Transitioning from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 defense is far easier said than done. That exact transition has begun this off-season in Western New York, as new Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards, hailing from Miami's 3-4, is bringing the alignment with him to his new team.
Matt Warren spoke briefly about recent teams transitioning to the 3-4 a week ago today, and one of the teams covered was the 2009 Denver Broncos. That team, under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (who has since relocated to Miami), made fantastic strides defensively in their first year in the system, improving from a No. 29 finish in total defense in 2008 to No. 7 overall just a year later.
One of the major catalysts to Denver's success defensively was inside linebacker Andra Davis, a free agent the team added to their roster in March of 2009. Davis, a veteran of the 3-4 defense from his days in Cleveland, was widely credited for the smooth transition that several of Denver's linebackers made into the new defense, including stud pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, along with D.J. Williams and former Bills linebacker Mario Haggan.
Denver released Davis for two reasons: asked to do a lot more than he is physically capable of, Davis wore down as the '09 season progressed. He's always been a liability against the pass, and Denver head coach Josh McDaniels places a large emphasis on carrying three-down players. Denver was ready to move on from Davis. Now the linebacker, entering his ninth professional season, will be asked to play a critical role in Buffalo.
Edwards has worked with Davis before, though their stint together was brief, as they spent just one year together in Cleveland (2004) when Edwards was Davis' positional coach. That Browns team ran a 4-3 defense under head coach Butch Davis, and it was only a year later that Davis and the Browns became acquainted with the 3-4 under new coach Romeo Crennel. As such, Davis enters his sixth consecutive season in the 3-4.
Luckily, the 3-4 Edwards was schooled in is based on the same philosophy and technique - taught down by Bill Parcells - that Crennel preached in Cleveland. The scheme is bred from the same coaching tree, so Davis should transition very easily into Edwards' 3-4, having both experience with the system as well as with the coordinator.
Davis will be asked to play the strong-side ILB spot in this defense. The function of the strong-side ILB is to line up on the strong side of the offense's alignment, eat up blockers at the line of scrimmage against the run, and free up the other linebackers to make more plays. Davis won't have huge numbers in this defense, but if fellow starting ILB Paul Posluszny does, Davis will have done his job very well.
As mentioned up top, Davis is a liability against the pass, as he's a bit limited athletically. He'll be more protected in Buffalo than he was in Denver, and will solely be a two-down player with his new team. This increases the need for the Bills to find a suitable nickel linebacker to play alongside Posluszny, who is likely the only three-down linebacker on the roster.
Despite his limitations and his likely low statistical output, Davis was easily Buffalo's most important free agent signing this off-season. Building a football team is about much more than plugging roster holes and finding talented players. Davis was signed to a very reasonable two-year deal, so it's clear that he's not necessarily a part of the Bills' long-term plans from the outset. He's here for a specific purpose: to be a "coach on the field" type, play a limited on-field role, and help the team make that important schematic transition.
The signing was a very wise one. Limiting Davis' role will preserve his effectiveness in this scheme throughout the entire season. Buffalo has a lot of young players learning new positions and techniques, and Davis' presence will help speed up that transition. He's an incredibly important figure entering the 2010 season, even if we might not notice his impact on game days.