Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.
Not long after Dave Wannstedt was installed as Buffalo's defensive coordinator the decision was made that the Bills would be moving to a 4-3 defensive front after spending the previous two seasons trying to implement a 3-4 scheme. Prior to the arrival of Chan Gailey and his staff, Buffalo's defense had been a 4-3 front for almost the entire decade. What's unfortunately remained constant through all those changes is a very poor run defense. Can Wannstedt's new scheme significantly improve the unit's effectiveness in stopping the run?
There's very little debate that the additions Buffalo made on the defensive side of the ball are going to help revive the club's moribund pass rush. Mark Anderson, a healthy Shawne Merriman and Mario Williams are all significant pass rush upgrades. But despite the increased passing percentages across the NFL, teams still like to run the football, especially against teams that have struggled to stop it.
In 2011 the top five defenses in the league were all 3-4 defensive fronts. On the flip side the defenses ranked six through 10 last year were all 4-3 fronts. So what does it mean?
The equal balance of 3-4 and 4-3 defenses in the top 10 is an indication that it's the players you have in the system that matters more than the system you're running.
"Obviously players win games, not coaches and you've got to have talent," Wannstedt told Buffalobills.com. "Whether you're a 4-3, an under or a 3-4, it doesn't make a difference. I believe we have players that will win games for us. As coaches we've got to put them in position where they can play fast, use their ability and execute."
Against the run Buffalo appears to have that talent, particularly in their first line of defense. While Mario Williams and Shawne Merriman are proven pass rushers, both are accomplished run defenders as well. With a healthy Kyle Williams joining Marcell Dareus in the middle and veteran Chris Kelsay expected to play on run downs, it's a formidable run front.
With veteran linebackers Kirk Morrison and Nick Barnett flanking up and coming middle backer Kelvin Sheppard there looks to be solid wrap-up talent behind the front four. But as Wannstedt sees it you need more than a front seven to stop the run these days.
"Offenses are so good right now," said Wannstedt. "You could have a great cover corner and he doesn't have to do anything but cover wide receivers. Our safety is going to be the (run) support guy. Well they're going to line up in a bunch set or give you a formation where they crack the safety and eliminate him and whether you like it or not your corner has to be the run support guy. Offenses are too good if you're just one-dimensional. You need guys that can do everything."
Fortunately for the Bills, where they might see their greatest improvement in their run front is with the run support provided by a pair of young physical cornerbacks in Aaron Williams and top pick Stephon Gilmore. Both are accomplished open field tacklers and provide consistent run support at the first and second level depending on their coverage calls. The safety tandem of George Wilson and Jairus Byrd provide reliable tackling between the numbers as well.
Buffalo's defenders are committed to changing a run defense ranking that has languished in the bottom third of the league since 2005, including run defense rankings of 32nd and 28th the past two seasons. Those players that were here last season are also looking to return a lot of the lumps they took in 2011.
"Just know we took a lot of good notes, mentally and on paper about those teams," said Kelvin Sheppard of those than rolled up rushing yardage on them. "And I'm pretty sure we have them scheduled this year coming up."
"The most important thing for us is being accountable, running to the ball and just creating havoc," said Mario Williams. "It's up to us to make plays. It's up to us to get better to make the team better. We put all that on our shoulders, but it's internally and it's something that we expect to do amongst ourselves."