BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Outside of a few key players, the only constant for the Buffalo Bills defense since 2011 has been its inconstancy. As the Bills go into the 2014 season with their fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons, that will continue to be the case.
Unlike the previous two seasons, however, this year’s change came not because the Bills defense needed it, but because it was really good. Mike Pettine was hired as Cleveland Browns head coach after just one seasons as Bills defensive coordinator, in which the Buffalo defense ranked second in the NFL in sacks, tied for sixth in the league in takeaways, 10th in total defense and as the league’s fourth-most efficient defense by Football Outsiders.
In total, the Bills lost five members of last year’s defensive coaching staff to the Browns, but they did a great job restacking the deck. In new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and linebackers coach Fred Pagac, the Bills added three highly-respected defensive minds with a combined 48 years of NFL coaching experience.
With the coaching shuffle finally complete in Buffalo (at least it seems to be), the new Bills coaching staff should already be at work constructing Buffalo’s defensive scheme for 2014.
What will that defense ultimately look like?
We can’t know for sure. Secondary coaches Donnie Henderson and Samson Brown are the only returning members of the defensive coaching staff in their same positions from last season, while Schwartz (Detroit Lions head coach), Johnson (New England Patriots linebackers coach) and Pagac (Minnesota Vikings linebackers coach) all come in from different teams and roles.
First and foremost, any good coach realizes his job should not be pigeon-holing players to fill his defensive scheme, but rather to adapt his scheme to the unit’s personnel.
That should certainly be the case in Buffalo, where the Bills’ defensive talent—including three Pro Bowl defensive linemen, a rookie sensation middle linebacker and a talented secondary—had as much to do with the defense’s success as its coaching.
“From a coaching standpoint, I think a lot of times it’s coaches adapting to players,” Schwartz said in his introductory press conference. “I think that’s what coaching is all about, we put players in position to make plays and that’s a pretty easy group to do it. We’ll be fast, we’ll be physical, and we’ll attack.”
With that in mind, one shouldn’t simply look at Detroit’s defense from 2013 and expect Buffalo to have the same scheme in 2014. However, taking a closer look at what all three of Buffalo’s new defensive coaches might bring from their former teams’ defenses, as well as who will make up the Bills’ defensive roster this season, can give one a better idea of what to expect when Buffalo is trying to stop its opponents this season.
From 3-4 to 4-3?
That’s what you’ll hear early and often in anticipation of Buffalo’s defensive scheme changes, but that’s also an oversimplification.
There’s some truth to it. Pettine’s scheme is largely based on 3-4 elements, though as Buffalo Rumblings’ Brian Galliford recently explained, it’s actually more accurately classified as a 4-3 Under scheme. Meanwhile, Schwartz’s defensive scheme is often referred to as the “Wide 9,” based on the concept that Detroit’s defensive ends often lined up in a 9-technique (more to come), but not by the coach himself.
“Mostly that’s thrown around by people that couldn’t line it up if they wanted to,” Schwartz said of the Wide 9 term in his introductory press conference. “Whatever anybody wants to tag the system as far as a name, it won’t be us. We’re just going to try to do whatever we can every week to do the best to have the game plan.”
The Bills probably won’t run many 3-4 defensive looks next season, considering only Johnson’s Patriots used them regularly while they were mostly nonexistent, at least in the games I charted, for the Lions and Vikings in 2013.
Still, despite the positional generalities that are often drawn between the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, the 2014 scheme might not necessarily be all that different from Pettine’s pressure-heavy, hybrid front. Regardless of what label the scheme gets, Marcell Dareus will still be a plugger in the middle; Kyle Williams will still be an interior penetrator; Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes will still be rushers off the edge; Kiko Alonso will still be a leading presence in the linebacker corps.
How Defensive Line Could Look Under Schwartz, Johnson
The Bills won’t suddenly be running last year’s Lions or Vikings or Patriots defense next season, but their new defense is likely to draw some influence from all of them.
While it is a misleading name, it’s not hard to figure out where the Wide 9 label came from. In play-by-play charting of three Lions games last season, in which they used four-man defensive lines on just about every play, at least one of their defensive ends was lined up in a 9-technique on more than 65 percent of defensive plays.
The above screenshot shows what may be considered Schwartz’s base defense: two defensive ends in the 9, two defensive tackles inside and three linebackers behind them (in this play, a defensive back has also been brought up to the linebacker level).
The wide defensive end role, largely played by a trio of Ezekiel Ansah (94), Willie Young and Devin Taylor (92) for the Lions last season, should be a good fit for Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo. Inside, Schwartz had the luxury of an outstanding duo of defensive tackles with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley; fortunately for him and the Bills, he’ll have that same luxury in Buffalo with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
The four-man front should continue to be a staple of Schwartz’s defense in Buffalo, but it might come with some variations if Johnson has a strong say.
While the Patriots were classified as a 4-3 scheme in 2013, they rarely ran what one would consider to be a traditional base 4-3 front. With Rob Ninkovich essentially being an outside linebacker playing defensive end, while top pass-rusher Chandler Jones is also very versatile, New England frequently stood up their defensive ends last season, while sometimes switching into 3-4-based defensive looks.
If adjusted to the Bills personnel, Hughes and Manny Lawson could both play Ninkovich’s role as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. With an exceptional combination of size and athleticism, Mario Williams has similar versatility to Jones: he excels as a 4-3 defensive end, but also has the situational versatility to flex out and stand up as a linebacker, or to kick inside in a three-man front.
