How Buffalo Returned From the Brink

Twenty-four days ago Rex Ryan announced that he (and he alone) had decided to fire offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Predictably, eyebrows were raised, glances exchanged and smarmy one-liners tweeted out. Fire the offensive coordinator the day after your defense allowed the Jets 37 points and 493 yards on national TV? To the public, Ryan’s seat couldn’t have been hotter.

Since that Friday afternoon announcement, we haven’t heard much about Ryan. His Bills have gone on to win every game and, well, if you didn’t know better, you might assume our country’s media and fans are more interested in highlighting the negative than the positive. The same rules that govern this behavior also demand knee-jerk reactions. So, by those rules, if Ryan was one of the NFL’s worst coaches after two straight losses then, after three-straight wins, he must now be one of the best. Right?

They’ve been quality wins, too. A sound thumping of the 2015 NFC runner-up Cardinals. A road shutout of the (albeit Brady-less, but at the time still undefeated) Patriots. And, most recently, a cross-country road win over the 3-1 Rams (the franchise’s first West Coast victory since December of 2004, no less).

As impressive—and, really, in the grand scheme of things, almost as important—as these results has been the process. The Bills are winning by playing the exact style of football Ryan was hired to instill.

Tapped to replace Roman was running backs coach Anthony Lynn. Under Lynn, the Bills are averaging 178.3 rushing yards per game (102.8 more than they averaged in Weeks 1 and 2). In L.A. they cranked out 193, with LeSean McCoy going for 150. More than 100 of McCoy’s yards came out of a two-back set, often with fullback Jerome Felton chaperoning him to the point of attack. Overall, McCoy was particularly successful on the gap-scheme runs (i.e. runs with pull-blockers) for which Buffalo’s O-line is best-suited. And he thrived on the draw plays for which he himself is best suited.

• LESEAN MCCOY’S NEW REALITY: In advance of the season opener, Jenny Vrentas spent time with McCoy and then-running backs coach Anthony Lynn to see just how complicated the running game can be.

What has stood out even more is Buffalo’s passing game. True, it’s not electrifying—and it never will be. There’s not enough talent at wide receiver for that, especially with Sammy Watkins now on IR (foot). And even if he had topflight receivers, quarterback Tyrod Taylor lacks the dropback refinement to carve up defenses week in and week out. But the Bills don’t need Taylor to carve up defenses. They just need the 27-year-old to be a sound, steady decision-maker.

Under Lynn, Taylor has changed. His numbers are actually down, but that paints an extremely misleading picture. There’s been a marked clarity in the way he’s worked through his progressions. Lynn, to his credit, is still keeping those progressions fairly straightforward. In fact, Taylor has praised the way there’s more focus on identifying matchups before the snap, as opposed to focusing so much on progressions after it.

Under Lynn, Taylor has changed. There’s been a marked clarity in the way he’s worked through his progressions. Lynn, to his credit, is still keeping those progressions fairly straightforward. In fact, Taylor has praised the way there’s more focus on identifying matchups before the snap, as opposed to focusing so much on progressions after it.

With a midseason offensive coordinator change, you never hear about the new guy installing a bunch of new plays and formations. It’s always the opposite: simplification via reduction. This includes Lynn. He has reportedly put less than 50 percent of the number of plays in the gameplans as Roman had. At the risk of making psychological speculation, it reasons that an inexperienced QB like Taylor would play calmer with less on his plate.

Lynn had the pressure of being a first-time play-caller suddenly replacing a respected offensive designer in Roman. It’s worth noting that he’s done a better job each game with his formations and designs. The Bills were much less predictable Sunday at Los Angeles than they were in Week 3 against Arizona.

Improved as the offense has been, it’s Ryan’s defense that’s making the biggest difference. In the three wins it has allowed just 37 total points. It also scored seven of its own to seal the victory yesterday when slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman jumped one of the Rams’ many quick-outs and took it the house.

Buffalo’s defense has gotten back to playing Ryan’s brand of football. That means amoeba fronts. It means zone blitzes and exchanges, where a defensive lineman unexpectedly drops into a shallow passing lane and a speedier linebacker or safety comes after the quarterback. These tactics naturally involve pre-snap disguises.

To be frank, it’s befuddling that Ryan didn’t play this way during the team’s 0-2 start. Not only is it his style, but it’s a style he has to employ with this team because, aside from Jerry Hughes, the front seven isn’t overly talented. When your players can’t create pressure on their own, you must do it through scheme. Bringing pressure—or, often with Ryan, just presenting the illusion of pressure—prompts a quarterback to play off schedule. Either he’ll speed up and throw before he’s ready or he’ll break down in an effort to decipher the field, unlinking his dropback with the timing of his receivers’ routes.

This is why Bills perimeter corners Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby have generally thrived in one-on-one coverage. When the pressure concepts weren’t being employed early in the year, that’s when Gilmore and Darby fell apart. To be fair here, the Week 1 loss to Baltimore was a solid defensive performance against a Ravens team that used a lot of heavier formations to prevent the Bills from getting into their sub-packages, where most of the pressure concepts reside. But in the ugly Week 2 loss to New York? That night, the Bills blitzed just four time and Gilmore and Darby were torched repeatedly.

That night now seems like ages ago. Since then the Bills have allowed an average of just 230 yards through the air and a completion rate of 59.3. They’ve forced nine turnovers and generated 12 sacks. Their offense has only turned the ball over once. They’re winning by playing the exact style they’re built to play. You don’t get a clearer picture of good coaching than that.

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