A few weeks back, Football Outsiders released their annual NFL regular season preview in the form of the annual Football Outsiders Almanac. It's always an interesting, detailed, and stat-stuffed, read, and if you're into that sort of thing, you can buy one here.
Andrew Healy wrote the chapter on the Buffalo Bills for the Almanac this year, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about his research.
This chapter claims that the Bills are ready to challenge Seattle for the title of NFL’s best defense. Where will they need to make improvements to do so?
Healy: Well, not in the front four (and this includes guys who played DE last year who might be called OLBs in Ryan’s scheme), where the Bills fielded the NFL’s best unit. To pass Seattle, the Bills could use: A) more consistent play from Preston Brown, who showed promising signs as a rookie, B) Nigel Bradham to take a small leap forward after the giant step he took last year, C) Stephon Gilmore to make the jump to elite CB, and D) solid play at strong safety. Even three out of four might be enough with that front. The Bills were not far behind Seattle even last year.
The Bills didn’t make a big jump as a team run defense until last year; they were awful there in 2012, and fairly middling in 2013. That leap coincides with Brandon Spikes’ time with the team. He’s not here anymore. Should there be any worry that the Bills will actually regress defending the run? Or is their rise in this metric symptomatic of something else?
Healy: Spikes certainly helped against the run, but I don’t think his loss will mean all that much (and he’s still available if the Bills thought he was worth the headache). Brown and Bradham are already very good run-stopping linebackers with the potential to get better. And much more important than Spikes last year was the dominance of Dareus and Williams. There might be some worry that Williams would regress with his age, but Dareus should be peaking and he has a new contract to play for.
Naturally, Rex Ryan is going to vary his pass-rush tendencies more than Jim Schwartz did. But was 2014 an outlier for Ryan’s Jets defense in terms of those tendencies (ranked 13th and 14th rushing five and six-plus, respectively) because of that team’s awful secondary? Should we be expecting higher rankings in those categories for the Bills based on Ryan’s pre-2014 Jets tendencies?
Healy: This is a really interesting question. First, Ryan’s decreased blitzing is a longer-term phenomenon than many people think. The Jets ranked 21st and 19th in 2013, and similar to 2014 in the two years before that (9th/14th in 2012, 13th/15th in 2011). You have to go back to 2010 to find the Jets’ last entry in the top five. So Ryan’s heavy-blitzing years with the Jets were when the secondary was at its peak and he needed to manufacture pressure.
In Buffalo, the corners are good enough to make it possible for him to blitz, but the front four is so good at rushing the passer that he may not need to. Ryan is a great defensive coach who adapts to his personnel, so I’d be very surprised if we saw him blitz as much as he did in 2009-10 with the Jets (he’ll find lots of ways to be creative, just not so much by bringing more people, I think). Moving up a little from 13th or 14th is more likely.
Greg Roman is not mentioned often in this chapter (though acknowledgement of his unique personnel usage does show up in a later discussion about Charles Clay). Does his presence, and his personnel and schematic tendencies in San Francisco, do anything to allay fears about the Bills’ run blocking, particularly to the edges, and their ability to make room for LeSean McCoy?
Healy: I could see different opinions on this one, but I don’t think Roman does much to allay fears. McCoy loves to run outside more than just about any other back in the league. And so the big issue is whether the Bills will get good blocking on outside runs. If you’re looking for improvement, you want to see it in the new personnel on the line and particularly at right tackle. It would be pretty surprising if two-back sets and Jerome Felton made the difference. Chip Kelly used one-back sets more often than any other coach last season.