sammy Watkins miss any time with injury. All of them have injury concerns. Taylor missed two games last year due to injury, and he’s a small-ish quarterback who is a big part of Buffalo’s run game. The Bills didn’t upgrade the backup quarterback spot, unless raw Cardale Jones shines as a rookie. McCoy battled lower body injuries most of last season. Behind McCoy at running back, Karlos Williams is having an awful offseason. He came to OTAs significantly overweight and then was hit with a four-game NFL suspension. I’m not buying Reggie Bush as a good solution there, if the Bills end up signing him. And oft-injured Watkins already is dealing with a foot injury. The Bills rely on Watkins because there’s not much after him at receiver. If one offensive star goes down the Bills will suffer, and if two or all three miss significant time it’s hard to see Buffalo staying afloat.

The Bills and Tyrod Taylor are in a tough spot. The Bills signed him on the cheap, then he won the starting job, played well and understandably wanted a new deal. The Bills aren’t swimming in cap space (though it’s not so bad for 2017), and it’s hard for them to make a big commitment to Taylor after just 14 NFL starts. So the Bills have a quarterback who can’t be happy getting paid like a low-level backup after posting a 99.4 rating as a starter last year. Taylor can become a free agent next offseason (he reached playing time incentives that void the final year of his deal), and that will be a situation to watch if an extension isn’t worked out.

Watkins and McCoy are very important for reasons stated above. But I’ll go with pass rusher Jerry Hughes. Hughes had 10 sacks in each of his first two Bills seasons, then slipped to five last year as he played through a wrist injury. Hughes played well even though the sack numbers were depressed, but the Bills need a better pass rush overall this season and it starts with Hughes. The plan is for Hughes to line up wider this year in more of an outside linebacker role, and an improved pass rush has to start with him.

Cosell: “I think from a linebacker standpoint, as far as pressure, I don’t know if they have that guy that they really want. [Rex Ryan] may feel he’s lacking a bit in personnel, when it comes to the schemes. I don’t think it’s exactly the defense he wants. He’s obviously going to try to build that and we’ll see how that plays out this season, but I’m not sure he has exactly what he wants.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Bills and the rest of the AFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Sammy Watkins has consistently been an impact player through his two NFL seasons, but he pushed into another gear over his final nine games of 2015: 49 catches, 900 yards, seven touchdowns. That juicy line made him the No. 5 fantasy wideout over the second half of the year.

“Alas, Watkins is coming off springtime foot surgery, and there’s no clear timetable on when he’ll be back. Training camp? No one knows. Week 1? That’s not a sure thing either. And keep in mind the constant maintenance Watkins has required as a pro — he’s dealt with calf, hip and ankle problems, in addition to the current rehab from a broken foot. Watkins carries a Yahoo average draft position of 31.2, a third-round pick in most leagues. Your Buffalo Stance comes down to how you feel about risk-reward selections. The daredevils will likely gravitate towards Watkins’s potential in Year 3, while the floor-driven drafters will look for safer places to park their investment. Do you feel lucky?”

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Ronald Darby broke up 18 passes in Buffalo’s first nine games last season, setting a Bills rookie record in a little more than half a season. Darby finished the season with 21 passes defensed and finished (a distant) second in defensive rookie of the year voting to Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters. Ryan’s defense needs good man-to-man corners, and the Bills have two in Darby and Stephon Gilmore.

IS TYROD TAYLOR’S SUCCESS SUSTAINABLE?

Anytime a player comes out of nowhere to shine, there’s skepticism about a repeat. That’s especially true at quarterback. Many of the league’s best quarterbacks were drafted in the top 100 picks (and usually in the first round). Tom Brady and Tony Romo are exceptions, not the rule.

It’s no surprise there’s a bit of a wait-and-see approach from most people with Taylor. But his 2015 was legit. He was one of five regular starting quarterbacks to average 8 yards per attempt, the others were Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. Good company. His 1.6 interception percentage was fifth-best in the NFL. His 568 rushing yards were second among quarterbacks, behind only Cam Newton. There was a lot to like. He wasn’t going to put up massive numbers in a run-first offense, and I’m not sure he could put up a 99.4 rating if he had to throw as often as Drew Brees, but he was efficient and made plays when he had to.

Taylor isn’t going to turn into Aaron Rodgers this season, but the Bills aren’t asking him to carry the team. Taylor should have another good season as a complementary piece in the Bills’ offense.

I don’t think the Bills can overtake the Patriots in the AFC East, but a playoff berth is feasible. If you believe the offense will maintain its 2015 level and the defense will get significantly better in Rex Ryan’s second season — and Ryan’s history indicates it should — then you believe they’ll be a playoff team.

It’s always hard to determine what’s normal and what’s not on a Ryan team — what might seem like crazy locker room drama on one team is just a part of everyday life when Ryan runs the show. Still, it was a bit strange to see so much public complaining about the defensive scheme last year. Maybe the Bills never truly buy in, and the offense regresses too. The offense will definitely take a turn for the worse if there’s some bad injury luck. If the Bills take a significant step back from last year’s 8-8 record, will there be a year three for Ryan?

If the Jets’ quarterback situation doesn’t get settled, the Bills look like the second-best team in the AFC East. But I can’t see them surpassing the Patriots and competition for wild-card spots in the AFC will be strong. The depth on offense worries me (with a few bad breaks we’ll see an EJ Manuel-Mike Gillislee-Robert Woods big three) and I’m a little hesitant to predict a top-10 finish for the defense, no matter what Ryan’s history says. I think it’s another close-but-fruitless season as the Bills try to get back to the postseason.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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