by Anthony Stampone
While we Bills fans are well aware that it has been said and documented that the Bills defense will not commit to being distinguished as a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive base scheme. While many teams around the league will follow suite and claim the same generic public speak, we all know Ryan and DC Thurman will be running primarily a 3-4 base defense with all Ryan’s wizardry and flat out genius schemes being mixed in to take advantage of match ups and to confuse the opponents offense. One thing that will remain largely consistent and yet may be somewhat of a surprise to some fans or even some opponents will be the placement of Mario Williams and his use in Ryan’s defensive scheme.
It is well documented that Ryan doesn’t just like to, but loves to mix up his personnel and where he has them placed on any given play which plays heavily into his defensive madman strategy to confuse offenses and have plays attack and cover in ways they never saw coming. Mario will not be one of these moving parts on a frequent bases. Yes, it is true and well known that Mario was used as an OLB in Houston and even here in Buffalo when Pettine was our coordinator. However, Mario’s skill set is unique and will be maximized by keeping him on the defensive line with his hand on the ground on over 90% if not even more. We all know the Bills have arguably the best defensive front four in the NFL. With that being said lets look at a little bit of history, before we discuss what this defense will look like this year.
Even though the Bills are running a very similar scheme that was used with success while Pettine was here, some things about that defense made no sense and cost the Bills badly in some important statistical categories. Although the Bills set the franchise record in sacks that season they still strongly struggled in rush defense. Much of this could be contributed to the misuse of key players in an effort to be to complex and unpredictable. Mario was one of these players. Due to these errors in alignment the Bills ranked 28th in total rushing yards allowed in 2013 under Pettine. Although Mario still had a great sack season and produced on the pass rush, his skills as a run stopper and edge setter were not used properly and unfortunately it cost the Bills in the run stopping category even though we still had Marcel and Kyle blowing things up on the interior of the line, and Kiko Alonso, Jarius Byrd, and Aaron Williams cleaning up what was left of the carnage that those great DT’s left in their path. Even with all that run stopping, the play making skill of the defense was not able to be productive in an area they should have dominated. Fast-forward to 2014 and insert DC Schwartz and his base 4-3 scheme. Even with significant changes among the LB positions, and a new starter at safety, Schwartz and his 4-3 scheme which put Mario back where he belongs and wants to be on the edge with his hand in the dirt. With all these changes and personnel moves the Bills with the same four monsters up front made a mammoth jump from 28th in the league against the rush all the way up to 11th. All of this success was gained against the rush while the Bills remained dominate against the pass. Most of this gained rush defense success can be attributed to the defensive line and the proper use of the personnel that accentuated their skills and abilities to allow the defense to flow in a better more efficient manner against the run as well as remain a dominate force against the pass.
With all of this being said it’s easy to see the how, where, and why Mario will be playing the majority of the time this season and why it makes the most sense. It’s no surprise or any kind of ground breaking news that Mario is regarded as one of the best pass rushers in the league. What may be surprising is his immense talent as an edge setter in the run game and his ability to eat up multiple blockers to allow the LB’s the ability to come in and clean the running game. This easily can be recognized even by the most casual fan by watching even one Bills game last season. Due to Mario’s already dangerous and explosive abilities as a pass rusher he often commands being double teamed on most plays as it is. What Mario is able to do and does not receive enough credit for is his ability to diagnose a play as it’s happening and set an outstanding edge that running backs don’t have much success getting around and leaves large holes in the offensive lines that leave plenty of room for LB’s or a safety the ability to quickly move in and clean up what’s left of the play (if it wasn’t already taken care of to begin with). Something else to keep in mind aside of Mario’s outstanding ability to play a defensive end in both a 4-3 and 3-4 setting is Mario’s pure desire to play with his hand in the ground. If you can think back to when Mario agreed to terms with the Bills he did so on the belief that he was going to be able to get back to his roots and put his hand back in the dirt and get after the quarterback as he did in college. At the time the Bills DC Dave Wannstedt promised Mario and that would be the case and it was, that is until Wannstedt was removed from his position as DC (which I do not believe anyone is/was crying about it at the time or even now. Lastly, something else that needs to be taken into consideration are to major personnel moves the Bills will clearly be making under Ryan’s new defense. Manny Lawson thrived under Pettine in a similar scheme as an OLB and seems to have already caught the eye of both Ryan and Thurman as a penciled in starter OLB starter again for his ability to rush the passer, stop the run, but more importantly defend against the pass as a cover LB. The MLB positions are covered by Bradham and Brown and that leaves one more OLB position open. If you haven’t figured it out yet that spot is clearly for Jerry Hughes and his new giant (and well earned) contract. Even with all of Rex’s elaborate schemes, blitzes, and personnel packages something that isn’t going to change or not change often is our front four. They can call it a 4-3 or 3-4 all they want but nothing will change with the four guys up front even if it means they line up a little different. Let’s not kid ourselves Hughes even as an OLB will rarely drop back in coverage as it is clear what his strength is, Marcel and Kyle will continue to do what they do best and that is destroy teams interior linemen and lastly, Mario will still be and DE even in a 3-4 setting and continue to be the beast that we know his is with his hand in the ground, not standing up, that will be Manny’s job again.