The Bills had little trouble getting to the quarterback last year in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense. A front-4 of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes will do that for you. But how will this group fare in Rex Ryan’s aggressive 3-4 scheme this season?
One needs to look no further than 2013 to find out. That year, Mike Pettine was the defensive coordinator. Having come from the Jets, where he served as the defensive coordinator for 4 years under Rex Ryan, Pettine implemented a system in Buffalo very similar to Ryan’s. The Bills finished with 57 sacks that year, 3 more than their league leading 54 in 2014.
There are a few misconceptions that moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 will be a major adjustment, especially for defensive ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. The thought is that instead of having their hands in the dirt on just about every play in a 4-3 and exploding forward off the ball, in a 3-4 they will vary their time between getting upfield and dropping out into coverage as outside linebackers. Or perhaps they’ll spend some time as 5-technique defensive ends forced to 2-gap instead of attacking the offense.
Here’s the thing to consider, though. NFL defenses are more often in sub-packages than in base personnel. This means Nickel, Dime, and other personnel variations. Every team uses a true 4-down look at least some of the time in these sub packages (the majority of teams use it most of the time). For instance, 32 of the Bills 57 sacks in 2013 came from a 4-down look. 45 of their 57 sacks came when the Bills were in some kind of sub-package personnel. So the majority of their sacks came when they were not in a traditional base 3-4 despite being a supposed 3-4 defense. This means that Buffalo’s vaunted front-4 will still have plenty of opportunities to rush the quarterback out of a 4-down look in Ryan’s defense.
The other thing to consider is that Rex Ryan doesn’t really use a true 3-4 alignment all that often. Below is another look that Ryan likes to use when he is in base personnel. This is from a game in 2013 (when Pettine was the defensive coordinator). It is actually closer to a “4-3 Under” alignment than a true 3-4. As you can see, similar to how he would be used in an actual 4-3 base defense, Mario Williams has his hand on the ground ready to rush the passer.
What makes this a “4-3 Under” look is that the 3-technique defensive tackle is to the weak side of the offensive formation (away from the tight end).
With the 1-technique defensive tackle occupying the center, this makes it more difficult for the offense to double-team the 3-technique and defensive end to that side. Here, you can see that both the 3-technique and Mario Williams are in 1-on-1 matchups against the guard and tackle respectively.
This type of look will absolutely benefit the likes of Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. It will also benefit Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams whenever they are aligned as the under 3-technique.
The simple translation for all of this is that whether you put Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 or a Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 base system, they will still get to the quarterback. A look at their numbers from the last two seasons supports this notion. Hughes had 10.0 sacks each year. Mario Williams had 13.0 sacks in 2013 and 14.5 in 2014. Kyle Williams had 10.5 sacks in 2013 and 5.5 in 2014, while Dareus notched 7.5 in 2013 and 10.0 last season.
This isn’t to say a system change won’t be an adjustment. Of course it will. Rex Ryan’s defense is more complex than Jim Schwartz’s. However, with that complexity comes the ability to attack the offense in more ways. So while players will have a wider array of alignments and responsibilities, they’ll also be able to come at the offense in unpredictable ways. Last season, it was tough enough for offenses to keep the Bills from getting to the quarterback when they by and large knew where everyone would be. That level of difficulty should increase tremendously now that Bills defenders will not always align in the same spot.
Let’s also not forget that no one in the game is better at getting free rushers to the quarterback than Rex Ryan. He loves to use overload blitzes that manage to break down protections and get defenders in free without always sacrificing coverage. He’ll continue to confuse and confound quarterbacks around the league with all of the unconventional looks he draws up. Not only will he move Mario Williams and Hughes around, but he’ll also put Marcell Dareus on the edge as Pettine did at times in 2013. He’ll put his defensive ends to one side and his defensive tackles to the other, creating mismatches in Buffalo’s favor. Without a doubt, Ryan will find ways to isolate his best pass rushers in 1-on-1 situations. And when his D-line is drawing all of the attention, he’ll blitz his faster linebackers and safeties.
Ryan would be able to do most of this with 4 bums on his defensive line. The fact that he has arguably the best front-4 in the league means that even when he isn’t manufacturing pressure on the quarterback, the Bills will still be able to get pressure. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that Ryan has much better cover corners in Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey than he had in New York over the last 2 years. He’ll be able to play the aggressive press-man coverage he loves this year in Buffalo.
Regardless of whether or not the Bills finally make the playoffs this season, one thing is certain – there aren’t too many offenses that will enjoy playing against them in 2015.