Buffalo Bills State of the Roster: Defense and Special Teams

Coming off a career-best season, Marcell Dareus’ adjustment to another new defensive scheme will be critical to Buffalo’s 2014 success. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Ryan Glaze

The Buffalo Bills defense is currently in a state of flux as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and subsequently, has pilfered three Bills assistant coaches from last year’s staff, one who had been hired by the Bills earlier this month (Jeff Hafley) and might be on the verge of hiring away defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.

The Bills reacted quickly and hired former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to replace Pettine. Though his staff isn’t completely solidified yet, it appears likely that Schwartz will bring his “Wide 9,” 4-3 based defense to Buffalo.

The good news for Schwartz is that he’s entering a kitchen with a well-stocked pantry. Buffalo’s defense was its stronger side of the ball last season, and with only one glaring exception, returns all of its key contributors who, for the most part, look to be solid fits for Schwartz’ scheme.

Defensive Line

The Bills defensive line thrived in Pettine’s hybrid system, where the athleticism and versatility of Pro Bowlers Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were put on display. A premium on pass-rushing ability and quickness off the snap should continue to be part of Schwartz’s defensive scheme.

While we can’t know for sure how exactly Schwartz intends to use his players, both Dareus and Kyle Williams seem like solid fits as a defensive tackle duo in a four-man front, while it’s difficult to imagine any defensive scheme struggling to find a place for an athlete like Mario Williams.

Two major developments on the defensive line from the 2013 season could play a big part in the Bills returning to relevance. The first was Jerry Hughes, a pass-rushing specialist acquired from the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. Though not the star his defensive linemates are, Hughes provided a significant impact as a pass-rusher with 10 sacks, and should be a great fit for Schwartz’s defense, at least on passing downs.

The biggest defensive line development of last season, however, was Dareus’ progress. After a frustrating 2012 season marred by injuries and the tragic death of his brother, many Bills fans were beginning to use the dreaded “b” word, comparing him to former first-round bust Aaron Maybin. The immediate success of many of the other top defensive players drafted in the 2011 draft class (J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Robert Quinn, to name a few) certainly didn’t help his case. In 2013, however, Dareus started to look like the dominant defensive lineman he was drafted to be, a tribute to the value of patience, mental and physical health, and development.

Dareus led all NFL defensive tackles with 45 stops and was graded as a top-10 defensive tackle as both a pass and run defender, according to Pro Football Focus.

Entering next season, the Bills will return all significant contributors from the 2013 defensive line after they smartly extended defensive tackle Alan Branch’s contract through the 2016 season.

Branch’s extension is potentially significant for Buffalo’s lone free agent along the defensive line, Alex Carrington. Carrington looked to be coming into his own in Pettine’s defense before a Week 3 quadriceps injury ended his season. Entering free agency with questions about his health, production, and fit into Schwartz’s new scheme, it is uncertain whether Carrington will be back with the team next season. This may be compounded by the fact that he’s represented by Eugene Parker, who also represents free safety Jairus Byrd (more to come). If the negotiations with Byrd go south, expect both sides to walk away from any deal for Carrington.

Look for the Bills to find a starter opposite Mario Williams and depth at defensive end this offseason. To allow Hughes to remain a pass-rushing specialist, adding a player capable of setting the edge and rushing the passer on running downs will be an important piece of the puzzle.

Linebackers

Kiko Alonso could be primed for a move to weakside linebacker in Jim Schwartz’s defensive scheme. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

The “Wide 9″ defense emphasizes linebackers’ ability to make plays against the run and defend the pass in coverage. With only four linebackers currently under contract, this is not the deepest group on the Bills roster, but should-be Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso and 2013 free-agent signee Manny Lawson look to be solid positional fits at weak- and strong-side linebacker, respectively. Backups Nigel Bradham and Ty Powell are young, cheap and intriguing athletes who could be retained for development, depth and special teams purposes.

At first blush, it seems as though Schwartz’s scheme is a terrific fit for Lawson and Alonso as both excel in coverage. That said, a position change to the weak side for Alonso to better leverage his playmaking abilities should’t be overlooked.

Alonso’s ability to quickly pick up Pettine’s hybrid scheme likely stemmed from his experience with a very similar scheme in college. Though the transition to a new scheme, which often includes new techniques, new verbiage and new responsibilities, will be a stressor to the entire defense, a scheme and positional adjustment might impact the read-and-react ability that makes Alonso such a special linebacker.

Look for Buffalo to make addressing the middle linebacker position a high priority this offseason. The University of Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is a versatile and talented linebacker who would make for an extremely intriguing choice if available with the Bills’ No. 9 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. New England Patriots free-agent middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is another name that would seem to make sense. Spikes excels in stopping the run, and signing him would have a “two birds with one stone” effect by taking him from a division rival.

Four-year veteran Arthur Moats, the team’s lone free-agent linebacker, is another potential candidate to fill the Mike role. Though he may be a bit undersized to be a truly natural fit as a middle linebacker in Schwartz’ scheme, he would likely to be cheaper to sign than Spikes and could make sense as a placeholder, should the Bills decide to take more of a developmental approach to the Mike position with a mid-late round pick.

See page 2 for a look at the Buffalo Bills’ secondary and special teams.

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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, 2014 Offseason, Aaron Williams, Alan Branch, Brian Moorman, Buffalo Bills, Da'Norris Searcy, Dan Carpenter, Danny Crossman, Defense, Dustin Hopkins, Free Agency, Jairus Byrd, Jerry Hughes, Jim Schwartz, Kiko Alonso, Kyle Williams, Leodis McKelvin, Manny Lawson, Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Nickell Robey, Roster Changes, Roster Outlook, Shawn Powell, State of the Roster, Stephon Gilmore

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