It was only used by Perry Fewell a couple of times last Sunday, but it was yet another wrinkle that Buffalo's defensive coordinator put into the game plan for a specific opponent. In the first half of Buffalo's game at Miami last week, Fewell lined up four defensive ends at, or at least near, the line of scrimmage.
Ryan Denney, Anthony Hargrove, Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel were all up front with no defensive tackles on the field. Schobel on one play was roaming toward the middle of the formation like a creeper. Hargrove was up in a two-point stance. Kelsay was lined up at defensive tackle and Denney was at the other end position.
Buffalo's defensive players have come to enjoy keeping opponents on their toes.
"For really the last four or five weeks we've been adding something different every game and just keeping offenses kind of on their toes," said Kelsay. "It's good obviously for our defense to keep them uncertain of what's coming. A lot of times we end where we would have, had we just lined up in our base or our normal techniques. But by moving around and shifting guys it makes it a little confusing for offenses."
But Fewell isn't just moving players around in the four defensive end alignment, he's also changing the personnel from what's typically inside on an obvious passing down. Often times Fewell will use one defensive end, usually Hargrove, at tackle in third and long situations to enhance the speed of the inside rush, and he'll leave one defensive tackle in as well.
However, with four defensive ends in at once the speed can be intimidating, especially for larger more plodding offensive lines like the Dolphins.
"Miami has some big offensive linemen," said Denney. "We thought if put some extra speed in there we might be able to confuse them. Ideally you'd like to rush on the outside being an end, but if you can wrap around or come where it's wide open you're all for that. Hopefully if they haven't seen the blitz yet and they're not ready to block it correctly you can come free and get pressure on the quarterback."
The first time the alignment was used came on Miami's second possession on a 3rd-and-9 at their own 30, but Aaron Schobel was called for offsides. Giving the Dolphins a peek at the alignment, Cleo Lemon, upon seeing it the next time during Miami's ensuing possession checked to a run call.
But Jesse Chatman was dropped for a one-yard loss by Kelsay.
"They checked to a draw," said Kelsay. "We held up pretty good in there. Granted it wasn't a top play on that formation, but it's something I'm sure we'll continue to use here."
"Chris was lined up inside and they were not used to a guy with his speed," said Denney. "They're trying to block him and he's running over two or three gaps and they're trying to chase him down and they can't catch him."
When opponents see four defensive linemen, they will often check to a run play to take advantage of the smaller defensive players inside, feeling their offensive linemen can overpower them and create a good lane for the running back. But Denney, Hargrove and Kelsay all have experience inside and handle the run well.
"Teams might think it's a weakness for us to have two ends inside, but it's a strength," said Hargrove. "Having guys like Kelsay or me or Denney inside, we can play the run in there. It just allows us to extend our defensive package a lot more and we get more freedom that way."
"They're all pretty good run defenders," said John DiGiorgio of Buffalo's ends. "So if a quarterback sees them and checks to a run, they can handle it or at least keep the back from getting a first down."
As much as Buffalo's defenders have enjoyed implementing the new defensive looks into their game plans each week, they also know executing them effectively on Sunday will only encourage Fewell to continue to formulate new alignments.
"As long as we give him the confidence that we can do more stuff then he'll go home at night do what he does and dream up whatever he's thinking about and continue to give us more new stuff," said Hargrove.
And now that all that new stuff is on Buffalo's game film all of the Bills' upcoming opponents need to prepare for it.
"I think Buffalo does a really good job defensively with their players and their scheme," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "They give you a number of different looks, coverage-wise, pressures, personnel. They use a lot of different people on their front."
It will be interesting to see if Buffalo chooses to go back to that four end look knowing the game plan for the Bills defensively is pretty straightforward Sunday night.
"Our main objective is getting to Tom Brady," said Kelsay. "When we've had success against them we put pressure on him. It's the only way you can do it. If he's having all day back there to throw the ball he's going to pick you apart."
In reality the four defensive end look will probably only be used occasionally during games in second and very long situations or third and long. But when used at the right time it can throw more collective speed at an offensive line than they can handle.
"That's the strength of our defense, it's our speed," said Denney. "If we can utilize that in the game we'll be better off. I don't know how much we'll go back to that with the four ends, but when we do hopefully it works again and we can put pressure on the quarterback and he's forced to run out of the pocket because we've got the ends to run him down."