BUFFALO — Considering Rex Ryan’s aw-shucks explanation for his teams’ mastery of Ryan Fitzpatrick over the years, you’d think it was little more than coincidence.
“I think there’s a lot of circumstances that go into it,” Ryan said. “He’s a good football player. It’s just one of those things, I guess.”
No guesswork necessary. Ryan has had Fitzpatrick’s number, with an 8-1 record against him as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator and coach of the Jets and Bills. Last year, his Bills got the better of Fitzpatrick twice, including a season-ending 22-17 win in which Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions, all in the fourth quarter. The Jets were eliminated from playoff contention because he failed to solve Ryan’s blitz-happy defense.
Fitzpatrick will give it another go Thursday night in a critical early-season game for both teams. The Jets and Bills are 0-1 and behind the Patriots, who managed to beat the Cardinals without suspended quarterback Tom Brady.
Fitzpatrick was so-so in a 23-22 loss to the Bengals, with two touchdown passes but also a last-minute interception. There were plenty of problems inside the red zone, where the Jets had two touchdowns in five trips. It’s imperative Fitzpatrick gets things straightened out against a defensive scheme that never has been kind to him.
“Last year, Jets versus a Rex Ryan-led Bills team, I just didn’t play as well as I wanted to in either game,” he said. “I know I’ve got to do better. There’s just a lot of stuff in terms of thought process and terms of making the right throws that I’ve got to come out and do. I don’t know if it’s necessarily his defense versus my quarterback play. It’s just me going out there and making smart decisions and good throws.”
The difference could come down to Ryan versus Fitzpatrick, even if he doesn’t quite see it as a match of wits against the longtime defensive whiz.
“I think we’ve got a good plan,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think we’re still ironing some things out, but we’re working on them. These Thursday night games, you’ve got to rely a lot on your experience. I think we’ve got an experienced bunch, and hopefully we come ready to play.”
So what is it that confounds Fitzpatrick so much about Ryan’s defenses, which rely on an assortment of blitzes and confusing coverages?
“Rex’s defenses over the years, the thing about them is they’re so multiple, so it’s changed a little bit. It’s gotten a little bit different based on personnel,” Fitzpatrick said. “When he’s here versus when he’s there, and year to year, you see differences, too. I just think he’s a smart coach. He does a good job.”
It’s also worth noting that Fitzpatrick struggled last year not only against the Bills, but also against teams familiar with his play. Of the Jets’ six losses, four were against coaches with some sort of connection to him. Bill Belichick faced Fitzpatrick when he was the Bills’ starter. Texans coach Bill O’Brien had Fitzpatrick on his team in 2014.
The Week 17 loss haunts Fitzpatrick most, because a win would have put him in the playoffs for the first time.
“Yeah, with particular plays, some of it comes back, just in terms of things I think I could have done better,” he said. “That’s just part of it. Any game, I sit back and watch, and I’m very critical of myself in terms of trying to figure out how I can get better. There are some things from last year in some decisions in both games I wish I had back. The magnitude in that game was maybe a little bit bigger. It hurts and it stings to watch some of that, but you try to learn from it and get better.”
He’ll have to be better, especially in the red zone.
“We didn’t get the job done, but we’re moving forward and spending as much time as we do every week on that stuff trying to get everything down and perfect,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think we’ll be in good shape, but that’s something every week that’s going to make or break a lot of these games is being successful in the red zone.”
And now for the next test. Fitzpatrick is confident he will pass.
“It’s a new year,” he said. “It’s an important one for us. It always is, but it’s a division game, we’re 0-1, and we’re trying to get that bad taste out of our mouth from Sunday. Thursday nights are exciting to play on because you have all of your peers watching you, and you just want to go out there and show everybody what kind of team we have.”