With three weeks remaining in the 2015 regular season, the Buffalo Bills' defense, led by venerable defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, is ranked No. 20 overall in the NFL.
It's the first time in Ryan's 11 years as a pro defensive play-caller that his defense has ranked outside of the Top 11; in fact, in his 10 seasons prior to coming to Buffalo, his Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets defenses had finished in the Top 5 six times. In his last season with the Jets, prior to coming to Buffalo, the Jets finished No. 6 overall in total defense, just two spots behind the No. 4-ranked Bills unit he inherited from Jim Schwartz.
So, yeah - the Bills have been disappointing defensively in 2015. And right now, Ryan is taking the heat for that disappointment, and not just from pun-slinging fans who want him fired; beat reporters and even his own players are using words like "complicated," "dense," and "deep" to describe a scheme that the players are now claiming took too long to fully understand.
Which is interesting, because Ryan implemented that same defense with the Jets back in 2009, and a unit that had made only incremental progress under Eric Mangini - rising from No. 20 in the league to just No. 16 in three seasons - immediately vaulted to a No. 1 overall ranking in Ryan's first season. Free agent signings like Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard helped that cause, and the Bills didn't really have an equivalent import from Ryan's Jets defense this season, but while Bills defenders point out that the scheme is complex, or ill-suited to their talents, it's not as if a Ryan team hasn't picked it up quickly before.
There are other factors at play here. Injuries have not helped - Buffalo has played most of the season without four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams and their top safety, Aaron Williams, and have endured shorter stints without starters Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Nigel Bradham, and Stephon Gilmore - but that's generally glossed over, because Ryan is viewed as an eraser of problems on that side of the ball.
Penalties have killed the defense (and the team as a whole), as well. Jerry Hughes has taken to Ryan's defense perhaps better than any other Bills defender, but he alone has committed 12 of the Bills' 45 accepted penalties on defense through 13 games, seven of which have been personal fouls. That's not a Ryan problem, at least as it pertains to his defensive scheme. 45 penalties is a problem in and of itself, and while it's fair to blame Ryan's defense for some of that - players can certainly make mistakes if they don't know exactly what they're doing - it's not all on him, either.
Especially in Buffalo, where the football team has not made the playoffs for 16 straight years, December unofficially becomes Scapegoat Month for fans of struggling teams. There is little doubt that when the season ends for the Bills' disappointing defense, all eyes will be fixated on Ryan.
He won't mind that at all - Ryan is known for taking as much blame as possible, to deflect it from his players - but that doesn't make it right to lay a myriad of different issues at the feet of one man, even while he's not completely blameless. In an 11-year stretch, 2015 is very much the outlier year for Ryan's defenses. When the frustration of the 2015 season wanes and the Bills start ramping up for 2016, it's a near certainty that confidence in Buffalo's defense will once again rise. And while personnel changes are expected, many of Buffalo's best defenders - they still have quite a few of them - will, hopefully, be well-seasoned with Ryan's complex system.