On Monday, Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey announced that he'd promoted Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator, a post from which he'd just released George Edwards. The move wasn't unforeseen by any means, but it's still brought up a lot of questions. Let's take a closer look at Wannstedt and what direction he may take the team's defense.
Wannstedt's History. When you get right down to it, Wannstedt has really only been an NFL defensive coordinator for five seasons, as he spent most of his time in the league as a head coach. He ran the Dallas Cowboys' defense for four years and won a Super Bowl ring in 1992, when the Cowboys had the No. 1-ranked defense in the league. Dallas had the No. 20-ranked defense (of 28 teams) in his first year, but Wannstedt coached them to a Top 10 status twice in four years. He also spent one year as the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator in 1999 (they had the No. 5-ranked defense that year) before taking over as head coach.
Wannstedt's longest sustained run of defensive success came in Miami as the head coach, where he pretty much let ace coordinator Jim Bates do his thing. Miami had a Top 10 defense in each of his five years in Miami (six if you count the year as defensive coordinator), and they got as high as a No. 3 ranking in 2002. Wannstedt also spent six years as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, where he coached a No. 4 defense in his first year, but generally had average-to-good rankings (ranging from Nos. 12 to 19).
Whether as head coach or coordinator, Wannstedt has never run anything other than a 4-3 defense. That remains true when considering his six years as the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, as well.
On Scheme. GM Buddy Nix has been adamant that he's looking to acquire players for the 3-4 defense. Chan Gailey has now run both schemes in four years as an NFL head coach, and Wannstedt's strictly been a 4-3 guy. Clearly, these three men will need to sit down and try to figure out what they want to run, and that decision will be critically important moving forward. They'll base the overwhelming majority of that decision on the players currently at their disposal.
Defensive Line: Kyle Williams is still the team's best defender. Even when the Bills have played the 3-4, he's been playing techniques more commonly seen in the 4-3. He's a best fit in a 40 front. His running mate, Marcell Dareus, is genuinely capable of playing well in either front, so they have some flexibility there. Kellen Heard and Torell Troup are gap-plugging, run-down defensive tackles that could fit in either front playing zero or one technique, as well.
Spencer Johnson is also a better fit in the 4-3 as a three-technique defensive tackle; he lacks the length and athletic chops to play the 3-4 defensive end and outside linebacker positions he's been shoehorned into for the past two seasons. Dwan Edwards and Alex Carrington are better fits for the 3-4, but both could be situational strong-side defensive ends in the 4-3, as well - though neither would offer much of a pass rush off the edge.
Linebacker: Shawne Merriman is the real wild card here, and not just because of his sketchy injury history. He's a true 3-4 outside linebacker, and while he has very little track record playing in a 4-3, it's conceivable that he could play a defensive end role - particularly if he's just a situational pass rusher. (That's a particularly intriguing notion, considering he's probably not an every-down defender at this point.)
Danny Batten and Arthur Moats are both too small to play defensive end in a 4-3, so Batten is still a best-fit in the 3-4, while Moats is harder to slot. The team hasn't been able to figure out what to do with him, playing him outside and in in their 3-4, so it's tough to figure how they'd slot him into a 4-3. He might be able to play some strong-side outside linebacker in that alignment, but would be an obvious coverage and run-down liability in that role.
Nick Barnett may be an even better fit as a 4-3 weak-side linebacker than he is as a 3-4 inside linebacker. Kelvin Sheppard, as a true inside linebacker, can play in either scheme, but limited athletic upside might make him a better long-term fit in the 3-4. Bryan Scott (an impending free agent) would have an easier time playing linebacker in a 4-3, where he could play the weak side or inside on occasion.
A Hybrid? Most NFL teams these days fold 30 and 40 front looks into their repertoire just to keep opposing offenses honest, and to try to create confusion. Especially for teams with lesser talent (like Buffalo), confusion is paramount for defensive success. As such, it's fair to assume at this point that the Bills will continue to run several different forms of defense under Wannstedt's guidance. I also believe it's fair to assume, however, that Wannstedt looks at his current roster - and perhaps Gailey does, as well - and sees a team that is still better-suited to run the 4-3 as its base defense.
Why? The team's best defenders (Williams and Barnett in particular) are best suited for the 40 front. Here's the problem, though: that look creates more holes. In the 3-4, the Bills desperately need edge players, and pass rushers in particular. That need remains in a 4-3, but they'd also need to re-structure a bit at linebacker, where they'd look particularly bad in both outside spots save for Barnett. If Wannstedt does decide to switch back to the 4-3 (and gets approval from Nix and Gailey), it probably won't be an immediate transition for that reason.
What say you, Bills fans? Are you in the 3-4 camp, or the 4-3 camp?