2011 Buffalo Bills: The Evolution of the 3-4 and Fixing a Pourous Run Defense
This article will be taking a detailed look at how the Buffalo Bills have attempted to rebuild their defense and fix the worst rush defense in the NFL. The story will cover the past season as well as the recent draft.
When new Buffalo Bills General Manager hired Head Coach Chan Gailey in January of 2010, he was asked to rebuild the Buffalo Bills organization. One month later, Gailey hired George Edwards to become the new defensive coordinator. The old regime was led by Coach Dick Jauron and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who since have moved on to other organizations.
After evaluating the 2009 team, Nix, Gailey and Edwards felt a scheme change was necessary, so the decision was made to convert to a 3-4 defense. That decision was made even though the Bills defense did not have the proper personnel to implement it. That is what the draft and free agency are for. This kind of massive sweeping change does not happen overnight. It is a process that typically takes years to bring in the right personnel and let players grow in to their roles.
Early Steps of the 3-4 Defense
The Bills started the process of upgrading their front seven with the 2010 NFL draft when they selected defensive linemen Torell Troup and Alex Carrington, and linebackers Arthur Moats and Danny Batten. They also signed undrafted rookie free agent Antonio Coleman.
In the offseason the Bills continued to add pieces to the puzzle with the signings of veteran free agents Andra Davis (inside linebacker), Reggie Torbor (outside linebacker) and Dwan Edwards (defensive end). The starting holdovers in the front seven from 2010 were defensive tackle Kyle Williams, defensive end Marcus Stroud and Chris Kelsay, linebackers Paul Posluszny, and Kawika Mitchell. They also had other returning veterans like Spencer Johnson, Keith Ellis, John McCargo and 2009 first-round draft pick Aaron Maybin.
At summer camp, veteran All-Pro defensive end Aaron Schobel decided not to report even though he was under contract for a huge payment, as he was now contemplating retirement instead. The Bills would miss his steady play and toughness at the line of scrimmage. Then rookie Danny Batten suffered a season-ending injury and went to I.R.
The Bills were taught the nuances of the 3-4 defensive scheme and began to understand what their new responsibilities would be. There was lots of trial and error involved. Players were coming and going left and right, as players were released like Nic Harris (LB), Lonnie Harvey (DE) and Donovan Woods (LB).
The 2010 Season Unfolds and Is One to Be Forgotten
Before the season ever began, the Bills suffered a blow as Kawika Mitchell suffered a bad injury, and went on I.R. on Sept. 10th. The Bills had no real depth behind him, so signed free agent Akin Ayodele. As the Bills kept Miami (132 rushing yards) and Green Bay (92 rushing yards) somewhat in check, there was no sense of panic. But teams now had enough tape to figure out how to expose the Bills weaknesses in the 3-4, and the floodgates started to open.
In Weeks 3-5, the Bills gave up three straight games of more than 200 yards rushing starting with New England (38 rushes for 200 yards), New York Jets (49 rushes for 273 yards) and Jacksonville (40 rushes for 216). After that, the Bills took their bye in Week 6 to regroup and promptly held a strong rushing attack of Baltimore to 135 yards (which for the Bills was good).
Those good feelings quickly went away the following week when Kansas City rushed for 45 times that resulted in 274 yards with an average rush of 6.1 yards. From a personnel standpoint, it appeared that the Bills were lost. Chris Kelsay at times looked like he had never played a down of football in the NFL. Aaron Maybin couldn't find a way to get on the field. The Bills had released linebacker Chris Ellis in October and then put linebackers Andra Davis and Keith Ellison on IR in November.
That is when the Bills made a waiver claim on Shawne Merriman, as Buddy Nix knew Merriman well from his days in San Diego. Merriman tried to return but tweaked his Achilles, so 24 days after the Bills claimed him, Merriman was placed on season-ending IR, but that just seemed par for the course.
Is There a Silver Lining to All This?
As the season hit the final month, more bad news hit. Dwan Edwards, Reggie Torbor and Antonio Coleman all were placed on the IR list. Through all of the injuries, there was a silver lining as some of the rookies started to get more playing time and on-the-job training. Arthur Moats, Alex Carrington and Torell Troup all saw an increase in their snaps per game. Moats made the hit on Brett Favre that ended his consecutive game starting streak. Due to the experience gained, they are that much further along now.
The other silver lining was the emergence of Kyle Williams as one of the best nose-tackles in the NFL. Making the Pro Bowl game is a testament to his level of play. He is gaining in reputation around the league and will serve as a solid building block in the front seven for as long as he can play.
By the time the season ended, the Bills were dead last in the NFL in giving up the most rushing attempts (571), most rushing yards (2,714), most yards per average attempt (4.8) and most yards per game (169.6). They also gave up the most first downs via the rush (138) and the defense was on the field for more plays that forced them to make the most tackles (1337) in the NFL.
