Buffalo Bills Defense Built to Be Successful Under Jim Schwartz

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Buffalo Bills Defense Built to Be Successful Under Jim Schwartz
Jim Mone/Associated Press

It's funny, slightly ironic, that we'll now be calling the Mike Pettine era the "old guard" of the Buffalo Bills defense. Everything he brought to the table had such a new-school feel to it. From the attitude to the creativity of the play calls to the exotic blitzes, fronts and rush packages, the Bills defense was about as far removed as possible from the Dave Wannstedt vanilla defense.

Changes will certainly continue now that Jim Schwartz has been named the defensive coordinator to replace Pettine, who has shoved off to be the Cleveland Browns head coach, but what Schwartz brings to the table might just be the perfect fit for what the Bills already have in place with their defensive personnel.

"We have some outstanding players up front," Schwartz said at his introductory press conference, "and it's our job as coaches to put them in good position to make plays. Whether that's carry-over from last year's scheme, whether that's new things that we bring, I think that's what coaching is all about. It's putting players in position to make plays and that'll be a pretty easy group to do it."

Schwartz's defensive line talent
2007 Titans Sacks Tackles Assists
Kyle Vanden Bosch 12 48 12
Antwan Odom 8 16 5
Albert Haynesworth 6 32 8
Tony Brown 4 32 20
Team 40 739 218
2012 Lions Sacks Tackles Assists
Cliff Avril 9.5 28 7
Ndamukong Suh 8 25 10
Nick Fairley 5.5 26 8
Kyle Vanden Bosch 3.5 28 8
Team 33 638 231
2013 Bills Sacks Tackles Assists
Mario Williams 13 28 10
Kyle Williams 10.5 42 26
Jerry Hughes 10 32 14
Marcell Dareus 7.5 45 26
Team 57 792 379

Source: Pro Football Reference

Bills fans can begin to let visions of Lions defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley do sack dances in their head, as the Bills feature two stout tackles of their own in Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Jerry Hughes could be a modern-day Cliff Avril, and Mario Williams is the perfect answer to Kyle Vanden Bosch.

For better or worse, the Bills could rely on the talent of their front four. The better: If that defensive line is as dominant as it was in 2013 (first time a defense had three defenders with 10 sacks or more since the 2000 New Orleans Saints), the Bills can commit extra defenders to coverage.

The worse: It puts a lot of pressure on the defensive line to carry the burden for the defense. If the pressure doesn't get home, the coverage won't hold up forever. 

"We're an attack scheme, it's a scheme built on the guys up front getting after the quarterback," he said, according to BuffaloBills.com. "As much as you want to be multi-dimensional with personnel groups, this league comes down to one on one and I think we have some guys that can do that." 

That sounds closer to Wannstedt than Pettine. 

In 2012, with Wannstedt still entrenched as the D-coordinator, the Bills sent five rushers or more at the quarterback on 17.5 percent of their opponent's dropbacks. The very next year, Pettine's first and only one on the job, the Bills ramped it up to 38.8 percent—a full 21.3 percent increase.

Schwartz could bring back painful memories of the Wannstache, as his Lions defense sent five or more defenders after the quarterback on 18.5 percent of their opponents' total dropbacks in 2013.

For now, it sounds like Schwartz will at least be receptive to adjusting his philosophies if need be. 

"Mike and I are different guys and even though I think continuity is important and there's something to be said for that," Schwartz said. "We're going to look very hard over the next few months for ways to keep as much continuity as we can. From a coaching standpoint a lot of times it's coaches adapting to players."

As Bleacher Report NFC North lead writer Zach Kruse tells me, though, Schwartz's scheme has helped his defenses get off the field over the years. Kruse thinks that Schwartz may be even more successful with the Bills defense than he ever was with the Lions. 

In both Tennessee and Detroit, Schwartz's defenses were among the best at stopping the run and getting off the field on third down. I think both are essential building blocks to a good defense, even these days when passing is such a focus. Winning on third down consistently is huge. The Lions were so good at getting off the field in 2013. Especially in Detroit, his defenses were always on the attack, and that front four brought never-ending disruption. He'll be getting another great defensive front to work with in Buffalo, and I think he's proven an ability to get the best out of them.

I think it's a strong hire. Overall, there's probably more talent in Buffalo than there ever was in Detroit. Schwartz might not have the right set of skills to be the face of a franchise, but he can coach defense. 

Kruse is onto something. Between Dareus, the Williams', Hughes, rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso and others, if the Bills can keep free-agent safety Jairus Byrd from leaving the nest, they'll have a loaded defense for 2014.

As it pertains to the scheme, not much will change. 

The Bills were in a 3-4 defense on 74.2 percent of their base snaps in 2013, making them a "base 3-4" defense, but that title is misleading; in fact, 12 of their 20 most frequently used packages featured a four-man line, and their most frequently used package overall was a 4-1-6 dime package. 

Source: NFL Game Rewind

Usually, when the Bills were in a 3-4, it was because Mario Williams was lined up in a two-point stance. However, Williams only dropped into coverage on 16 of his 1,027 snaps in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), so there was little illusion to the fact that he was truly a defensive end, not an outside linebacker. According to PFF's measures, Williams was not targeted on any of his 16 coverage snaps.

So, while there will undoubtedly be much talk of the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, the transition won't be as painful as it seems; not only did the Bills spend most of their time in sub packages, but even when they were in a 3-4 look, the principles remained largely the same.

Pettine also would send different players on the rush to help free up his defensive linemen to make plays. 

The Bills defense has been through two extremes in the past two years—going from a conservative defensive coordinator to a more aggressive style—but the next chapter for the Bills defense may be somewhere in between.

"We'll be fast, we'll be physical. We want to attack," Schwartz said. "We're not going to be a reading defense. There are going to be a lot of defensive linemen who are going to be pretty happy to play in a system like that."

If the Bills defensive line continues to play at the level they proved capable of in 2013, Bills fans will be pretty happy, too.

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. 

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