In 2013, the Buffalo Bills defensive line became the first in franchise history, and the first in the NFL since 2000, to have three defenders with 10 sacks or more. In 2014, they'll have to be just as productive if the Bills' defense is going to be effective.
That's life in a Jim Schwartz defense. Where former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was never afraid to turn up the heat with the more-than-occasional blitz, Schwartz has held a preference to a four-man rush in his time as the Detroit Lions head coach.
That means the men up front will be getting less help on a "strength in numbers" basis. The difference in philosophy will likely signal a difference in the pressure on those defensive linemen.
"Mike did a great job there. It's going to be a different system. Jim Schwartz's system is completely different than Mike's, so it's going to be 4-3, with the ends getting up field, more two-deep coverage. Mike is more of an odd-front pressure defense, so it's going to be interest to see how Jim transitions that."
|Defensive blitz numbers|
|Defense||Total passing downs||Blitz||No blitz||Blitz %|
|2012 Buffalo BIlls||583||102||481||17.5|
|2013 Buffalo Bills||613||238||375||38.8|
|2013 Detroit Lions||615||114||501||18.5|
The Bills have seen this kind of scheme before (but with this being their fourth different defensive coordinator in the past four seasons, there's not a lot they haven't seen). Schwartz's defense looks a lot like former Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's scheme.
In fact, the 2013 Lions blitzed almost exactly as often as the 2012 Bills, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Wannstedt's name is also associated with (aside from the sweetest '80s mustache ever) some of the worst defense the Bills have seen in recent memory.
That year, the Bills' defensive line totaled 32 sacks, and the defense as a whole managed just 36. As talented as the Bills' defensive line may be, it's fair to wonder whether they are up to the task of consistently getting pressure with just a four-man rush.
It goes beyond just the run defense. That group—along with some linebackers lacking youth, athleticism, talent or all of the above—was also responsible for allowing 4.96 rushing yards per attempt. They allowed 5.95 YPA through the first seven games, the highest average allowed through seven games since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
The run defense remained an issue in 2013 (4.38 YPA), but the Bills defense at least did its damage against the pass. Pettine's scheme had a wide range of rush, pressure and blitz packages, and the defensive line benefited greatly.
The four starters on their own accounted for 40.5 sacks, but they certainly had some help along the way from a scheme standpoint.
Even when there were only four defenders rushing, they wouldn't always just be the defensive linemen; sometimes an end would drop into coverage, with a cornerback coming off the edge to try to get an unblocked rusher.
The above third down-play against the Cincinnati Bengals is a prime example of some of Pettine's finest third-down play-calling.
Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes all line up with their hand on the ground, with linebackers Jamaal Westerman and Kiko Alonso creeping up to the A-gaps and safety Da'Norris Searcy lined up over tight end Jermaine Gresham in what appears to be man coverage.
However, the four defenders on the left side of the defense all rush the quarterback, while the two on the right side drop into coverage. This leaves a four-on-three advantage for the defense with an "overload" concept, despite sending just four defenders after the quarterback.
Those are the subtle yet "aggressive" ideologies that were set in motion by Pettine, and Schwartz would be wise to let those influences continue on his watch.
Make no mistake; the Bills' defensive linemen should be talented enough to execute this scheme. The Bills earned 31 of their league-leading 57 sacks on plays that did not involve a blitz.
This was not a sack, and was not even intentional grounding (although one could argue the "catchability" of this ball), but it still exemplifies the ability of the Bills' defensive front four to get after the quarterback. No tricks, no end-tackle stunts, no exotic pressure packages—just four guys finding a way to beat five guys.
It will be up to Schwartz to maximize the talent on the defensive line for the Bills to be successful, but he won't be alone in that endeavor.
The Bills recently hired former Patriots positional coach Pepper Johnson to be their defensive line coach. Head coach Doug Marrone knows how important it will be to maximize the defensive line, and he sees the value in bringing in a new voice to coach what he considers an enviable group of defensive linemen.
"If every defensive line coach had an opportunity to coach a group of players I would think that our group of defensive linemen would be somewhere near the top if not at the top," Marrone said, according to Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News. Marrone continued:
You have players that have experience, players who have performed. It's very important you bring in the right type of coach for them, to not keep their game going the same way—keep it stagnant—but to grow. [Johnson] brings a lot to the table as far as making sure that technically they're going to grow—whether it's using their hands, how do they attack, how do they pass rush—but he's also going to bring a lot to the game as far as experience and what it takes to win.
The Patriots defensive line play declined over Johnson's time in that role, but they also stopped investing in the position. When Johnson assumed the job, he also took over a line that featured Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork as its starters.
The next time the Patriots took a defensive linemen in the first round was after Johnson had already returned to his old role as the linebacker coach.
There have been some bright spots—in 2011, the Patriots were able to squeeze simultaneous double-digit sack totals out of defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter—but the Patriots defensive line play was fairly pedestrian other than that. Perhaps Johnson's best work will come with one of the most talented groups he's ever had.
If it all comes together for the Bills defensive line, the unit as a whole could continue to ascend. However, history tells us the Bills should avoid becoming too predictable.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.