BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
When the Bills released defensive end Mark Anderson earlier this week, there was much speculation about who would take his place as Mario Williams’ bookend on the defensive line.
Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman had already retired, so there seemed to be no obvious replacement on the roster, although as Buffalo Bills Draft’s own Dan Hope pointed out on Wednesday, there might be a number of possibilities already on the roster. However, in order to truly understand how the Bills plan to fill Mark Anderson’s spot on the roster, it’s important to look at how the defensive end position is used in Mike Pettine’s scheme.
During his tenure with the New York Jets, Mike Pettine used a base defense that most closely resembled a nickel formation. Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings put together a detailed breakdown of that defense in May, which is worth checking out and includes diagrams of what the defense looks like.
It’s commonly referred to as a 3-3-5 formation because the personnel are three down linemen and three linebackers. If you examine the diagram or the screenshot, you’ll notice that the strongside linebacker (SLB), the third one on the field, is actually lining up where the second defensive end would be in most formations.
Pettine likes to utilize this scheme to create confusion for opposing offenses. He uses dynamic pass rushers who also possess coverage skills and places them over the tackle. More often than not, this would signal that the player in this spot will be primarily concerned with getting to the quarterback. However, Pettine will frequently drop the SLB into coverage on the tight end, or in zone over the middle. This makes it hard for the offense to predict how many rushers the defense will send or where coverage is likely to be in the secondary. Uncertainty is the hallmark of a Pettine defense.
In order to achieve this type of uncertainty, and get the most out of the SLB position, Pettine commonly uses large outside linebackers to play the position. These tend to be players who are built more like defensive ends, but have the speed and agility of an outside linebacker.
The most recent example in a Pettine defense was Calvin Pace, who is 6’4″ and 265 pounds, with the Jets last season. Trevor Ebaugh of ESPN Stats and Information noted in 2011 that it’s very rare for NFL defensive ends in the current era to be over 270 pounds. Thus, Pace’s measurements link him to a common NFL defensive end even though his roster designation says otherwise.
During his time under Pettine, Pace was only partially used in that defensive end role. As Galliford details in his breakdown, Pace lined up at both weakside and strongside linebacker, rush linebacker, and SAM linebacker. In many of these formations, the only thing separating him from a defensive end was simply that his hand was not in the dirt, with him instead lining up in a two-point stance.
To further understand the use of the defensive end in Pettine’s system, let’s look back at the Jets roster in 2012. There were only three players listed on the roster as defensive ends: Quentin Coples (who is 6’6” 290 pounds), Mike DeVito (6’3”, 305 pounds) and Aaron Maybin (6’4″, 237 pounds). None of those three have the frame of a traditional NFL defensive end. During the season, only Coples played a position that had schematic responsibilities similar to that of your average defensive end.
In Buffalo, it’s likely to be no different. After the Bills released Anderson, they were left with only three players listed as defensive end on their current roster. At 6’6″ and 292 pounds, Mario Williams will likely play the role Coples did for Pettine. The other defensive ends are Jamie Blatnick (6’3″, 253 pounds) and Izaan Cross (6’4”, 280 pounds), but Williams is the only one of the three guaranteed to make the roster. Neither of the other two, even if they do wind up on the team, should start opposite Williams.
That means, much like with Pace, that the second defensive end in the Bills’ defensive lineup will likely actually be more of an outside linebacker in Jerry Hughes or Manny Lawson.
If the Bills choose to go with four down linemen on certain plays, which the Jets did not often do, Pettine could use an over-sized lineman in the role, much as he did with the 305-pound DeVito. That means that the Bills could mix and match Alex Carrington (who was an end in college), Alan Branch, Torrell Troup or Jarron Gilbert in various formations with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus to make an imposing front four.
That, however, is likely to be a rare occurrence. According to Pro Football Focus’ Neil Hornsby, the Jets lined up with five or more defensive backs on 56.4 percent of their defensive snaps last season. The Jets also used seven defensive backs 64 times last season; the only other team to even use seven defensive backs half as many times last season was the Denver Broncos (36). So Pettine’s system rarely calls for four down linemen, limiting the need for a typical second end. (It is worth noting that the Jets often used three safeties, which means we should expect to see a lot of Duke and/or Aaron Williams in Pettine’s system since they have experience at multiple places in the secondary).
Speaking strictly from the defensive end standpoint, the loss of Mark Anderson is almost an addition by subtraction. Besides the fact that his play was subpar last season, he is not an ideal fit as a hybrid, athletic SLB/defensive end in Pettine’s system. The Bills are much better off having Hughes and Lawson fight it out for the additional snaps.