How Linebackers Could Look Under Schwartz, Pagac
Perhaps the greatest inaccuracy of simply classifying these defenses as 4-3 schemes is the implication that they are structured around having three linebackers on the field. As is the case with most four-man front defenses in the modern, passing-heavy NFL, the Lions, Vikings and Patriots all use 4-2-5 nickel packages more often than 4-3 sets.
That said, not all 4-2-5 defenses look the same, and at the linebacker level, schematics might not be determined until the Bills are sure who else will be playing alongside Alonso next season.
For the Lions in 2013, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and weakside linebacker DeAndre Levy were staples on the field in every defensive package. However, that might have had as much to do with how well-rounded those two players’ games are as it did to Schwartz’s schematic preferences.
Schwartz should know already he has one every-down linebacker in Alonso. What he might not know is whether Alonso is the middle or weakside linebacker. That could be determined by who else the Bills add at the position this offseason, as they do not currently have a second starting-caliber player for either of those spots.
The ideal addition might be Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, who like Alonso has a well-rounded skill set and is suited to play every down at either middle or weakside linebacker. He is one of the Bills’ best potential options for the No. 9 overall pick.
If the Bills aren’t looking to invest a high draft pick in a linebacker, they could bring in one of two veteran free agents with ties to new coaches. It is unknown how strong the relationships are between Johnson and Brandon Spikes or between Pagac and Erin Henderson, but Spikes is an unrestricted free agent while Henderson was recently released, and either could be a short-term solution at middle linebacker should Alonso kick out to the weakside.
The influence of the other coaches and adapting to personnel, however, might lead Schwartz to stray away from having two every-down linebackers who almost always stayed at the second level and dropped into coverage on passing downs.
The leader of Pagac’s linebacker corps in Minnesota was Chad Greenway, who played a more diverse role as a strongside/weakside linebacker.
Greenway was often brought up to the outside of the line of scrimmage, a role Lawson could reprise at SLB, but frequently dropped back into coverage from the line, which is a weaker area of Lawson’s game and a poor fit for any of the outside linebackers on Buffalo’s roster.
The Patriots used their linebackers very diversely under Johnson in 2013, in part due to necessity as injuries affected the entire defense. While they would employ traditional 4-3, 4-2 and 3-4 alignments at time, New England also shifted its linebackers to one side sometimes or split linebackers (including Ninkovich) out wide in coverage like defensive backs.
All of the new coaches could bring something different to the linebacker position, and so could new personnel, so there’s only sure bet: that the linebacker corps will revolve around Alonso.
Lawson is likely to retain the strongside linebacker role, but whether that makes him a regular in the lineup or a rotational player will depend on how the Bills set up their scheme and who else they bring in at the position.
Keeping Continuity Through Change in the Secondary
The Buffalo secondary is the one area that shouldn’t be affected drastically on the coaching end, with Henderson and Brown returning. However, it could face a major personnel change.
Between the three games charted from the 2013 season, approximately 40 percent of Detroit’s defensive plays went with a single-high safety. That’s a role Bills free safety Jairus Byrd excels in as one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. He might have to excel elsewhere in 2014, however, as he is slated for unrestricted free agency after a contentious negotiation in 2013 failed to result in a long-term deal.
Should the Bills lose Byrd, replacing him should become a top priority, especially if Schwartz and Henderson plan on continuing to use a single-high safety often. While Aaron Williams and Da’Norris Searcy are both solid safeties who might end up being the 2014 starters, neither has the range and coverage skills Buffalo should want in a long-term, every-game center-fielder.
One possible addition at the safety position could be Louis Delmas, who was released by the Lions on Thursday. That said, Delmas does not project as a true Byrd replacement, as he is best suited to play strong safety and struggles in single-high coverage capacities.
Outside of the free safety position, much should remain the same as last year. Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore are a promising pair of starting cornerbacks on the outside; Aaron Williams should remain the starting strong safety unless forced to take over for Byrd at free safety, in which case Searcy could be the starter alongside him.
Slot cornerback Nickell Robey should also continue to play a big role. The defense is likely to continue using nickel packages on a majority of plays, and as demonstrated earlier in the screenshot, Schwartz likes to put a defensive back “in the box,” where Robey excels as a blitzer and reaction tackler.
Big Changes? Probably Not
If there’s one thing Schwartz, Pagac, Johnson, Pettine and Marrone would all agree on, it’s probably that the most important part of a successful defensive scheme is finding the defense’s “best 11,” or combination of 11 players, and putting each of those players in the optimal position to make plays.
Whether the new scheme gets labeled as a Wide 9 or a 4-2-5 or simply a 4-3, the only thing that really matters for the Bills is whether Schwartz and the Buffalo defensive coaching staff can continue to get most out of their personnel as Pettine clearly did in 2013.
Even if that personnel lines up slightly differently, most of it will be the same. From Mario Williams and Kyle Williams to Dareus, Hughes and Branch, the Bills are loaded with defensive line talent, just as Schwartz’s Lions were last season. A new starter might be needed to play at linebacker, but Alonso will continue to lead that group while Lawson should have a significant role. Regardless of what happens at free safety, the Bills should continue to be able to rely on McKelvin, Gilmore, Aaron Williams and Robey to make plays from their positions.