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22 Dec 2015

Any Given Sunday: Redskins Over Bills

by Andrew Healy

There were reasons to think that the union of Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills would not work well, but a defensive collapse seemed about as likely as Tom and Gisele falling apart because they weren't sufficiently pretty. After Buffalo's 35-25 loss to Washington -- a loss in which Buffalo posted the worst defensive DVOA of any team this week -- the marriage between defensive guru and superior defensive talent has combined to produce one of the league's worst defenses. Rex Ryan, Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, and Co. now rank 29th in defensive DVOA.

Perhaps just as surprising as the numbers for the Bills is how they have gotten there. After watching Ryan's Ravens and Jets defenses flying around, the expectation was that we would see a swarming group that left quarterbacks under siege. Last year's second-ranked Buffalo unit rarely blitzed under coordinator Jim Schwartz, yet still led the league with an adjusted sack rate of 8.9 percent. With the arrival of Ryan, this season may have no more shocking stat than the Bills' ranking 30th in adjusted sack rate at 3.9 percent.

And a big part of that vanishing pass rush -- certainly the biggest part on Sunday at the very least -- has been a big dropoff in performance from Mario Williams, the team's most talented pass rusher. When the curmudgeon Doug Marrone was replaced by the ultimate players' coach in Ryan, it would have seemed somewhere between implausible and impossible to think that not only would Williams' motor fail to rev faster this season, but it would come very close to turning off completely.

On Sunday, Williams looked very much like he was barely trying. About halfway through the first quarter, I started just watching No. 94 on every Washington play. He seemed very happy on almost every passing attempt to end up 8 to 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, getting no closer to Kirk Cousins than he had been before the snap. Williams has expressed frustration with the Bills' scheme under Ryan, and appeared throughout the game to be acting out that frustration. In a different era and sport, you might have wondered if Williams was shaving points, engaging just enough to avoid drawing eyebrows on a crowded field where it's possible to avoid scrutiny.

It's difficult to be that harsh since we're never in an athlete's head -- and you never know when a player might be hurt -- but I encourage anyone who is interested to go back and watch the tape of Williams' snaps against Washington. Here are a few plays from the many where Williams might as well have just stood frozen at the line rather than going through the motions of a defensive end involved in a play, with GIFs mostly capturing what comes through clearly on the film.

On this first play, a 10-yard first quarter run for Matt Jones, Williams (playing over the right tackle, as he is in all these clips) has the best chance to stop Jones, but makes no real attempt to do so.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

You could argue here that Williams is trying to set the edge, and you need multiple angles to establish that he's not trying here, so don't be convinced yet. Take a look now at a second-quarter play where Williams is rushing the passer.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Right tackle Morgan Moses barely has to make contact as Williams happily rushes upfield 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. This kind of play with a Williams pass rush that requires Moses to do very little in response repeats itself again and again on the film from Sunday.

On this 77-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson in the third quarter, Williams did put his hands on Moses and sort of simulated pushing into him before standing there with him just inside the line of scrimmage.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

That kind of effort from one of the league's highest-paid defensive players is showing up on the stat sheet. Williams had no sacks, no solo tackles, and one assist on 48 snaps. That stat line is remarkably better than what he had posted in three of his previous four games before last week's game against the Eagles (one sack, two tackles). Over 120 snaps against the Jets, Patriots, and Texans, the 2014 All-Pro defensive end managed to post a triple bagel: zero sacks, zero tackles, and zero assists.

Given his effort and his play, the Bills are unlikely to bring back Williams and can finally start to shift their imbalanced payroll away from their salary-bloated front four -- cutting Williams would save $12.9 million on the 2016 cap. The bigger concern for the Bills is not the likely loss of their most talented pass rusher, but that Ryan couldn't coax consistent energy out of a key cog. With the coach bringing little offensively or strategically, the Ryan experiment is already foundering if in his first year the defensive energy can run so low. And with the Bills offense far exceeding all expectations, Ryan's defensive failures represent a lost opportunity. Even a league-average defense would have the Bills ranking just behind Denver and Green Bay in DVOA.

