ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Cleveland Browns rookie coach Mike Pettine remains proud of the defense he left behind in Buffalo, even as it continues pushing around opponents without him.
Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer begs to differ.
"It's kind of like you do something and get people going in the right direction, and then you have to turn around and face them," Hoyer said. "You kind of wish he didn't do it in the first place."
Hoyer will have his hands full Sunday when Cleveland (7-4) plays at Buffalo (6-5) and confronts what Pettine considers, "the best front-four in football."
Pettine would certainly know after leaving the New York Jets — and Rex Ryan's shadow — to join Doug Marrone's first staff in Buffalo.
In only one season, his attacking approach transformed what had previously been a soft and porous Bills defense into one of the NFL's most feared units. Buffalo finished second in the NFL with a franchise-record 57 sacks. The line alone produced three Pro Bowl selections: defensive end Mario Williams and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
"I have nothing but fond memories," Pettine said. "The players essentially were there, and I'd like think we, obviously, got them headed in the right direction."
What's frightening is that the Bills have been even stouter this year under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former Detroit Lions head coach.
The Bills entered the week ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed. They're already ahead of last year's sack pace with a league-leading 46. And they're much improved against the run.
Buffalo has allowed 150 yards rushing just twice this season after doing that seven times last year.
Kyle Williams was such a big fan of Pettine, he worried how the Bills could replace him.
"I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't disappointed and upset that he left because of the coach he was, and how much fun he was to play for," Williams said. "That being said, coach Schwartz has come in and really knocked it out of the park. And we're lucky to have him."
Pettine and Schwartz have different philosophies toward defense while producing similar results.
Pettine was noted for his exotic blitz packages in which he would pressure quarterbacks from a variety of positions.
Schwartz doesn't blitz as much, and instead relies on his ends lining up wide of opposing tackles in order to stretch out the protection. That leaves the linebackers to protect against the run and drop into coverage when needed.
The Bills began the week with three players ranked among the NFL's top eight in sacks: Mario Williams (12), Dareus (10) and Jerry Hughes (9 1/2). That puts Buffalo in range to become the first NFL team since the 1996-97 San Francisco 49ers to have three players with 10 or more sacks in consecutive seasons.
The key, Pettine said, is having the players already in place, which was already the case when he arrived in Buffalo.
"I always felt this was a player-driven league, and the players are much more important than scheme," he said. "It's an aggressive, competitive, passionate group, and that's the way they play. That's why it's no surprise that they've actually gotten better this year over last year."
The Browns' defense remains a work in progress with the players still adjusting to Pettine's approach.
Cleveland began the week 20th in the NFL in yards allowed, and tied for 11th with 23 sacks.
Pettine credits his time in Buffalo as key to landing the Browns job. That includes the counseling he received from Marrone, who advised him through the interview process.
Though unsure of the reception he'll get in his return, Pettine is looking forward to seeing some familiar faces.
"I have a lot of good friends there," Pettine said. "We'll smile and shake hands before the game, and then want to beat each other's brains out during the game."
NOTES: The Bills signed DE Bryan Johnson to their practice squad, two days after he was released from the active roster. ... To make room, Buffalo released CB Brandon Smith from the practice squad. ... WR Robert Woods (ankle) is listed as probable after being limited in practice this week.
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