This offseason, three teams in the AFC East have made big strides towards dethroning the reigning division champion New England Patriots. From the 2015 NFL Draft to free agency, the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets all have improved rosters and people are taking notice.
Aside from the offensive playmakers that are suddenly in the division, guys like DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Leonard Williams and DE/LB Jerry Hughes being added to or staying in the AFC East have bolstered everyone’s defense. Buffalo had the best unit of the bunch last season, but debates have already begun in forums and social media pages over which team will have the better squad in 2015. Now, Sports Illustrated has weighed in.
Last week, SI.com’s Doug Farrar discussed who will have the better defense this season in a post called “toss-ups”, where he tries to pick just one between the Buffalo Bills and the NY Jets. Needless to say, we wouldn’t be talking about this further if he crowned the Bills. Instead, Farrar takes the Jets’ unit, led by first-year head coach Todd Bowles, who recently won the 2014 AP Assistant Coach of the Year Award as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals.
There’s no doubt the Jets have gotten better on the defensive side of the ball since the end of last season (at least personnel-wise), but let’s take a closer look to see if Rex Ryan’s old team can supplant his new squad in 2015.
Buffalo Bills vs. NY Jets 2014 Defensive Rankings (Leader Italicized)
Total Yards/G: 312.2 (4th) vs. 327 (6th)
Passing Yards/G: 205.8 (3rd) vs. 234 (14th)
Rushing Yards/G: 106.4 (11th) vs. 95 (5th)
Points/G: 18.1 (4TH) vs. 25 (24th)
Takeaways/G: 1.8 (3rd) vs. 0.8 (32nd)
NY Jets Key Defensive Additions
CB Darrelle Revis (FA)
CB Antonio Cromartie (FA)
DB Buster Skrine (FA)
S Marcus Gilchrist (FA)
DL Leonard Williams (1st round)
OLB Lorenzo Mauldin (3rd round)
No major personnel losses
Buffalo Bills Key Defensive Additions
CB Ronald Darby (2nd round)
DE Jerry Hughes (FA)
S Da’Norris Searcy (FA)
ILB Brandon Spikes (FA)
Looking over those numbers the Jets’ D has a lot of room to improve in just one season. Even with those lackluster rankings, it’s encouraging to see a Rex Ryan-coached defense continually play well against the run, as Buffalo actually showed some weakness in that category toward the end of last year. Besides rushing yards per game though, the Bills were better in all categories, including points allowed by a full touchdown.
The signing of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will absolutely help in coverage, but is throwing $100 million at a couple of guys in their thirties going to fix the turnover issue that saw New York finish dead last in the NFL in takeaways last season and 31st overall in 2013? It’s a little weird looking at those numbers since Rex was the head coach, but he certainly didn’t have the secondary nor the pass-rushers on those teams that Buffalo currently has.
While this Jets’ defense will be tough, it’s still going to struggle getting pressure off the edge and generating sacks. Last year the unit recorded 45 sacks and was paced by DT Sheldon Richardson with eight, followed by OLB Quinton Coples with 6.5, DT Muhammad Wilkerson with six, and OLB David Harris who finished with 5.5. That compares to Buffalo’s group that was led by DE Mario Williams with 15, followed by DE/OLB Jerry Hughes with 10, DT Marcel Dareus with nine and Kyle Williams who pitched in five on the way to an NFL-leading 54 total team sacks.
Additionally, Buffalo’s defense should be more aggressive under Rex Ryan this year as he likes to get after the opposing quarterback using the blitz. In 2014 under Jim Schwartz, the Bills typically only sent four players to the quarterback and still produced. New York’s defensive line may be great at stopping the run as they have a superior PFF grade, but the disparity of pass-rushing ability is too wide to ignore.
Beyond turnovers and sacks, Mr. Farrar had this to say about the defensive comparison:
“And from the linebackers back, Rex’s replacement Todd Bowles (a pretty fair defensive mind himself) has it all over the Bills. Bowles might have the league’s most complete secondary at his disposal with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie as the starting cornerbacks, Buster Skrine in the nickel (moving around to different roles as Bowles did with Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona), and Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist as the safeties.”