Gruden Gets His Groove Back

After a rookie season in which he faced criticism for his clock management, his handling of Robert Griffin, his demeanor, and seemingly everything else in Washington short of the sequester, Jay Gruden is having an unexpected sophomore turnaround. Many of us at Football Outsiders, including yours truly, had Washington pegged for the first pick in the 2016 draft. Instead, Gruden has his team in the driver's seat to win the NFC East and the right to be underdogs by a touchdown against Seattle in a first-round Wild Card game.

On Sunday, Gruden lost a challenge when Bills' rookie tight end Nick O'Leary appeared to step out of bounds on a 37-yard catch-and-run. While the challenge failed, Gruden probably made the correct decision under pressure. The situation -- up 28-10 with four minutes to go in the third quarter with both challenges left -- made a challenge a low-cost proposition with a high upside: 30 yards of field position. The call also looked like it would probably be overturned on review. Referee Clete Blakeman determined there wasn't conclusive evidence, but it was so close that another referee might have overturned the call.

When I reviewed coaches' strategic decision-making a couple weeks ago, perhaps the biggest surprise was Gruden ranking fourth, trailing only the much more heralded Ron Rivera, Mike McCarthy, and Bill Belichick. Gruden has made the leap this season together with Kirk Cousins -- on Sunday, 91.8% DVOA and a league-leading 198 DYAR that brought him up to seventh in DYAR for the season -- giving Washington an unlikely coach-and-quarterback tandem on the come.

By the VOA

The Bills' DVOA against Washington wasn't just the worst of the week, it was Buffalo's worst performance of the season. But it has been a long drought for the Bills' defense. It has been eight games now since Buffalo lost defensive tackle Kyle Williams to injury, and this was the fourth time in that span when the Bills finished in the bottom three in defense in a given week.

DVOA (Opponent adjustments included)
WAS 52.5% 3.8% 6.5% 55.2%
BUF 15.2% 59.0% 0.9% -42.9%
VOA (No opponent adjustments)
WAS 65.0% 13.4% 6.5% 58.1%
BUF 17.7% 56.0% 0.9% -37.4%

Washington's offensive DVOA was its highest of the season. Facing a Bills secondary that was missing top corner Stephon Gilmore, DeSean Jackson tied for fourth among receivers with 55 DYAR, posting six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

The Keep Lookin' At Wins Stat of the Week

Before the season, we projected the Bills to rank fifth in defensive DVOA with a rating of -6.4%. Buffalo currently ranks 29th at 11.3%. That gap of 17.7% between where the Bills are and where they were expected to be makes the Bills the biggest underachievers on defense this season.

The other defenses that we thought would be among the league's best either sent their entire team to the infirmary (Ravens), have done about as well as expected (Seahawks, Jets, Rams), or have exceeded expectations (Broncos). And only the Saints' defense can compete with the Bills for underachievement on defense this season, making it a Rob-and-Rex disappointment double for the Ryan brothers.

Posted by: Andrew Healy on 22 Dec 2015

35 comments, Last at 26 Sep 2017, 10:06pm by yofafuxu


by jacobk :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 4:03pm

Something seems a little wonky with the chart. The Seahawks are at what looks like a +1 on the y-axis of actual defensive DVOA (projected). Through Week 14 they had a -11.1% DVOA. The commentary is written as if their DVOA were roughly in line with projections, where the chart shows them underperforming.

The Jets and Rams also look off.

by Eddo :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 4:23pm

That's because the y-axis is measuring actual MINUS projected. It's an incredibly non-intuitive way to present this information (and I usually like the way FO presents data in charts). Why not just plot actual vs. projected?

by jacobk :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 6:31pm

Oh, I see. That does seem like a strange way to graph it.

by Andrew Healy :: Wed, 12/23/2015 - 5:50pm

There was a thought process, but I think you're right. This graph of actual vs. projected DVOA is simpler and better. Hope it shows up.

