Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we'll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.
The Bills coaching staff underwent a bit more change than they likely anticipated after the first season with Doug Marrone as head coach. After defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was named the head coach in Cleveland there were a few other defections that followed. Buffalo also added to the staff on the offensive side of the ball to lighten the heavy burden on offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Nathaniel Hackett. Where will all the new additions help most in 2014?
4 – Planning ahead
His title might sound vague, but Marrone has a pretty specialized role for Senior Offensive Assistant Jim Hostler. He'll be reducing the planning burden on Hackett by essentially acting as an advance planner for future opponents. When the balance of the offensive staff will be prepping for a Wednesday game week practice installation, Hostler will already be putting together the nuts and bolts of the Thursday practice.
"For us what we were looking to get someone who could help us greatly as far as the game plan goes being ahead," Marrone said. "What happens is you get to Wednesday and you get third down and you're just starting third down and Hostler will have already done it. The next day is a red zone and you're getting started on it, but he's already ahead. It saves you a lot of time during the week and you can put a lot of time into doing what's best for the quarterbacks."
Hostler will also do a lot of self-scouting to keep the offense from falling into any telling tendencies that would present an edge to a defensive opponent. He's essentially going to be the oversight committee for the offense. At times he might even move on to the opponent the team faces the week following their upcoming game.
"I'm really looking forward to what he's going to bring to us offensively and in helping us better prepare our players and put them in better position and help us with our game plans," Marrone said.
3 – Winning background
When you have a defensive line with three Pro Bowl players and a fourth who is coming off a 10-sack season you better have a position coach that can provide something players of that caliber have yet to achieve. Enter defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. After 13 seasons as a player, 14 as an NFL assistant Johnson enters the defensive line room with built-in respect. More importantly he brings a winning background with enough Super Bowl rings to fill every finger on one of his hands.
Johnson came to Buffalo from New England as he was eager to get out from behind Bill Belichick's large shadow. Bills MLB Brandon Spikes, a former pupil of Johnson's, has enormous respect for a coach he feels will lift that unit to new heights.
"Oh man, a great coach, a great inspiration for the game," said Spikes of Johnson. "He loves the game. He's definitely what I want to be down the road, a great ball player and coach. He just knows the game and I respect him as a man and as a coach."
Buffalo has a lot of money invested in their men up front on defense, but Johnson is not one to let it cloud how he's going to push some of the most talented players on the roster.
"The game is being overshadowed by salaries, by money, by the makeup, by negative publicity and at times positive publicity," Johnson said. "To a true football player none of that stuff matters."
2 – Scheme
Buffalo's defense will be adjusting to their fourth defensive system in four seasons. Though it sounds like an adjustment period will be needed through the first month of the 2014 campaign, the coaches and players are convinced the transition will not be a heavy lift.
Under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz an effort has been made to have a fair amount of carry over from the previous scheme. The Bills defense is expected to be almost exclusively a 4-3 front, but that does not mean they'll be locked into a rigid, unwavering approach.
"It's going to be opponent specific," said Schwartz. "It's going to be multi-dimensional enough to be able to do that. We're an attack scheme, it's a scheme built on the guys up front getting after the quarterback. As much as you want to be multi-dimensional with personnel groups, this league comes down to one on one and I think we have some guys that can do that.
"Whatever anybody wants to tag the system as far as a name, it won't be us. We're just going to try to do whatever we can every week to do the best to have the game plan. I think the similarities you'll see is we'll be fast, we'll be physical. We want to attack. We're not going to be a reading defense."
Buffalo appears to have a coordinator that knows how to put together a run defense and one that can stymie opposing offenses on third down. His history goes far beyond Detroit, but Schwartz's defense last season finished sixth against the run and first in third down defense.
"When you look at hiring defensive coordinators you want to look at people that you don't like going against their defense," said Marrone. "Jim's defenses have always been very tough, very difficult to run on, very difficult to score on. They've been aggressive and it's been very tough to game plan against them."
1 – One-on-one attention
Bills GM Doug Whaley said surrounding EJ Manuel with top flight talent to help raise his game was a top priority this offseason. Whaley did not only mean teammates when he made that statement. Buffalo also added the aforementioned Hostler and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Downing will be the day-to-day tutor for EJ Manuel and the other QBs.
"My job is going to be a mentor to these young quarterbacks," he said. "Now what that entails to me is teaching them how to prepare, teaching them what it's like to cross every 'T' and dot every 'I'. In a general sense that's going to be my focus."
Both Hostler and Downing have worked with former first-round quarterbacks, who dealt with injury problems early in their career. Hostler tutored Alex Smith in San Francisco and Downing worked with Matthew Stafford in Detroit. Getting EJ Manuel to perform consistently in 2014 coming off an injury-compromised rookie year is a road that both have traveled before.
Downing is known as a coach who will not dwell on any negatives. He won't ignore an error if there's a lesson to be learned, but on the whole it's evident his intention is to keep Manuel and the other signal callers focused on what's coming next, rather than what has already taken place.
"If a play doesn't go like we want it to go, you've got to keep moving," said Manuel. "You've got 40 other plays left in practice or in a game. He's very positive. I love that aspect of him."
The daily one-on-one attention of Downing is expected to be a valuable and beneficial resource for Buffalo's starting quarterback to take the next step in his development as an offensive playmaker.
"Having a personal quarterbacks coach, obviously he coaches all four of us QBs, but having the ability to call him anytime of the night if I have a question is amazing," said Manuel. "I know with coach Hackett he's very busy. He's the offensive coordinator so he oversees all of us on offense, but having that specific coach for me gives me a great feeling. I know each and every day he's going to bring something new to the table that we can learn from."