Bills Camp Storylines – Going Back to the 3-4 Defense

After using the 4-3 defense for nine years and seeing little results, the Buffalo Bills have decided to revert back to the defensive scheme that led them to four straight super bowl appearances in the early ’90’s under Marv Levy.  Wade Phillips, who succeeded Levy on the sidelines, used the same scheme from 1998 to 2000 and the Bills finished sixth, first and third in the NFL in defense.

Times have changed and unfortunately these aren’t the glory days for Buffalo anymore.  The Bills are working on five straight losing seasons, a decade long playoff drought and have turned over the front office and the roster again.  Unquestionably, the Bills are facing many challenges in 2010 and their conversion to the 3-4 defense stands to be one of their biggest ongoing storylines to watch.

Perhaps the biggest issue the Bills will encounter with their new 3-4 defense is a collection of players better suited to play in the 4-3 than in the 3-4.  Added to the defensive mix in the offseason were free agent defensive end Dwan Edwards and linebackers Andra Davis and Reggie Torbor, along with new defensive coordinator George Edwards.  Those additions will surely help aid in the transition process, but success on the defensive side of the ball rests largely on the remainder of the roster adjusts to the different and unfamiliar responsibilities.

Change for the better?

It would seem that the Bills are living proof of the old adage that defense wins championships.  In the past five seasons, the Bills have finished no higher than 22nd in defense, posting losing records all five years.  Ironically, the last time the Bills ranked in the top 10 in defense and had a winning season was 2004.  A direct correlations between defensive success and winning?  I think so.

By the end of last season, it became crystal clear that a change was badly needed on the defensive side of the ball.  Buffalo boasted the 2nd best defense against the pass in the NFL, but were especially embarrassing against the run.

The Bills ranked 30th in the league against the run, allowing 156.3 rushing yards per game.  One of the lowlight marks of the 2009 was the Bills sheer inability to stop the ground game of their division rival New York Jets.  In two games against the Jets, the Bills surrendered a staggering 567 yards rushing.

Recent history could suggest that the Bills’ switch to the 3-4 might lead to a better run defense.  A prime example can be found just a season ago.  The Green Bay Packers were the top team against the run last season, which was their first year in the 3-4 defense.

Nose tackle is key, OLBs endure toughest challenges

The coverages, nuances, terminology and responsibilities will be like night and day for the players, and it all starts with the man in the middle.

The nose tackle is the centerpiece of the 3-4 defense.  Your prototypical tackle needs to be quick off the snap and even faster at the point of attack because he’ll often encounter double, even possibly, triple teams of lineman.  Usually, your nose tackle is a mountain of a man (think Vince Wilfork, Kris Jenkins and Kevin Williams) but that doesn’t always have to be the case.  Dallas has had success with a smaller-type nose tackle, Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff.

In the offseason, the free agent cupboard was bare of nose tackles.  The likes of Casey Hampton and Vince Wilfork were kept off the market with lucrative long term contracts from Pittsburgh and New England respectively.  Buffalo flirted with the idea of adding Jimmy Kennedy, but he chose to re-sign with Minnesota.  That leaves the Bills with Kyle Williams and rookie Torell Troup, both smaller nose tackles.  Williams checks in at around 305 pounds and the Bills bypassed the mountainous Terrence Cody for the smaller, yet quicker Troup in April’s draft.

The Bills’ secondary won’t see many drastic changes, but there will be differences.  Under Dick Jauron, Buffalo played mostly zone in the Tampa-2 scheme, but now under Gailey and Edwards the Bills will play a lot more man-to-man coverage.  It will give the secondary opportunities to play closer to receivers and get a faster jump on the ball.  If the corners can eliminate the underneath routes and checkdowns, then in turn the pass rush is alotted more time to get after the quarterback who has dwindling options.

The outside linebackers face the biggest test and they’ll have to be the jack of all trades.  Aside from Torbor, the Bills’ collection of newly transformed outside linebackers have been their entire careers in the 4-3 defense, so this change will come as a culture shock.  They’ll be responsible to provide the primary pass rush, aid and support containing the run, and also dropping back into coverage against the pass.

Will it all come together?

The 2010 season promises to be an ongoing work in progress for Buffalo on defense.

It would be foolish to think there will be few growing pains and struggles along the way, particularly in the early portion of the season.  In their first six games of the season, the Bills will face four playoff teams from a year ago (Green Bay, New England, NY Jets and Baltimore) ; the Jets are the only team out of those four who the Bills will play at home.

Whether or not the Bills have the right personnel on defense to play in the 3-4 this season remains to be seen.  Admittedly, it could take a few seasons for Gailey and Edwards to completely makeover the defense to where it needs to be.  And for every success story of transitioning from the 4-3 to the 3-4, like Green Bay did a year ago, there is a Kansas City who struggled mightily all season.

Once the Bills strap on the pads and get rolling, we’ll have a better idea of where the defense is it, where it’s going and what’s to come.

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