[img_assist|nid=48213|title=Projected and Actual Defensive DVOA|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=73]

by Andrew Healy :: Wed, 12/23/2015 - 5:52pm

This link should hopefully work since I don't see the image there:

by tuluse :: Wed, 12/23/2015 - 6:03pm

I like this presentation better.

by TB284 :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 4:25pm

The chart is comparing projected DVOA to the difference between projected and actual DVOA. The closer to 0 the team is on the y-axis, the more closely that team's performance has matched the projection.

by tuluse :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 4:47pm

I thought Chicago was projected to have the worst DDVOA, but the chart has Tennessee on the furthest right.

by uosdwiS :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 5:00pm

So, is Kirk Cousins actually, truly good now? I remember watching him early in the year vs NYG, and, for lack of a better way to express it, he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Now he's gone on a nice stretch of games with not as many turnovers and a few big outings sprinkled in between. DVOA has him above Eli and Cam right now, and I would guess as a GB fan that he's rated higher than Rodgers since about week seven as well. Has he turned a corner in the last few games, or is this another case of a Nick Foles type hot streak where the fun eventually ends?

by Mike B. In Va :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 5:56pm

It looks to me like the lights have finally gone on for Cousins. The last few games he's looked decisive without being stupidly aggressive.

That said, the Bills didn't bother to get off the bus, especially the defense, so it's hard to read too much into this game. I seriously would not be surprised if Ryan's hand-picked DC (Dennis Thurman) gets fired. After his constant complaining and deciding to loaf the last half of the season, Williams will be gone, too.

by lokiwi :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 6:05pm

He certainly looks to be at least league average. His long bombing success has coincided neatly with DeSean Jackson's return, so that probably has something to do with it. Some of his long throws haven't exactly been darts (like that 77 yarder up there), but he's throwing to talent so it works.

And if it is a Nick Foles hot streak, well, just make sure you keep DeSean happy and healthy, because that's who Foles was throwing to when he was good.

by BJR :: Wed, 12/23/2015 - 8:32am

Yes, Jackson has gotten healthy. TE Jordan Reed has also managed to stay healthy for the first time in his career. It's a nice collection of receivers in DC and I'd expect them to give the Eagles fits next week.

by tuluse :: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 6:17pm

I know most of the article was about this, but I still find the Bill's defensive collapse hard to believe. I believe this is only the second time Ryan has coached a below average defense, and the previous time the 2014 Jets was an experiment to see if he could make a defense work with quite literally corners signed off the street.

Also, while the Ryan Jets had their share of silliness, it always seemed like his players really enjoyed playing for him and always played hard.

If the plays above are representative of Mario William's effort this year, why is he still playing? Failing to even make a tackle that many games in a row, surely there is backup or guy on the street who can do more than that.

by Andrew Healy :: Wed, 12/23/2015 - 10:58am

Good question. The ceiling is certainly much higher if he started playing like he can. But they would have gotten much more out of just plugging in Manny Lawson in recent weeks.

And that's right on Ryan's defenses. In 2012 and 2013, with just a small fraction of the talent he has in Buffalo, his defenses were above average. Altogether, it was 15 straight years of above average defenses (1994-95 ARI, 2001-08 BAL, 2009-2013 NYJ) until the last two below-average ones, counting years where he was either a line or linebackers coach.

by intel_chris :: Wed, 12/23/2015 - 7:32pm

I see what you are trying to do with the charts and both 2-dimensional charts actually obscure what you are trying to show. Better would have been a simple listing of the teams ordered by your "actual-projected ddvoa" (with the actual numbers of course). The 2nd dimension in the charts isn't actually helpful, no matter which chart you use. Of course, it doesn't help that when I initially looked at the graph I was expecting the 2nd graph--the one in your link. However, after seeing that graph, I can see that even the expected graph is hard to follow. Partially, it is because the graph appears wider than tall and the performs according to expectation line is, as a result, not a nice 45 degree angle. If you reversed the axis, so that the over/under performing was left-right and projected ddvoa was up/down, it might have worked better--you want the highlighted table on the "long" axis, which on modern screens tends to be the horizontal one as they tend to be oriented in landscape mode so that movies look nice and "wide". However, I still think dropping the projected ddvoa from the chart and making it a simple table, like DVOA and DYAR are presented (or number line if you want something graphical) would be more clear.

BTW, don't take this criticism as too harsh. Most of your readers are here because the content and analysis is good--and you succeeded there. However, a little tweak of your presentation would have made your point more visually convincing.

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