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Wannstedt seeking pass rushers and fast LBs

Buffalo's new defensive coordinator is far from having all the pieces in place for his defense. With free agency a month away, the NFL draft still two months away and a couple of their more important players coming off surgeries Dave Wannstedt still has a few balls up in the air. One thing he is sure of is the need for pass rushing defensive ends and fast moving linebackers.

Wannstedt addressed the media for almost a half hour about the team's new 4-3 scheme Thursday afternoon, and wasn't shy about the essential elements of a successful over front.

"Whenever you go from a three-down look to a four-down look the obvious change is defensive linemen and everybody knows that," he said. "We have a lot needs. (We need) three linebackers who can run, not the big 3-4 linebacker. We're looking for guys who can run and make plays."

Kelvin Sheppard will be the middle linebacker in the new 4-3 front with Nick Barnett expected to line up on the open side as he did much of the time in the team's nickel package last season.

The beautiful thing about Nick is really nothing has to really change for Nick," said Wannstedt. "From a position standpoint, he'll be outside in the 4-3, inside in our nickel package. He's one of those few linebackers that is legitimately a three-down player."

The veteran coach has two other solid building blocks to work with up front in Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, who are going to man the two defensive tackle positions. Wannstedt said Williams rehab from Achilles surgery is "on schedule" and that there have been no setbacks. As for Dareus he believes the potential is almost limitless. He calls his scheme "defensive line friendly" meaning it will put his interior defenders in position to make a difference.

"When you reflect back to the defenses I've been responsible for the guys up front have been playmakers," he said. "It's really trying to put those guys in the best position where we can use their talent where they can play fast and give them an opportunity to make plays."

Where things will be changing is at defensive end. The team finished 27th in the league in sacks and 28th in opponents completion percentage (63.3%). Wannstedt needs defensive ends that can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

When asked about some the players on Buffalo's roster that lined up at defensive end in the team's 3-4 front last season and how they would transition to a 4-3 scheme, Wannstedt indicated that being able to get to the quarterback must be a part of their skill set.

"The thing that you want to try to avoid is situational players, as much as you can," he said. "Every guy that (we had) could go out and play defensive end and he could play the run and play it very good, but with how the defensive end position in my mind gets separated, it's the guys that can rush the passer."

Shawne Merriman (6'4" 255) has the size to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but is coming of Achilles surgery, and after the way last season played out for the pass rusher Wannstedt is taking a wait and see approach. 

After Merriman, veteran Chris Kelsay is the only true 4-3 defensive end that's proven he can get after the passer and he doesn't even consider himself a sack specialist. So the need to add pass rushing talent is obvious and Bills GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have both stated as much.

Wannstedt and his defensive assistants spend half their day putting the defensive playbook together and the other half studying college prospects and free agents to assist the pro and college personnel departments in finding the best fits. With all those variables Buffalo's defensive boss isn't at the point where he can say just how big a jump the Bills defense will take in 2012, but he's happy with the foundation.

"I feel that because of some of the young players that played last year that these guys we're going to coach and take a step forward so that's very encouraging," he said. "Then adding a few guys to the mix in free agency and the draft you're optimistic that that's going to give you a chance to take a step forward. We've just got to do a good job as coaches and players and get everybody on same page and get this thing cranked up and get it going."

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