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5 differences to expect in Sean McDermott's defense

Posted Jan 12, 2017

It’s pretty obvious that Buffalo’s defense will be undergoing significant change under new head coach Sean McDermott. Bills former safety and radio color analyst Mark Kelso helps to outline the five biggest differences to expect with McDermott’s 4-3 scheme.


1 - Lots of zone
In stark contrast to Buffalo’s previous man coverage scheme, McDermott’s scheme plays a good deal of zone coverage. Cover 3 along with Cover 2 and Cover 4 are among the more popular calls on the back end of his defense.

“In Carolina they played a lot of zone under McDermott,” Kelso said. “When they went to the Super Bowl they were playing a ton of Cover 3 with basic zone defense and had linebackers that really understood leverage control and where to drop and whether they needed to be inside or outside of receivers.

“McDermott’s defense is going to be more of a base type defense and guys will understand where they need to be and when they need to be there as opposed to being in man coverage. Rex played a lot of man, sometimes some two-man. They didn’t have any one thing that they settled on, but it was more of an aggressive man defense with combination coverages.

“It’s more of a match zone. You’re not dropping to a spot on the field. You’re dropping to a spot in relation to where a receiver would be in your area of the field.”

2 - Disruptive up front
The previous defensive scheme often had Buffalo’s interior defensive linemen standing their ground and play two gaps. McDermott’s scheme will demand more penetration up the field.

“With a 4-3 defense it’s all about those guys up front being disruptive,” said Kelso. “It’s going to be more like Jim Schwartz’s defense was in Buffalo when he turned defensive linemen loose on the pass rush.

“The nose tackle might have some cutback responsibilities coming down the line, but I think he’ll turn them loose. He wants his guys up front to be really disruptive. He doesn’t want linemen getting downfield on his (middle) linebacker. You want that guy to be able to run and get to the football and make plays.”

The idea is the disruption of things up front will force hurried throws by the quarterback creating opportunities for takeaways, a category where McDermott defenses have often been among the league leaders.

“It creates turnovers because you’ve got guys in throwing lanes,” said Kelso. “McDermott makes sure guys in the drop zones know exactly where they need to be regarding inside or outside position on a particular receiver that’s in your zone area. In a 4-3 you want to penetrate and disrupt what’s going on.”  

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3 - Run support CBs, coverage safeties
With a 4-3 scheme that focuses on forcing run plays outside a premium will be put on corners that are strong in run support, while the coverage schemes demand safeties that can cover a lot of ground.

“They’re not going to be guys who are coming down in the box as much,” said Kelso of the safeties in McDermott’s scheme. “They’ll be guys who need to know where they need to be to help cornerbacks as far as their positioning. They’re going to be less apt to be down in the box. He’s going to expect his guys up front to disrupt things enough so they don’t have to be in the box.”

As for the cornerbacks they’ll need to get involved in defending run plays.

“If they’re going to play a good amount of Cover 2, you’re going to need cornerbacks who can come up and tackle in run support,” Kelso said. “That’s the strength of your defense when you’re playing cover two, when those guys can jam and sink back if the route is trying to be run behind them, but they can come up and force the play as well.

“When you’re playing in a cover two situation with a 4-3 defense you’re going to spill everything to the edge. You want things to go to the edge, but you’ve got to have a cornerback out there ready to defend that.”

4 - Linebackers that can run
In the new 4-3 scheme the ‘mike’ linebacker will need to be a sideline to sideline player. He’ll be more of a blitzer and the weak side linebacker will have a ton of ground he’ll be responsible for in coverage.

“Yes, a lot of coverage responsibilities,” said Kelso of the weak side linebacker. “He’ll be responsible for quick slants. He’ll have to know how to drop into that weak side dig route zone. At about 14 yards he’ll have to get up underneath that regardless of whether it’s cover three or cover two. He’s going to mean a lot in coverage and be an important component of a good pass defense scheme.”

As for the middle linebacker, he’s going to put a lot of crooked numbers in the tackle, sack and pass defense columns if he can get to all the spots he needs to on time.

“In a 4-3 scheme you need your mike linebacker to be able to run,” said Kelso. “He’s got to be more than a tackle to tackle guy. He’s going to have to go sideline to sideline sometimes.

“When Carolina went to the Super Bowl they were playing a ton of Cover 3 under McDermott with basic zone defense and had linebackers that really understood leverage control and where to drop and whether they needed to be inside or outside of receivers.

“Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly really understood where they needed to be, how much width they need and where the hook zone is, which can become a different spot on the field based on what the receiver is doing and the route combinations.”

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5 - Straightforward concepts
Unlike the previous scheme, which had a ton of pre-snap checks and audibles within a call based on the anticipated strategy of the opposing offense, McDermott’s scheme allows the defense to match up as a collective group.

“When I saw Carolina play they played a lot of Cover 3 and a lot of Cover 2,” Kelso said. “They know where everyone in the defense should be and they functioned as an entire unit. They weren’t changing based on the offensive personnel that was on the field, or the particular strategy they felt the offense was going to employ. They lined up and decided they were playing Cover 2 for example. They knew all the nuances that existed within the defense and what they needed to do to adjust. You can use a Cover 2 to adjust to anything as long as everybody is doing what they need to do and guys understand everyone’s responsibilities. It’s all about executing the defense with precision.”

Suffice to say there will be less terminology and fewer deviations within the scheme, which should allow players to play fast and confidently.

“The coverage changes won’t be anywhere near the level of what Rex tried to employ,” said Kelso. “So there is a lot less variation in McDermott’s defense than the previous system. That should make it easier for the players to know the limitations of the defense, so they can account for them when they defend the play.” 

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