Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a defensive system that is predicated on player versatility. Without multiple players that can line up at two or three defensive positions, Pettine's ability to disguise play calls becomes compromised rendering his scheme predictable. That's a death-knell for any NFL defensive system. Fortunately Pettine is finding in the team's OTA practices that he has a healthy number of versatile players.
"We've been pleasantly surprised with the cumulative intelligence of the group because we've had to do a lot early," said Pettine. "We've started early focusing on fundamental stuff rather than scheme, but we've still had to throw a lot at them schematically to get up to speed. We don't want to go too slow with it. I think we've done a good job blending the fundamentals with the schematics of it and the guys have responded."
In evaluating the practices Pettine is finding he has a fair amount of flexibility with his defensive personnel, which is allowing him to not only oscillate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks, but to also shift players to different positional roles from one down to another.
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Mark Anderson, Alex Carrington, Marcus Dowtin, Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson and Bryan Scott are just a handful of front seven players that offer Pettine position flexibility.
Carrington, who has played defensive end, defensive tackle and even some outside linebacker in his time with the Bills has been moved up and down Buffalo's defensive line. In practices this week he's been given the opportunity to play mostly three-technique at defensive tackle.
"Coach Pettine, is just doing a good job of throwing stuff at us," said Carrington. "Seeing what we can absorb. Now, with that experience of playing different positions, it's a little easier to take in having done it before."
After Pettine was named defensive coordinator this offseason there were some outside observers who automatically assumed that Mark Anderson would not be the best fit in the new defensive system. Pettine sees things quite differently.
"Mark's specialty is rushing the passer and obviously he's very eager to do that, but he has some skill as an outside linebacker as well on early downs," said Pettine. "So we're going to take advantage of his strengths and we've been bringing him along slow. When he was coming out of Chicago a couple of years ago we really liked him as a guy coming off the edge."
"This defense we've got we're all over the place," said Anderson. "I might be a defensive end one play, an outside linebacker standing up on another play. I don't know what my set position is right now, but I have been working at both."
Marcus Dowtin is a player with whom Pettine had some familiarity after he spent most of the 2012 season on the Jets practice squad. He appeared in a few games last season for New York as well, but mainly as an inside linebacker. Buffalo's defensive coordinator believes he can diversify Dowtin's positional portfolio.
"Where we've been training him as an outside linebacker here," said Pettine. "He's another player that has some position flexibility. He's athletic enough, he can play inside, he can play outside. He can do some safety-type jobs, he can do some defensive end type jobs. Again, that's the type of player that we'll always have a role for in our system, with that amount of versatility."
"Right now I'm just working on a lot of pass rushing and some coverage work," Dowtin said. "I've never played outside linebacker before. I've mostly played inside like a rover last year with the Jets. It's fun out there though because you can get after the quarterback. It's exciting."
As much as position flexibility among his players will help in disguising Buffalo's intentions on defense there is a secondary benefit to exposing players to multiple defensive roles.
"Injuries are part of the game, and we're always as a coaching staff in the business of putting our best 11 out there and we want to be in a position to do that," said Pettine. "When you cross train guys to play other positions you have guys that know multiple jobs. That makes it a lot easier."
Pettine has done some similar cross training in the secondary with Aaron Williams making the shift to safety, and rookie Duke Williams a candidate to take on some cornerback coverage duties in addition to his natural position of safety.
The added responsibilities put on the players might seem daunting, especially when trying to learn a new defensive scheme, but the players have embraced the extra duties. They know if they prove themselves versatile it will translate into more time on the field.
"Wherever they put me (doesn't matter). I'm going to play," said Carrington. "That's all I can ask for, just put me out there. It's definitely a fun and aggressive defense. It allows multiple guys to make plays, so I'm looking forward to it big time."