Speaking of tackles, the Bills wound up with two defenders that placed in the top five. Posluszny finished third with 151, while safety Donte Whitner was fifth with 140. In fact Whitner was the only non-linebacker to place in the top 13 in the league. That is another sad reality of the Bills rush defense, that running backs kept making it down the field to the last line of defense.
Bills Enter the 2011 Offseason and Make More Changes
So, after watching the defense give up such huge numbers, Nix and Gailey reviewed the tape and made more moves. They did not give any kind of tender offer to free agents Akin Ayodele, Keith Ellison, or John McCargo. The Bills released starting end Marcus Stroud, who signed a deal with New England. The Bills did make a tender offer to Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner.
The Bills also made a key addition to the defense when they hired ex-NFL Head Coach Dave Wannstedt to become the Bills Inside Linebackers Coach, as well as to serve as the Assistant Head Coach to Gailey. Wannstedt has many years of defensive coordinator experience, so he will be in position to help George Edwards and Gailey with any in-game adjustments or scheme modifications that need to be made in the 2011 season.
Gailey said for the upcoming season that the Bills will flip between a 3-4 to a 4-3 look depending on the opponent and even take on a hybrid kind of look during games as well. So, all of this information is helpful in preparation for the 2011 NFL draft. Knowing that they would be going to different looks at different times throughout the year, the Bills must have been keeping an eye out for players that offered some degree of flexibility to their game.
The 2011 NFL Buffalo Bills Draft Class
Consider the following: The Bills used their first pick on Marcell Dareus, who played defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle at Alabama. He is astute at stuffing the run, at caving in the pocket, and at tying up offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage, which frees up the linebackers to attack the ball.
Then the Bills drafted Texas defensive back Aaron Williams with the second overall pick in the second round. Williams has played corner, nickel, and some safety for Texas.
The third round pick was inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, who made at least 100 tackles in each of the last two years at LSU. He will be an inspirational addition to the defense, along with Dareus, of course. But he will be a tackling machine and will be brought in to compete for the starting inside linebacker role with Andra Davis.
The Bills came back to address stopping the run with a few more picks in day three of the draft. The Bills drafted Chris White, another tackling machine out of Mississippi State, in the sixth round. White played for Chan Gailey at the Senior Bowl.
In the seventh round, with the pick at 245, the Bills decided to give a shot to a player from tiny Bethel College in Tennessee, the behemoth Michael Jasper. Jasper has weighed over 400 pounds but is now down to the 370s. He will provide depth at nose tackle and then some.
How Much Time Will the Bills Have to Coach These Rookies in 2011?
I do want to address the players lockout by the NFL owners. This is something that can jeopardize the growth and learning curve of the Bills defensive players. From OTA's, adding new wrinkles to the schemes, fine tuning what positional responsibilities are, all of that is on hold until a new labor agreement is reached.
The rookies would be on a crash course anyway to get up to speed on how to adjust to a game that is much faster than anything they ever saw before. But if the OTA's are not going to happen due to the lockout, that puts their development into serious doubt. They might not be in position to contribute much to the early season games, and may need to slowly work their way in to the lineup.
While the Bills will be reviewing the undrafted rookie free agents, they now can look at what holes they still have on the front seven and attempt to prioritize what veteran free agents they want to go after. I suspect that signing Paul Posluszny is still something the Bills want to do. With the secondary help they drafted, Donte Whitner may not be needed back, but time will tell.
When will Dave Wannstedt get on the field time with his rookie linebackers? They need to understand the defense inside and out and that is done on the practice field. With each passing week, the lockout will hurt the Bills team defense for 2011.
Now That the Draft Is Over, What Is Next?
So, for now the Bills have done whatever they are allowed to do, until free agency is allowed to start back up again. You can see through all of the personnel moves that the transition to the 3-4 has not been the smoothest or easiest thing to accomplish. Based on the results from 2010, it may look like a terrible idea. But with each passing year, the Bills will continue to fine tune the personnel to bring in people that will execute better and make the defense formidable again. This recent draft was a huge step in the right direction.
There are a couple undrafted rookie free agents that could still be on the Bills' radar. Depth is always an issue for Buffalo, and as we detailed in the article, injuries at linebacker always seem to hit the team. One player I would like the Bills to bring in would be inside linebacker Alex Wujciak from Maryland. Another potential player is Mark Herzlich, the Boston College inspirational player that is recovering from cancer.
The reviews of the Bills draft class are coming out now left and right. This was an extremely solid draft for Buffalo, and may have been their best one in the past six years. Anyone that tries to tell you differently is either a hater, writes for another team, or just simply doesn't understand football. They may also be a fantasy football player, but that is a whole different story.
Expect to see progress on the run defense this year Bills fans. Will we ranked 32nd again? No way. Will we be first? Don't expect that either. But I do think we will be moving up the charts and see considerable progress this year. By the time the 2012 season rolls around, the Bills should be even more comfortable in their roles in the 3-4 and executing it better and better.