Even though the Buffalo Bills announced that they’ll be shifting to a 4-3 base defense in 2012, the team still plans to use some 3-4 fronts.
Much like offenses don’t only use one formation to attack stingy defenses, defenses are evolving into complex, flexible and versatile schemes to try to outmatch potent offenses.
In 2011, when Buffalo was supposedly a 3-4 base, the team still reverted to a lot of 4-3 looks due to injuries and personnel. The same will be true in 2012 as the defense continues to become a coherent unit.
Now that Dave Wannstedt has been named the new defensive coordinator, the Bills will continue striving to find an identity on his side of the ball, and it begins with the front seven.
Buffalo will most often employ four-man fronts next year, which will affect some players more than others. Here is a quick look at some of the winners and losers of the Bills’ move to a 4-3 base defense.
In 2009 and 2010, Williams totaled 10 sacks and 142 tackles as a 4-3 defensive tackle. Those numbers were good enough to earn him Pro Bowl selections in each season.
While many were skeptical that the 6’1”, 301-pound lineman would be able to transition to a 3-4 NT, the Bills plugged him in anyway, and he certainly didn’t fail early on.
Unfortunately, a foot injury cut Williams’ 2011 season short, and, even though he showed the ability to switch defensive schemes and still be effective, he still wasn’t in his ideal position as a 3-4 run-plugger.
Next year, Williams will move back to his natural position on the defensive line and should face fewer double teams. Additionally, he will now have a serious threat beside him in Marcell Dareus.
Together, the two could be extremely productive and difficult for opponents to stop.
Speaking of Dareus, next season should be an exciting one for the former third-overall pick.
Though the big man from Alabama logged a lot of playing time as a 4-3 tackle last season, he did it without the presence of a healthy Kyle Williams.
Despite being a rookie and moving all over the line, Dareus totaled 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks in his rookie campaign. Put him next to Williams and add a year of NFL experience under his belt, and there’s no reason to believe that those numbers won’t improve.
Dareus is big and strong at 6’3” and 340 pounds, but he is also extremely quick and explosive. His versatility should provide the Bills with an anchor on defense for years to come, starting in 2012 when he’ll be positioned alongside a proven and motivated All-Pro.
As I mentioned in my article about five breakout candidates for the 2012 Buffalo Bills, I have high expectations for Alex Carrington moving forward. The switch to the 4-3 will benefit the 6’5”, 284-pound edge-rusher, mostly because it will finally give him a clear role.
Though Carrington was a good fit in the 3-4, his athleticism makes him an equally good fit as a 4-3 DE. The Bills are going to start trimming the fat around the defensive line. Players like Lionel Dotson, Kellen Heard and Kyle Moore will all need to fight for roster spots once Kyle Williams and Torell Troup return at full health.
And depending on what happens with veterans Chris Kelsay and Dwan Edwards this offseason, Carrington might even have an opportunity to start.
Obviously, Buffalo is expected to target a pass-rusher early in the draft and possibly also through free agency. But even if Carrington can be used consistently as a situational pass-rusher, he has the strength, burst and athleticism to be effective in that role.
Kelvin Sheppard has a serious opportunity to shine next year.
After announcing the shift to the 4-3, the Bills acknowledged that Shep will handle MLB duties while veteran Nick Barnett will bounce outside.
As the Bills continue to improve up front, Sheppard will have plenty of opportunities to make plays. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are slotted as the starting defensive tackles, which should open up a lot of space for Sheppard to roam.
The move on defense puts him in his ideal position, and his statistics will increase across the board as a result. Consequently, Sheppard will have a chance to put his name in the ranks of some of the NFL’s top middle linebackers, as his tackles are sure to flirt with the 100 range.
With Marcell Dareus, Aaron Williams and Kelvin Sheppard selected in the first three rounds last year respectively, the 2011 draft class is already shaping up to be a successful one.
Buffalo brought Edwards over from Baltimore as a free agent in the 2010 offseason, and, at the time, it was a great move. A versatile veteran from a top defense, Edwards was expected to see significant playing time as a 3-4 DE.
The Bills gave him a four-year, $18 million contract with that expectation. However, now that the team is shying away from the 3-4, Edwards is less of a fit.
He made 52 tackles last year and added 2.5 sacks. That was in his natural defensive scheme.
Edwards is scheduled to make $3.8 million next season, and, as a less than ideal fit on a defense starving for stability, there’s a possibility that he is cut prior to next season.
His veteran leadership could still be an asset to the team, but if Buffalo is targeting a pass-rusher or two this offseason, Edwards might be the odd man out so that the Bills could use that money on other needs.
At the end of the day, Nick Barnett really won’t be much affected by the defensive transition. He’s experienced and athletic enough to bounce outside and should still have a very productive season for the Bills.
But this won’t be a natural fit for him. In Green Bay, Barnett averaged 109 tackles over his first seven seasons as an inside linebacker, per Rotoworld. His sideline-to-sideline range, instincts and intelligence were on display as a 3-4 tackling machine during that time.
Barnett is 6’2” but is only about 230 pounds, which is a bit small for most 4-3 outside linebackers. So while I expect him to still have a huge impact for the Bills’ defense, his tackles will likely drop a bit in 2012.
Hopefully, his sack number increases in return. In his career, Barnett has never recorded more than four sacks in a season. Perhaps next season will be his first after moving to the outside.
Where to begin with Shawne Merriman.
“Lights Out” had even more injury problems last season, undergoing Achilles surgery and fixing a shoulder injury, according to GM Buddy Nix per Bills’ lead journalist Chris Brown.
If his injury history isn’t enough of a concern, Merriman—a natural 3-4 OLB—will now be asked to play mostly as a situational pass-rusher on third downs out of the 4-3.
The Bills already guaranteed Merriman about half of his two-year, $10 million contract he signed in January 2011. While cutting him could save some money against the cap in 2012, Buffalo is expected to retain the pass-rusher with fingers crossed that he can get healthy and offer a threat off the edge.
A 4-3 edge rusher may not be the ideal fit for Merriman’s former self, but considering where he is at this point in his career, he’ll take what he can.
Who knows? Maybe if he is healthy, a limited pass-rushing role will be a good thing for the less-explosive veteran. That is, if he makes the team and passes his physicals.