Rex Ryan's problems go international as other Bills voice concern over defensive scheme

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

LONDON – A month and a half ago, Rex Ryan's head coaching debut with the Buffalo Bills ended in a commanding 27-14 home victory against the Indianapolis Colts, powered by a strong defense that forced Andrew Luck into a couple of interceptions. This was what players, fans and the franchise had been waiting for: bold offseason talk backed up by big-time play.

That was a long time ago.

A trip across the Atlantic has done nothing to end internal questioning about the Bills' direction, Ryan's defense and why there appears to be so little production from the team's $250 million defensive line.

Rex Ryan and the Bills are 3-3. (Getty Images)
Rex Ryan and the Bills are 3-3. (Getty Images)

Sunday brought a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, dropping the Bills to 3-3, with all the losses coming at home. Opponents are averaging 32.7 points in those three games.

After yielding 34 to the Bengals, defensive lineman Mario Williams, who signed a deal worth up to $100 million, complained about the team's current philosophy that often has bruising linemen dropping back into pass coverage. He'd prefer simply going after the quarterback, not leaving it to blitzing defensive backs and linebackers.

The Bills have registered just nine sacks on the season (five from the front four marketed as "The Cold Front"). Ryan, it should be noted, has argued sacks are an overrated stat.

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Here at a Play 60 NFL promotional event leading into Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, fellow defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, who has his own potential $108 million deal, essentially backed up Williams' complaints.

"Hey, like [Williams] said, they pay us a lot of money," Dareus said. "And we want to use our talents the best way we know how. If we're going to be dropping we don't want to get questions about not getting sacks. That's just how it is."

Perhaps even worse, Bills legend Jim Kelly echoed the sentiment and put a famous face to fan complaints.

"Dropping Mario Williams into coverage a lot?" said Kelly, who quarterbacked Buffalo to four Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s. "Didn't we pay him a lot of money to hit the quarterback? And if I'm the opposing quarterback and I see him dropping into coverage, oh that's a big plus. I'd definitely have a smile on my face."

Presumably none of the defensive linemen are smiling, despite being paid handsomely. Dareus could only agree with Williams that maybe Buffalo isn't getting enough from the position due to the current system.

"We want to make some plays," Dareus explained. "We don't want fans looking at us crazy. We like making plays. We like getting sacks, just being out there exerting a lot of energy and having fun.

"But when we're dropping, when I'm not out there on third down or just I'm dropping or Kyle [Williams] is dropping or Mario is dropping or Jerry [Hughes] is dropping … . It's not been a lot of times where there have been all four of us, full tilt, ears pined back and we're going after it. We haven't had a lot of that this year.

"Hopefully Rex is going to implement it. There's nothing we can do."

Ryan wasn't at the Play 60 event and has yet to address the public complaints coming from the team. He is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday morning here.

Regardless of whether the current defensive game plans are effective or not, it's never a good thing for a team to be airing its complaints in public.

"You never want that," Kelly said.

What's clear is that the defensive linemen are well aware that there are fan expectations on them after the team doled out considerable money for their services. None want the lack of statistics to be seen as a lack of effort or interest. Mario Williams, for example, has just two sacks after recording 38 over the previous three seasons.

This is something no one saw coming. Ryan spent the offseason with the roaring approval from players and fans as he brought a jolt of energy to a downtrodden franchise that hasn't reached the playoffs in 15 seasons. Part of that was because he was expected to deliver a very aggressive defense that would utilize the resources along the front four. That hasn't materialized consistently. At least not statistically; Ryan counters that the 2000 Baltimore Ravens all-time great defense, which he was the defensive line coach, recorded just 35 sacks.

Jim Kelly is unclear about the Bills' defensive strategy. (Y! Sports)
Jim Kelly is unclear about the Bills' defensive strategy. (Y! Sports)

This would be easier to deal with if not for the three consecutive home losses. Much of that is because the team is still breaking in a relatively new quarterback while dealing with numerous skill position injuries. Then there are the endless penalties – 62 of them for 583 yards, which is on pace for 1,555 yards for the season, according to Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News. The NFL's all-time record is 1,358 by the 2011 Oakland Raiders.

"We continue to make stupid penalties, playing dumb football," Kelly said. "We just have to get better all the way around."

Ryan didn't inherit a bad team. Buffalo went 9-7 last year. It had a coaching opening because Doug Marrone resigned, reportedly to be a candidate for the New York Jets job. He didn't get it and is now an assistant in Jacksonville.

So now here is Ryan, who built his reputation with all-in defenses in Baltimore (defensive line coach turned def. coordinator) and the Jets (head coach), getting criticized for having a mild defense.

"I'm speaking from the heart," Kelly said. "I don't know what they are trying. I know injuries on offense, that doesn't help. You can't have your main weapons hurt. On the defensive side, I don't know. I was excited like everyone to see what our defense could do. So far we haven't done very well.

"We all did a lot of talking before the season, including me," Kelly continued. "What we wanted to see, so far we haven't been able to see the defense we wanted to see. Hopefully they tweak it. … Getting away from Rich Stadium might be [a good thing]."

Maybe. Rex Ryan's problems have followed him all the way over here. The honeymoon is over, both internally and externally.

London is now a far more serious business trip than anyone could have imagined five weeks ago.

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