Rex Ryan has made a name for himself as one of the more innovative and aggressive defensive minds in the National Football League, employing a hybrid scheme that features exotic blitzes and disguised coverages designed to create chaos for opposing offenses. Ryan’s defense was a well-oiled machine from 2009-2011 due to the presence of Darrelle Revis, who was single-handedly capable of taking away the best receiving option on opposing teams and locking down an entire side of the field. Revis’ presence allowed Ryan to be creative with his safeties- moving them down into the box, sending them as blitzers, or serving as an extra linebacker.
When Revis departed, the lack of talent throughout the Jets’ secondary limited what Rex was able to do coverage-wise, and his defense took a hit. Now as Head Coach of the Buffalo Bills, Ryan will look to return back to his aggressive ways, as Stephon Gilmore is emerging as a quality cornerback that’s gotten better with every game he plays. Additionally, Leodis McKelvin and rookie second-round draft pick Ronald Darby are talented corners with the speed and physicality to play the press-man and press-bail (bump and run) coverage Ryan likes to employ.
Having reliable cornerbacks will allow Ryan and Defensive Coordinator, Dennis Thurman, to be creative with the safeties on Buffalo’s roster—particularly Duke Williams—who quietly had an impressive 2014 season as a rotational player. Looking back at the defenses Rex Ryan has fielded over the past several years, there’s been a constant theme at each safety position. Free safeties Kerry Rhodes, Jim Leonhard and Antonio Allen were decent cover men that made up for a lack of elite athleticism with good instincts and awareness in coverage. Conversely, strong safeties such as Yeremiah Bell, LaRon Landry, Eric Smith and Dawan Landry were big, physical hitters that offered more in run support than pass coverage.
Under Jim Schwartz, the Bills primarily played with two deep safeties, each responsible for defending ½ of the field. Ryan’s defenses play mostly man-free (Cover 1), meaning that the boundary cornerbacks play man coverage, with the free safety playing the deep middle in a “centerfield” role that allows the strong safety to move down into the box.
The free safety will line up 25-35 yards behind the line of scrimmage and is the last line of defense. This player needs to have great range and instincts, in order to keep the play in front of him. He needs the speed and physicality to come up and deliver a hit against the run, while anticipating routes that break to the middle of the field.
The strong safety in Ryan’s scheme will typically align 8-12 yards behind the line of scrimmage and is part of the second level of the defense. They need to defend against short-to-intermediate routes, stuff runs that get past the defensive line and will also be used as blitzers.
Duke Williams, who’s entering his third season after being the Bills’ fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft is a versatile safety that’s known for his physical nature of play and the big hits he’s capable of delivering. In 2014 Jim Schwartz took advantage of this versatility by moving Williams all over the field, so the things Ryan will be asking of him won’t be completely foreign.
While most Bills fans will bring up the big hits Williams is capable of delivering, his ability in coverage is vastly underrated.
According to ProFootballFocus (Subscription Required) Williams graded out as the No. 14 safety from Week 8 through Week 17 with a +6.7 score. His +5.3 grade in coverage was 9th best over that span and he allowed just five receptions for 33 yards, with just seven yards coming after the catch.
Williams’ coverage ability is put on display in the following play against the Detroit Lions. Playing man coverage against rookie tight end Eric Ebron, a top 10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Williams is able to stay with him on a crossing route and force an incompletion.
He’s got great closing speed and can transition smoothly in pass coverage, which will make him a valuable asset to the Bills’ defense in 2015.
In the following clip, Williams shows his range as a run defender against the New York Jets. Chris Ivory gets outside on a carry to the left and gets in space, but Williams is able to fly across the field from the opposite side of the formation and bring him down, preventing a potential touchdown run.
At 5’11” and 201 pounds, he doesn’t have the bulk that Rex’s strong safeties typically possess, but he’s strong and physical enough to fight through traffic against the run. In the following play against the Denver Broncos, the Bills are backed up against the goal-line. Denver is lined up with an unbalanced formation and an H-Back in the backfield. As C.J. Anderson gets the handoff, Williams shows the ability to stack and shed a block, before assisting on a touchdown-saving tackle.
In today’s NFL, the responsibilities free and strong safeties are blending together as offenses are passing more than ever before. However, Rex Ryan’s defense has distinguished roles for each position and Duke Williams has the skill-set to be an extremely effective player at either spot. The team re-signed Aaron Williams to a four-year, $26 million deal prior to the 2014 season and is asking Corey Graham to transition to safety, but Duke’s combination of athletic ability, physicality and coverage skills should allow him to carve out a significant role within the 2015 Buffalo Bills’ defense.