Rex Ryan Scheme: Change Coming at “SAM” Linebacker in Buffalo Bills’ Defense?

The hiring of Rex Ryan triggered a series of events (or trades and free agent signings) that a 23-year old Buffalo Bills fan like myself had not experienced before. Playmaking skill-position players like LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay and Jerome Felton are fantastic complementary weapons to Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. The moves should have Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman up late at night, maniacally cackling at the different concepts, plays and schemes he’ll be installing during Training Camp.

But on the other side of the ball, the re-signings of Jerry Hughes and Jarius Wynn, have been the lone roster moves made to bolster depth at reserve spots. Since David Harris re-upped with the Jets, the Bills haven’t been linked to any defensive free agents. This hints at the fact that Rex Ryan will want to bring in his *type* of player to gel within his defensive scheme. Now, the Bills have one of the most talented defensive units front-to-back in the entire league, but like ourselves, we have our own personal preferences of what we want in our daily lives.

From liking blondes or brunettes, Ford’s or Chevy’s, everyone has their own “type” that they prefer, regardless of the opinion of the common public.

In order to make an attempt at finding Rex Ryan’s ideal player at every position, I went back to 2005, when he took over as Defensive Coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. From there, I charted the measurables (when available) of every starter on his defenses through the 2013 season, his last with the New York Jets.

While time consuming, there were definitely trends that continued to appear each year. It became evident just how highly Ryan valued these specific roles, as on multiple occasions he wound up  transitioning from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme for a year or two, due to not having the type of player he needed to fully execute his ideal scheme.

Rex prides himself on being an aggressive, innovative and versatile coach that will attack offenses with a variety of defensive formations- using blitzes, stunts, zone drops, etc. To throw off opposing passers. But, for the proverbial wheel to spin, Rex needs his guys.

To read part one on Defensive Lineman, click HERE 

Strong-Side Linebacker

Due to the variety of looks and exotic formations Rex Ryan’s defense will employ at any given moment, the strong-side outside linebacker plays a vital role in the execution of his scheme. The strong-side, or “SAM” linebacker plays on the side of the formation with the tight end, typically aligned with his inside foot to the outside foot of the tight end, at the “nine technique.” Most defenses use their “SAM” extensively in pass coverage and sometimes as a blitzer, but Ryan’s scheme has created a different role for the position.

In Ryan’s hybrid schemes, the “SAM” is a force player- responsible for setting the edge and keeping things inside against the run, while rushing the quarterback in passing plays. In base fronts, the strong-side ‘backer plays in a two-point stance outside the tight end’s shoulder, but in nickel fronts, they’ll kick inside to defensive end, where they’ll rush the passer from a three-point stance.


Due to the wide range of responsibilities at the position, Ryan has traditionally used huge players with length, a stark contrast from the rest of the league.


In 2013 under Rex Ryan’s protégé, Mike Pettine, the Bills primarily utilized Manny Lawson as the SAM on early downs, with Mario Williams filling the role on occasion. While the Bills still have both players on the roster, it will be interesting to see how Rex addresses the position, as it’s difficult to imagine him straying from a trend that he’s been extremely successful with for a decade.

Here are the players that project as strong-side linebackers currently on the Bills’ roster, with Mario Williams included as a potential fit.

bills slb mario

As you can see, Buffalo’s linebackers have more speed and overall athleticism, but they lack the bulk, averaging roughly 15-pounds less than the typical “SAM” Rex is used to working with. Without Mario Williams being accounted for at linebacker, the gap grows even more, to a near 30-pound weight difference.

bills slb no mario

Rex is a flexible coach that will adjust his scheme to fit his players, but it’s hard to ignore a trend that’s continued over a 10-year span. Ryan’s defense prides itself on taking away the opponents run game, and a big part of that comes from setting the edge and keeping the tight end from making an impact.

In 2013 under Mike Pettine the Bills defense was tremendous against the pass, but ranked 28th against the run, surrendering over 2,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground at a 4.4 yards-per-carry average. On runs outside the tackles, the Bills allowed 832 yards on 177 carries (4.7 yards-per-carry) and seven touchdowns. Manny Lawson has been penciled in by most as the projected strong-side linebacker for the 2015 Bills, as he was during the 2013 season, but there’s a real possibility that the Bills address the position in the draft.

The strong-side linebacker is a crucial position in Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme and it’s clear that he has a certain type of player in mind when filling out the depth chart. Whether he’ll adjust his philosophy due to the depth of talent at surrounding positions remains to be seen, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on heading into the draft.

One Reply to “Rex Ryan Scheme: Change Coming at “SAM” Linebacker in Buffalo Bills’ Defense?”

  1. Great post – Mario seems the obvious fit, but that is the case with most positions. As you finish the front 7 in this series, would love a recap with how you see the positional breakdown coming. Any word on Manny Lawson adding some bulk to fit the scheme? His strengths otherwise seem like a fit.