The Buffalo Bills defense was the saving grace during a disappointing season, and now its coordinator—Mike Pettine—is drawing head coaching interest.
Pettine is on the list of candidates to be the next Cleveland Browns head coach, and according to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Browns will interview him a second time.
His reputation comes from years working under Rex Ryan, in his time with the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets. Some people questioned whether Pettine was pulling the strings on the Jets defense, or whether he was the puppet. Those questions were put to rest in 2013, as Pettine breathed new life into the Bills defense.
The final product looked a lot like the Jets defense, with the high-pressure scheme making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. The Bills allowed the league's lowest completion percentage (55.3 percent) and the league's third-lowest passer rating (74.9) while finishing in the top 10 in passing yards and passing yards per attempt.
|Buffalo Bills defense|
|Year||Pts||Yds||Pass yds||Pass comp %||YPA||Passer rating||Rush yds||Rush YPA|
|2012||435 (26)||5806 (22)||3473 (10)||57.1 (5)||6.8 (11)||84.4 (15)||2333 (31)||5.0 (30)|
|2013||388 (20)||5334 (10)||3271 (4)||55.3 (1)||6.5 (7)||74.9 (3)||2063 (28)||4.4 (23)|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Pettine took a defense that was one of the league's worst against the pass and the run and improved it nearly across the board.
He put his stamp on the defense early. The Bills blitzed on just 17.5 percent of their opponents' dropbacks in 2012, but after a year of Dave Wannstedt's vanilla four-man rush with a focus on conservative play, Pettine gave the pass-rush a shot of adrenaline. The Bills sent extra defenders after the quarterback on 38.8 percent of opponents' dropbacks in 2013.
Of course, much of the Bills' defensive improvement can be attributed to the stellar play of the defensive line. Defensive end Mario Williams' 13 sacks led the team, but both defensive tackle Kyle Williams and defensive end Jerry Hughes finished with double-digit sack totals, as well. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus finished just short of 10, with 7.5 sacks of his own.
Spearheaded by that group, the Bills finished with 57 sacks as a team, the second most in the NFL. At times, though, their production was a product of the scheme. With extra defenders being sent on the rush, the offensive line had to account for other players, at times leaving the defensive line in one-on-one situations with an offensive linemen.
There were also times where Pettine's defense created confusion with its pressure packages. It would creep extra men up to the line, only to have them drop into coverage. Sometimes, it'd send four linemen on the rush; other times, one of those linemen would drop, and a linebacker or defensive back would come on the rush. Put it this way: The success of the players was, at times, a product of the scheme, the play-calling and the coaching.
The one area that will be cause for concern is the Bills run defense, which was one of the league's worst. It finished in the bottom 10 for run defense in every major category (attempts, yards, yards per attempt), but even those numbers ended up being an improvement over last year, and context helps explain the struggles.
The Bills gave up 19 running plays that traveled 20 or more yards, the most in the NFL. Cleaning up their technique may have helped them rank in much better standing than where they ultimately finished.
Pettine's versatility makes him a great candidate for any opening—not just Cleveland. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick handed out some praise for Pettine, pointing out his ability to keep an offense guessing.
"They do a good job mixing it up.," Belichick said. "You just can’t say, 'Well, they're going to blitz us every play.' They're not going to do that but you can't say they're not going to blitz you either because they do. [It] keeps you honest and I think that's why they're having a lot of success."
His versatility expands to other areas. After years of studying the 3-4 defense under Ryan, folks in Buffalo wondered whether Pettine would employ a 3-4 or a 4-3 look. The majority of Buffalo's defensive roster is comprised in the mold of a 4-3 defense, including its most expensive player, Mario Williams.
As it turns out, the Bills truly didn't have a base defense. Pettine proved to be adaptable, utilizing primarily a four-man line. All 20 of Buffalo's most common defensive alignments featured four defensive linemen. However, 12 of those 20 alignments were nickel or dime packages, and the Bills spent no less than 170 defensive plays in a 4-1-6 dime package, lending more context to their struggles against the run.
Perhaps Pettine would have used more than one linebacker more often if the Bills had more than one linebacker worth using. Rookie Kiko Alonso burst onto the scene, birthing a "legend" in the process, but neither Nigel Bradham nor Arthur Moats stood out as a viable option for extended playing time next to Alonso.
He was able to take a group lacking talent and build it into one of the more secretly impressive units in the league. Give him a talented defense like the Browns, and there will be no secret to the dominance that will unfold.
The only potential hangup would be Pettine's lack of experience with the offensive side of the ball. He might need the help of an astute offensive coordinator to take control of that side while he works primarily with the defense. We've seen how that can be a problem, as Rex Ryan came from a defensive background and still has yet to master the intricacies of offensive football.
With so many teams so desperately trying to strike gold with a quarterback-head coach combo, a defensive-minded head coach is a rarity these days; only three of the 13 head coaches hired in the past two years have come from a defensive background. That may be just what the Browns need, but if it's not, he could still be a fit elsewhere in the future.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.