The subject makes Nickell Robey’s eyes light up and prompts an ear-to-ear smile. “Yes, I love it; I love to blitz,” the Buffalo Bills’ rookie cornerback said. “Any time I get a chance to hit a quarterback I’ll do it.”
Ditto for safety Da’Norris Searcy. “I love it,” he said. “You have to be ready for it when your number gets called.”
What defensive back wouldn’t love to blitz? You can’t get burned by a wide receiver or called for pass interference when you’re charging into the backfield. You’re the “targeter” not the “targetee.”
The Bills are rushing defensive backs at the quarterback more than in any recent season under coach Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and it’s paying dividends.
The Bills are tied for third in the NFL in sacks with 18. The Bills have rushed a defensive back on 16 percent of opponents’ pass plays (35 of 219), according to News statistics. Last season, the Bills rushed defensive backs on a league-low 6 percent of pass plays, according to ProFootball-Outsiders.com.
Overall, the Bills have blitzed — rushed five or more men — on 29 percent of opponents’ pass plays. That’s a rate that usually ranks between 12th and 15th in the league. Last year, the Bills blitzed a league-low 15 percent of pass plays.
It will be interesting to see how much the Bills go after Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton today. The Bengals rank only 18th in passing yards, but the Bills can’t give Dalton all day to sit back and look for star receiver A.J. Green, who is a tough matchup for the Bills’ secondary.
Rushing defensive backs is all about creating confusion.
“If you can create some different looks and bring pressure with your secondary, a lot of times you can get free runners at the quarterback and get the ball out quick or get pressure, get sacks,” said safety Jim Leonhard. “It’s definitely valuable in this league. You have to do whatever you can to try to slow these offenses down.”
“You want to cause confusion up front for the O-line,” said outside linebacker Jerry Hughes. “Really at any point in time, any one of us could come free — whether it be a D-back or a guy on the D-line. Everybody just pins their ears back and takes off, really anticipating who’s going to be that free guy who’s going to be the free hitter on the quarterback.”
On the 35 rush plays by DBs, opposing quarterbacks have completed only 14 of 30 passes for 115 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 54.1. There have been three sacks on those plays and two other scrambles.
A defensive back rush isn’t necessarily a blitz, a key distinction noted by Pettine. The DB may simply join three defensive linemen in a four-man rush.
That has happened, by The News’ count, on 10 of the 35 DB rushes, or 28.6 percent.
“We have a package where it’s part of a pressure, where we’re bringing five or more guys,” Pettine said. “But we also have a package where we call it simulated pressure, where the DB is the fourth rusher. In certain protection systems they have to throw hot off of that player.”
“That’s one thing where Doug (Marrone) has been a real valuable resource for me as far as breaking down a team’s protection,” Pettine said. “That’s one thing in my last three years, really since 2010, that I’ve put a lot of work into as far as talking to offensive coaches, studying protection rules, trying to get a feel for what teams are doing out of certain formations.”
Threatening a heavy blitz before the snap but then dropping seven men into coverage is a win for the defense if the offense reacts as if a big blitz is coming.
The Bills got an interception in the end zone against Baltimore when Robey rushed off the edge as part of a four-man rush.
“If you can attack the protection that way, you’re getting the best of both worlds,” Pettine said.
The Bills have not all-out gambled much with their blitz. They have rushed more than five men at the QB only nine times, by unofficial count.
“If you talk about teams just flat going Cover 0, I really prefer to pick and choose times to do that,” said Pettine, referring to an all-out blitz. “It may look like we’re doing that, but we really aren’t. That to me is key, if you don’t have to send them all, don’t send them all.”
Defensive backs have only one sack. Searcy got it against New England.
But the point is winning the down, and the DBs have forced hurries and incompletions and created chances for other rushers.
“At the same time the O-line could be honoring them, sliding to them, then bang, one of us gets an advantage,” Hughes said.
Because he’s usually covering the slot receiver, who’s closer to the QB, Robey gets to attack on a lot of the DB rushes.
“I missed one in Cleveland,” Robey said of a sack chance. “I should have laid out for it. It happened real quick out there, so I just have to learn from it.”
Robey is only 5-foot-7, but he plays fearlessly.
“We’ve been so pleased he’s played that way,” Pettine said. “We always use the phrase ‘shoot your gun.’ If you see it, go get it. He has done that. … You need to have a guy that’s got some recklessness to him.”
“The other thing with bringing the DBs,” Pettine said, “is they get there faster. If you’re bringing a guy off the slot or you’re running a guy through the weak-side B gap, a DB runs a 4.4 or 4.5, as opposed to a bigger linebacker type.”
The Bills are getting healthier in the secondary. Jairus Byrd is back today. It gives Pettine the chance to play more six defensive back alignments and send different combinations at the QB.
“The more different number of guys you can bring from the secondary, offenses are guessing,” Leonhard said. “That’s why a lot of teams are going to these three-, and four-safety looks. Who are you going to count? Who are you going to add into your protections? Sometimes it limits what offenses can do to you.”