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Over Bill-ed? Stats belie Ryan’s confidence in defense

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Coach Rex Ryan isn’t worried about the inconsistent play of the Buffalo Bills’ defense through four games, and Wednesday he continued to recite the same mantra.

“I have been in this game a long time, I know where it’s going to end up, but it’s just we are not there yet,” he said.

Meaning: Everything will be fine, and by the end of the year the Bills will be right at the top of the league rankings, which is what Ryan boasted the day he was introduced as the Bills’ new coach in January.

Ryan loves to talk the tough talk, but right now, his defense needs to step it up. It ranks 22nd overall in yards, 29th against the pass, 29th in first downs allowed and 27th in sacks per pass attempt.

The Bills are 2-2 and in both losses, they were victimized by up-tempo offensive plans orchestrated by New England’s Tom Brady and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning. And while it’s true that the Bills won’t be going up against that level of quarterbacking every week – starting Sunday when they meet rookie Marcos Mariota of Tennessee – the Bills have to find a way to generate pressure.

They have only seven sacks in four games after registering 57 and 54 the past two years, and only four of those have come from the highly-regarded and highly-paid defensive line.

“We’re not grading out where we want to be, but I think every team in the league would take this group,” Ryan said in a defiant defense of his defense.

The problem the Bills have not had an answer for in their two losses is that Brady and Manning got rid of the ball so fast, there was no time to get after either of them. Ryan, of course, flipped the story. He said he’s perfectly fine not getting sacks if teams want to go to a quick passing game because it limits the types of routes Buffalo has to defend.

“Of course it’s going to negate your pass rush, but there’s other things, too,” Ryan said. “If your best receiver in (Odell) Beckham has 38 yards on 12 targets, I’ll sign up for that. The main thing about your defense is you try to prevent points. We got killed by New England (40 points), but if the ball comes out quick, it limits you. As long as you tackle well, you get off the field. And that’s what it’s about. If you don’t get a sack, it doesn’t matter to me. I want to win.”

Ryan brought up the great Baltimore Ravens defense of 2000 which he was a part of, the one that yielded an NFL-record low 165 points for a 16-game season. That team, which won the Super Bowl, had only 35 sacks, yet dominated almost every week.

“So sometimes, sacks can be a misleading stat,” he said. “If (they’re) holding the football, you’ve got to get there. If they want to just throw the ball out, so be it. As long as we tackle well, that’s the main thing.”

For instance, last week against the Giants, the defense actually played well. The score was only 16-10 midway through the fourth quarter, but the Giants put it away when the Bills played one play particularly awful. On third-and-3 from the Giants 49, Manning threw a quick flare into the left flat to Rashad Jennings. Even though the Bills had a miscommunication on a blitz, linebacker Nigel Bradham was right there to tackle Jennings for a loss, but he whiffed. Jennings then raced down the sideline, broke two more tackles, and scored the game-clinching touchdown.

Sunday against Tennessee, the Bills will be up against Mariota, who will be starting just his fourth NFL game. Although Mariota played an up-tempo style in college and won a Heisman Trophy in the process, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll be asked to operate that style of offense. And, no matter which way the Titans play it, Ryan isn’t too concerned about Mariota pulling a Brady or Manning against his defense.

“Oh, I don’t think the kid is going to have his way versus us,” said Ryan. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Ryan may be right, but he’s still going to need his offense to do something if he hopes to win the game. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has done some nice things in his first four NFL starts, but there’s still much room to grow, and it could be tough again this week because running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Watkins both could be sidelined for a second consecutive week.

Not only that, McCoy’s replacement, Karlos Williams, is going through the NFL’s concussion protocol and may not play, so the Bills would have to turn to third-stringer Boobie Dixon, with Cierre Wood and newcomer Dan Herron as the backups.

SERIES HISTORY: 42nd regular-season meeting. Titans lead 27-14. Bills haven’t beaten the Titans since the 2000 season opener, which was the first game following the epic Music City Miracle in the 1999 playoffs, won by Tennessee. The last time the teams played in Tennessee, the Titans won 41-17 in 2009, which proved to be the final game of Dick Jauron’s coaching tenure. He was fired the next day.

GAME PLAN: The Bills have to find a way to unleash their pass rush. After piling up 111 sacks the previous two seasons, most in the NFL, the Bills have only seven for 27 yards. Only four of those have come from the highly-regarded, highly-paid defensive line. Despite his mobility, Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota has already been sacked 12 times in his first three games, and if the Bills generate pressure, it will be difficult for Mariota to throw the ball against cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, who have both been solid.

On offense, the Bills must find a way to run the ball more effectively, and they may have to do it without their top two backs, LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams. Last week the Giants put eight men in the box and the Bills could not move the ball on the ground. If they can run against a defense that ranks 24th in average yards allowed per attempt, it should open up the passing game. The Titans have been susceptible to downfield throws, and that was a missing aspect of the Buffalo offense last week.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Bills DE Mario Williams vs. Titans RT Jeremiah Poutasi. Tennessee has already allowed 12 sacks in three games, and part of the reason has been youth at the tackle spots with Poutasi (third-round rookie) and LT Taylor Lewan (first round, 2014). Williams has had a quiet start to the season, as has the Bills pass rush, but going against a rookie, Williams will be expected to create some pressure on Mariota and force the rookie quarterback into mistakes.

–Bills TE Charles Clay vs. Titans SS Da’Norris Searcy. Searcy played his first four NFL seasons with the Bills before leaving via free agency. Clay joined the Bills from Miami in free agency this season so these two have always been combatants (playing twice a year in the AFC East). Clay was Tyrod Taylor’s favorite target last week, and with Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy possibly out again, Clay will play an integral role in the passing game.


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