It’s hard to argue against the duo of Revis and Cromartie even if they have aged since their last tenure in New York. Still, Buffalo’s secondary puts up a great fight, as Stephon Gilmore is a budding star with three interceptions last year and Corey Graham actually had the NFL’s 8th best overall PFF grade for cornerbacks in 2014. Leodis Mckelvin will be looking to bounce back from a down year that saw him only play 551 snaps, even though he graded-out very similarly to Cro overall.
The safety position seems to be a tossup, as both groups are fairly unproven but not without talent. If he stays healthy, the recently-acquired Marcus Gilchrist could provide a big boost and be a major contributor for New York. Duke Williams enters this season as the Bills’ potential replacement for the departed Searcy, with Graham expected to receive plenty of snaps there as well. Revis pushes the Jets secondary over the top for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the tables turned midway through the 2015 season.
When comparing each team’s linebacker’s corps, there’s more to see than what is on the surface. For starters, with the 3-4 defensive scheme back in Buffalo, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams could technically be considered outside linebackers. Because that’s not what they played in 2014, we’ll just keep it simple by comparing these unit’s core backers.
Both Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace have been known to lay the lumber and are proven veterans for the Jets. Their recent performances have slipped however, as New York’s starting 3-4 outside linebackers both received negative PFF marks last year. They finishing ranked 39th and 40th overall out of 46 players in the 3-4 defense with the major struggles coming in pass coverage.
ILB Damario Davis was the bright spot of the group as he finished with great marks against the run and a 15th overall ranking in the 3-4 while David Harris, who was actually courted by Rex this off season, had a decent performance as well. In contrast and obviously being graded in a different 4-3 scheme, Buffalo’s linebackers compared favorably.
Third-year starter Nigel Bradham and rookie Preston Brown both finished with an overall top-15 PFF grade out of 40 players in 2014. Bradham played solid in pass coverage but really excelled against the run while Brown was the opposite, great in coverage but more pedestrian versus the run. It’ll be interesting to see how both adjust to Rex’s blitz-heavy approach as Bradham flourished in the rush with the rookie Brown actually receiving a negative mark in that category for last season.
Lastly, behind every great defense is a good coach. Although Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles are the head honchos for each organization and not specifically defensive coordinators, it’s no secret where their passion lies. For Rex, who is widely considered one of the top defensive minds in the NFL, he probably inherits the most talented all-around defense he’s had as a head coach, if not ever with this Bills team.
They have a rising secondary, young and exciting athletes at linebacker and an elite defensive line. Rex’s unpredictable and aggressive approach to “taking away the opponent’s strengths” should be exciting to watch with this group. If he can figure out a way to hold opponents under 100 rushing yards per game despite the departure of run-stuffing ILB Brandon Spikes, watch out for this defense.
On the other side, Todd Bowles walks into a similar situation with a couple of studs on the line, an elite Revis and plenty of other talent on defense. The former NFL safety has found success both on the field and on the sidelines in his career, and will be expected to turn in similar results as he did in previous stops with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.
Named interim head coach of the Eagles five games into the 2012 season, Bowles coached that defense to a ninth overall ranking in pass coverage while finishing twenty-third against the run. As defensive coordinator for Arizona in 2013, Bowles ran a top-notch unit that finished ranked 1st in rushing YDS/G, 14th in passing YDS/G and 7th in points allowed per game. In 2014, injuries put a dent in those totals, as that Cardinals defense ranked 29th in passing YDS/G, 13th in rushing YDS/G, but still finished ranked 5th in points allowed per game. Both years they finished with 25 takeaways, tied for 13th overall in the NFL.
Clearly both men are good at what they do, but the advantage leans towards the boys in blue. Not only does Buffalo have a more productive unit, but they only lost one starter from last season and gained an invaluable defensive mind in Rex Ryan. Throw in the Jets’ inability to get pressure and force turnovers with the Bills knack for doing so and the choice is simple.
New York has undoubtedly greatly improved this offseason, but I’ll go with the team that is reaching for a higher goal; to be the best defense ever.