Nobody knows run-first AFC East teams with stout defenses and quarterback issues like Rex Ryan—and he’ll get another opportunity to prove it in Buffalo.
The former Jets coach signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal to replace Doug Marrone, who opted out of his contract shortly after the Bills finished off their 15th consecutive season without a playoff appearance. That’s the longest drought in the NFL—and the primary reason Ryan is Buffalo’s eighth different head coach this millennium.
And while Ryan is a stylistic match for the Bills, he’s a definite departure personality-wise from Marrone—as well as the splash move Buffalo’s new ownership group likely wanted to make with this hire. Moreover, Ryan demonstrated this season that despite an undermanned roster he knows how to play Bill Belichick and division kingpin New England tightly; the Jets lost their two games to the Patriots this year by a total of three points and beat them in overtime last season. The Bills haven’t beaten New England since September 2003.
In Buffalo Ryan inherits a wealth of defensive talent, a group that performed extremely well running a 4-3 scheme for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Even though Ryan has historically employed a 3-4 defense, he reportedly wanted Schwartz to remain in Buffalo. But that isn’t going to happen, and the backup plan—if it wasn’t the plan all along—is for Jets DC Dennis Thurman to accompany Ryan upstate.
Under Ryan and Thurman, and with the existing personnel, Buffalo’s defense should be just fine. Certainly there could be hiccups with the adjustment to a new scheme, but using Ryan’s blitz schemes it doesn’t necessarily matter where the front seven are lining up—just that they get to the quarterback quickly and frequently. And as the Bills led the NFL in that category in 2014 with 54, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Where Buffalo needs to upgrade is on the offensive side of the ball. Like in New York, Rex will start with the ground game—and again, it’s a mesh with the Bills’ existing personnel. Ryan is bringing aboard Greg Roman, fresh off directing the San Francisco offense. Under Roman the Niners ranked fourth in rushing yards last season, one spot (and six yards per game) behind Ryan’s Jets.
With nothing but question marks at quarterback the Bills will need to lean heavily on a ground game featuring Fred Jackson, former 49er Anthony Dixon, and potentially C.J. Spiller to carry the offensive load. And as a group, Buffalo running backs are excited about the opportunity.
“As a running back, that ground-and-pound theme is one you love to hear,” Jackson told the Buffalo News.
“They pride themselves on running the football,” Spiller added. “It’s an exciting time.”
And Dixon posted this Tweet” “Roman is coming Yes time to pull my big boy pads back out #GroundNPound”.
Bryce Brown may also factor into the mix, especially with Spiller able to test the free agent market this offseason. Plus, Ryan has yet to address what has essentially been Spiller’s position coach during his NFL career: the team doctor.
Even with a run-heavy mentality the Bills will need a quarterback; right now, after sitting 2013 first-rounder (16th overall) E.J. Manuel in favor of the now-retired Kyle Orton the Bills really don’t know what they have at the position. Drafting a quarterback—in the first round, at least—isn’t an option since Buffalo traded this year’s pick to Cleveland in the deal to acquire wide receiver Sammy Watkins on Draft Day 2014.
Ryan’s Jets muddled through this year with Geno Smith—the second quarterback taken in the 2013 draft, 39th overall and 23 picks after Manuel—at quarterback, while Roman’s 49ers also received substandard play at the position from third-year signal-caller Colin Kaepernick. So the silver lining is both Ryan and Roman have experience dealing with issues at the position; the obvious counter is that neither had a great deal of success squeezing potential from their young QBs.
The bottom line in Buffalo is that Ryan will use essentially the same recipe that drove them to 9-7 this season—running the football and playing elite-level defense. He’ll do so with considerably more bluster and fanfare than Marrone did, and perhaps that motivation will be enough to boost the Bills over the hump in the AFC East.
Or they could always pursue a quarterback in free agency. Hey, Mark Sanchez is available…