Bills head coach Doug Marrone said going into 2014 they're looking to fix their shortcomings wherever they might be. On the defensive side of the ball stopping the run persisted as a problem where Buffalo ranked 28th in the league. That statistic alone may have played a role in why the Bills had Jim Schwartz at the top of their candidate list to step in as their new defensive coordinator.
In Schwartz's last 13 years of NFL coaching his defenses have ranked sixth in the league or better against the run six times. This past season in Detroit, where he served five seasons as head coach, was one of those six where Schwartz's defense under the direction of Gunther Cunningham ranked sixth in the NFL.
"(Coach Schwartz) was even more involved in the defense this past year and I think it's the best defensive statistical stats that we had since he's been here," linebacker Stephen Tulloch told the Detroit Free Press. "So he understands what it takes to prepare us and put us in good situations."
It was the best showing for the Lions' defense, which improved against the run in the league rankings every year since Schwartz took over the team in 2009.
During his eight seasons as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans under Jeff Fisher, Schwartz's unit had four seasons in which they ranked fifth or higher in run defense (5th in 2001, 2nd in 2002, 1st in 2003, 5th in 2007) with a sixth place ranking in his last season in Nashville (2008).
The unit's production slipped between 2004 and 2006 when the Titans roster experienced a good deal of turnover with an influx of youth on defense. Former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck remembered the transition those defensive units had to make.
"We had talent in Tennessee with our defense when Schwartz first became our coordinator, but it had to be re-cultivated," Bulluck told DetroitLions.com. "It was the same thing with Detroit. They drafted talent but it had to be cultivated."
Over the eight-year span in which Schwartz was Tennessee's defensive coordinator his defense ranked fifth in the NFL in run defense with the Titans giving up 103.5 rush yards a game (2001-2008), ninth in interceptions and 13th in takeaways and sacks.
However, what has gone largely unnoticed in Schwartz's past 13 years of coaching is how effective his defensive units have been on third down. In eight of those 13 seasons his defensive unit has ranked in the top 10 in third down defense an impressive eight times.
Even before he was a coordinator in the 2000 season, when he was in charge of the Titans third down package defensively, the Titans led the NFL in third down defense allowing conversions less than 31 percent of the time.
His Detroit Lions squad ranked third and 10th in the league in third down conversion percentage allowed in 2011 and 2012. This past season Schwartz's defense was the best in the league allowing conversions an NFL low 30.3 percent of the time.
In a league that is leaning more and more each year in favor of the pass, Schwartz's expertise in dialing up the right calls on third down could prove instrumental in grounding some of the best aerial attacks in the NFL.
Kyle Vanden Bosch, who played for Schwartz in both Tennessee and Detroit and logged 54 sacks in eight seasons with Buffalo's new defensive coordinator, said players felt so prepared going into games that they felt they could accurately predict what their opponents were going to run.
"From a defensive lineman standpoint, we don't usually pay attention to formations and down and distance because he had that broken down for us," Vanden Bosch told the New York Times. "We knew what to expect out of certain formations, and what plays they can run. We would have a quiz in front of the whole defense on Friday and he expects everybody to know that."
"He's definitely a guy that's going to make sure you have the information," Bulluck told Detroitlions.com in 2012. "He's a smart coach. What that translates into is him being smart enough to understand his players, realize the talent he has and put them in the best position to be successful, or to get coaches that can get through to those players and understand where they need to be within a defense."
Buffalo's third down defense ranked a respectable 14th in the league this past season, but prior to that ranked 31st, 21st and 30th. Schwartz's units have ranked lower than 14th in the league just three times in the last 13 years.
"We had a defense that would go out and hunt and go out and play hard and it didn't matter who we were playing," Bulluck said. "We were out there to kick (butt)."