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Bills turn to 4-3 as new base defense

It was largely anticipated when Dave Wannstedt was named defensive coordinator at the close of the 2011 campaign, but head coach Chan Gailey made it official on Monday.

"On the defensive side of the ball we're going to base more out of the 4-3 front," he said. "That shouldn't be the headline because if you look around the league today people are playing four-man front, three-man front, they're playing a little bit of everything."

Buffalo was very much a hybrid scheme each of the past two years, but steadily gravitated more to the 4-3 in the second half of the 2011 season. It's a departure from coach Gailey's initial plan to become a 3-4 defense when he was first hired. Gailey's main impetus in moving to the 3-4 then was knowing how difficult it was to play against from an offensive perspective, but in two seasons the scheme could not deliver successful results. Buffalo finished 32nd and 28th against the run each of the past two seasons.

According to Gailey however, there were other reasons why the decision was made to lean more heavily to the 4-3 front.

"I think that we want to utilize our personnel to the best and we feel like this will allow us to do that," said Gailey. "Second, Dave is very comfortable and very knowledgeable in this defense and he's the guy we wanted doing the job. So that was another reason we're doing it. And third, it's easier to find people. It's tougher to find people in the true 3-4 in a lot of ways, so it makes it a little easier to find some people from time to time to run a four-man front as opposed to a three-man front. It gets extremely hard to find those outside backers year in and year out. It gets tougher and tougher."

For a player like Chris Kelsay it's a positive. The veteran has been a more valuable player with his hand on the ground as a left defensive end as opposed to an outside linebacker.

"Myself personally I'm more comfortable in a 4-3, that's what I played for seven years and at the beginning of my career as well as college and high school," Kelsay told Sirius/XM NFL Radio earlier this month. "That's where I'd feel like I'd be the most productive. I had fun in the 3-4, but with being limited based on personnel and all the injuries that piled up at the end of the season we played a little more four-man front."

Kelsay explained that 40-45 percent of Buffalo's defensive snaps the past two seasons were in their four-man front nickel package so transitioning to more of a base 4-3 should not be difficult.

"Everyone is playing a lot of hybrid right now, and I'm sure we'll incorporate a lot of that too, but the 4-3, that's what Dave (Wannstedt) is known for. You look at the guys especially up front who we have, a healthy Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, you put a four-man front out there with those two guys next to each other that's a pretty good duo."

Gailey isn't dismissing the three-man front completely, but it's clear that the four-man front is going to be the identity of Buffalo's defense in 2012.

"We're going to start in the four-man front," he said. "When we hand you a lineup card it's going to have two defensive tackles, two defensive ends and three linebackers. It's going to start that way. How much we end up in even spacing, odd spacing I can't tell you that now. I think that's determined by players and the offense we're playing (against) and what they give us."

The only position lock in the linebacking corps appears to be Kelvin Sheppard, who Gailey said would be the team's middle linebacker next season in the 4-3 scheme. Veteran Nick Barnett would presumably be on the open side or weak side linebacker so Wannstedt can make use of his athleticism. Even in 3-4 looks last season Buffalo often kept Barnett on the open side away from the tight end so he could effectively flow to the ball and make plays."

That leaves a strong side linebacker spot open for competition and possibly a free agent addition or add in the draft this spring. The Bills will also need a stout middle backer to back up Sheppard for depth.

"We at some point need another linebacker," said Bills GM Buddy Nix earlier this month. "Now we've got Chris White, Kirk Morrison is up. I don't know what will happen with him. We need another linebacker. We've got some guys that are tweeners, I'm talking about Moats and Batten, those guys will get a shot at linebacker. But we need another one."

The shift in defensive fronts will presumably make Shawne Merriman a defensive end in passing situations. Previously he spent his entire career as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

"We're going to try to put our guys in position to be successful whatever that position might be," said Gailey who maintained that their needs on defense don't change with the front. "I think you still want to rush the passer and you still want to cover them."

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