Breaking Down Buffalo Bills HC Rex Ryan’s Defensive Fronts

Rex Ryan comes to the Buffalo Bills with a reputation as a defensive mastermind. His hybrid defensive scheme that features multiple fronts and exotic blitzes has proven difficult for opposing offenses to figure out. Since becoming the head coach of the New York Jets in 2009, Rex’s defenses have ranked #1, #3, #5, #8, #11 and #6 in total defense. Upon his arrival in Buffalo, heavy debate arose regarding how various players, most notably Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams and Nigel Bradham will fit in his “3-4” defense.

In reality, the defense that Ryan runs cannot be labeled a 3-4. It can’t be labeled a strict 4-3, either. The beauty of Rex’s defense is how he is able to draw up schemes that allow him to seamlessly shift from one front to another; preventing teams from keying up on favorable matchups by utilizing the up-tempo, no-huddle offenses that are becoming more prevalent throughout the league.

Ryan’s defense takes concepts from both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, and blends them to create a “hybrid” scheme that is tough to game-plan for.

Base Front: Over/Under

Rex Ryan prides himself on defending the run in order to make teams one-dimensional. In doing so, it forces teams into situations where they need to take risks. Rex does this by utilizing “over” and “under” fronts, typically walking an outside linebacker down to the line of scrimmage- essentially creating a “5-2” that crafts a flexible and versatile unit to work with.

In “Under” fronts, the defensive line shifts to the “open” or weak side of the offensive line, while in an “Over” front, the defensive line shifts to the “closed” or strong side of the formation. Below is the “Under” front.


Over/Under fronts can appear to be a 3-4 defense, there are three interior linemen and two edge defenders. The strong-side defensive end on the left is aligned over the tackle at the five-technique, with the strong-side, or “SAM” linebacker “closed” outside of the formation. This defensive end is typically a two-gap player, meaning he’s responsible for controlling the gaps to either side of the tackle- a concept derived from the 3-4 defense. The defensive end on the “open” side of the formation is the “rush linebacker,” aligned at the nine technique, on the outside shoulder of the tight end. Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams both fit this role. The defensive tackles are aligned at the one and three techniques, a 4-3 concept.

This front allows Rex to do a variety of things. With the 20With two edge defenders at wide alignments, he can rush four and drop one into coverage or he can send any zone blitz combination he dreams of, while having three interior players to control their gaps and push the pocket.

base laser

46 “Bear” Front

Rex Ryan’s father, Buddy, developed the 46 defense while coaching the Chicago Bears in the 80’s and Rex continues to build on that to this day. The “Bear” front is an innovative and aggressive defense that is stout against the run and offers a ton of flexibility with blitzes.


As you can see, the 46 defense is an eight-man front so having two cornerbacks capable of playing tight man coverage is essential. In Ryan’s first few seasons with the Jets he was able to utilize this front more frequently due to having Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie protecting the boundaries.


This hybrid front is stout against the run, as there are three defensive tackles- the nose tackle (likely Marcell Dareus or Stefan Charles) is a two-gap player that aligns at the zero-technique directly over the center and is responsible for both “A” gaps.

The two tackles on either side of the nose tackle (Kyle Williams, Jarius Wynn, Charles and Dareus fit) align in a shaded three-technique (2i) just over the guards’ outside shoulder and are responsible for the “B” Gap.

The weak-side defensive end/pass rushing linebacker aligns wide, outside of the tight end, but can adjust his alignment based on the offensive formation. He’s a “force” player that’s responsible for keeping everything inside and containing the edge against bootlegs, counters and reverses. Jerry Hughes makes the most sense for this role.

Across the formation, the “SAM” or strong-side linebacker (Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, Randell Johnson)  will line up in between the tight end and tackle, with an inside linebacker, the “Jack” just outside of him. Nigel Bradham is likely the best fit for this position. This creates a double team over the tight end to prevent outside runs, a role similar to the weak-side pass rusher.

The name “46” doesn’t come from a defensive line:linebacker ratio, but for being the number of strong safety Doug Plank, who Buddy Ryan would walk down to align as a “linebacker” in a “50” technique over the offensive tackle. The strong safety, most likely Aaron Williams due to his size and ability to play physical in the box, and middle, or “Mike” linebacker (Preston Brown) are downhill players who will fill against the run and are responsible for short, underneath pass routes.

Cornerbacks are vital to this front, as they’ll play press-man coverage, while the free safety is a centerfield player that’s responsible for the deep middle 1/3rd of the field. The free safety will line up 20-35 yards from the line of scrimmage and his primary job is to keep everything in front of him. Duke Williams is ideal for this role, as he’s a player with great range and showed good instincts while being able to come down and lay a hit.

46 zorro

Nickel Fronts

With the rise of spread offenses in today’s “passing league” defenses are operating out of nickel packages on roughly 50% of the snaps, meaning that a defensive lineman or linebacker is subbed out for a defensive back that can cover the extra wide receiver better than a linebacker would.

Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme features multiple sub-packages that at times will field up to seven defensive backs. The most common sub-packages are a 4-2-5, a 2-4-5 or a 3-3-5 that we’ll highlight below.

Four-Man Nickel Front

The 4-2-5 nickel front is the basic sub-package that most defenses operate out of, by replacing a linebacker (typically the SAM) for a third cornerback. However, Rex Ryan’s defense utilizes concepts from the 3-4 so his base nickel package is versatile. Below you can see that the Jets have four down-linemen with two inside linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties—a 4-2-5 front.


If you go by position labels, this is really a 2-4-5, as outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples walk down to the line of scrimmage as defensive ends in three-point stances. Buffalo will likely run the 4-3 Under as a base front, using three defensive tackles and a defensive end as the down linemen, with Jerry Hughes as a stand-up edge rusher/”linebacker.” When they switch to a nickel defense, it’s likely that a defensive end/tackle (Stefan Charles/Alex Carrington/Jarius Wynn?) will be substituted for the defensive back. While Bills’ defenders Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes will likely be listed as outside linebackers due to Ryan’s “3-4,” their responsibilities will be the same, regardless of whether they’re in a two or a three-point stance—rush the quarterback.

Below is another version of a 2-4-5, using the same personnel but a different alignment.


The two interior linemen are each playing the three-technique in a wider alignment, while the outside linebackers are wide in a two-point stance. This allows flexibility for either a three or a four-man rush.

The Bills’ arguably have the best front four in the National Football League, so regardless of how they’re aligned, they have players that can defend the run as well as get after the quarterback.

They also have two quality inside linebackers with speed in Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown, who each have the athleticism to drop into a zone coverage or trail a running back or tight end in man coverage, which will allow Rex to be creative with his play calling.

Big Nickel

The “Big Nickel” is a concept that replaces the third corner with a third safety, something that Ryan did quite often during his time with the Jets, and is likely to continue with Buffalo due to having three quality safeties in Aaron Williams, Corey Graham and Duke Williams.

The “Big Nickel” allows a safety to play the slot or in the box, where he’d be theoretically be better against the run than a slot corner, who are typically undersized. Duke Williams projects best to this third safety role, as he’s a punishing run defender, but a quality cover man with range.


These are just a handful of fronts that Rex Ryan will likely be featuring with the Bills during his tenure with the team, but they show just how versatile and interchangeable his schemes are. Buffalo’s roster already has players that fit what he likes to do, so it will definitely be interesting to see what Rex has up his sleeve this summer.