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 a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.
The potency of the Bills' pass rush has centered around Aaron Schobel for the better part of the past decade. He has been the linchpin on which Buffalo's pressure packages have relied most, and entering the 2010 campaign he is still at the forefront of the discussion. Unfortunately his tie to the pass rush question is whether or not he'll be around to be a part of it.
With Schobel admitting in June that he's leaning toward retirement, the burden of carrying the pass rush mantle could soon fall to second-year linebacker and former first-round pick Aaron Maybin. He has his share of veteran support in players like Chris Kelsay, Reggie Torbor and inside linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who times his blitzes as well as anyone on the roster.
But what figures to help Maybin and his teammates the most is the new 3-4 scheme being implemented by defensive coordinator George Edwards.
"I just think its better suited to us because when you run a 3-4 defense it just gives you the opportunity to throw so many different things at the offense," said Maybin. "When you run 4-3 packages you're a little bit more limited in certain things you can do from a blitz perspective and certain looks that you can give.
"When you run a 3-4 defense it's really hard for the offense to match up with a lot of the guys, especially when you have a lot of the athletes that we have on this team. Athletically it's going to definitely create a lot of matchup (problems) for some teams."
Buffalo is expected to have a hybrid type of 3-4 system that may morph into some 4-3 looks depending on down and distance, but the 3-4 scheme is largely what will define their defensive approach this season. A system isn't always the defining factor in a team's success in developing a consistent pass rush. Sometimes it's premier talent that carries the day (see: Bruce Smith). But with Buffalo's talent largely unproven in a 3-4 scheme, Edwards' system will be depended upon to create opportunities.
What has Buffalo's players encouraged about their new scheme when it comes to the pass rush is a track record of proven success for the 3-4. With coordinators able to more effectively disguise their intentions in a 3-4 front it makes it more difficult for offenses to adjust their protection schemes to account for anyone and everyone that might be bearing down on their quarterback.
"If you look at the trend that's gone on in the league, if you get the right guys in and play it right it seems like we should be able to make more plays and get guys on the quarterback," said Paul Posluszny. "It seems like there are always a lot of good pressure schemes coming out of the 3-4. I'm excited about it. It should be a good change for us."
In 2009, 3-4 defensive units accounted for seven of the 10 highest sack totals in the NFL, seven of the 10 lowest completion percentages allowed by opposing passers and six of the 10 highest pass breakup totals. It's a small indication as to how effective the 3-4 scheme can be in creating pressure and disrupting the opponent's passing attack.
In a league where passing is becoming more and more prevalent year after year, being able to thwart that propensity is critical.
"We think it will be the most advantageous thing to start out with because it gives us the flexibility to adjust to a lot of things where offenses will have to guess who is rushing and who is dropping, what we're doing coverage-wise, it should help with the disguise aspect of what we're doing," Edwards said of his 3-4 scheme.
But how much can be accomplished in year one?
Buffalo is coming off a season in which they did increase their sack totals from 24 in 2008 to 32 in 2009, but that was with a healthy Schobel, who was responsible for 10 of those quarterback takedowns. If he is not in the picture can the likes of Maybin, Chris Ellis, Kelsay and Torbor lead the charge?
One good example of what's possible can be found in the switch to the 3-4 by the Green Bay Packers in 2009 under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a coach under whom Edwards has worked in the past.
Last season the Packers were able to increase their sack total by 10 to go from a ranking of 25th to 11th in the league. Their opponents' completion percentage, which was already very low, also improved dropping to 54.4 percent to rank second in the NFL in 2009. And their interceptions and pass breakups went up by eight and 10 respectively, with the Packers leading the league in interceptions with 30 last year.
Most important is the fact that they did it without one of their best pass rushers for half the season as Aaron Kampman played in just nine games last year logging just 3.5 of the team's 37 sacks.
As proven as the 3-4 system might be in generating pressure opportunities, ultimately Maybin and his teammates realize they can't rely on the scheme to make plays.
"I think the fact that you never really know where the blitzes are coming from, where the pressure's going to be coming from, just from an offensive standpoint, it makes it a lot more difficult," said Maybin. "But at the end of the day X's and O's are only X's and O's. As players we've got to go out and make things happen."