The term 'tweener' was once considered a negative label in the NFL. It typically meant that you were too small to play the run as a defensive end, or too big or stiff to drop as an outside linebacker in coverage. Buffalo's defense however, welcomes tweeners with open arms.
"We used to call them tweeners and that wasn't a good thing. Now we call them hybrids and it is a good thing," said Bills head coach Doug Marrone. "I think as a coach you can't get fixated on exactly what I need. I need a 6'6" 275-pound, 4.7 guy because when you go out and look there aren't that many players out there like that. So you have to have schematics where you can fit people in and put them in position and then ask them to do what they do well. I think that's what we're seeing with our defense."
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has made player versatility an asset instead of a liability in his defensive scheme. Through the spring practices, Pettine and his staff had most of their players focusing on their primary positional roles. The priority was mastering the fundamentals in year one of the new scheme. At times however, there was some cross training at secondary positions.
"You don't want to start to push a guy toward learning a second position until he's mastered his original," said Pettine. "But at the same time the strength of the system is its versatility. We can have a guy on a certain play fill the role of a safety. Then he's a corner the next play, a linebacker the next play. A guy that's an end can play outside linebacker and then off the ball linebacker.
"We want them to master their first position before we give them jobs that other positions might do. That's a credit to the staff they've done a good job to make sure we've nailed down the original fundamentals first before we took another step."
Players like Jerry Hughes, Marcus Dowtin, Alex Carrington, Aaron Williams, Duke Williams and Mario Williams all lined up in multiple roles in Buffalo's defense. The main aim is to keep the best talent on the field even when formational fronts or personnel groupings may change from one play or one series to the next.
"We always want to be in the business of having our best out there," said Pettine. "I think it's critical in the NFL, whether it's injuries or evolving offenses where they're constantly changing personnel, where you have to have your best 11 out there and have guys who can play multiple spots."
Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams for example have played outside linebacker and defensive end. Marcus Dowtin has lined up at both inside and outside linebacker. Alex Carrington has manned nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end. And Aaron Williams and Duke Williams have both played safety and cornerback.
"I just think in the past particularly with the defensive systems some players were probably always labeled tweeners," said defensive line coach Anthony Weaver. "But a tweener is perfect for us. That's just what we're looking for."
"We've cross-trained these players," said Marrone. "As we go forward I think it gives us an advantage sometimes that we can take players like that and put them to use and get great production."