Editor's Note: Anything presented Der Jaeger style is worthy of the front page. Excellent stuff, astrazz2! - BG
Last week, Brian identified Shawne Merriman as the team's x-factor on defense. The term x-factor, in this sense, refers to a player whose ability to contribute is unpredictable, but has the potential to make significant contributions. Using that definition, I agree that Merriman is the Bills' biggest x-factor on the defensive side of the ball, being rivaled in my opinion only by Aaron Williams. Here is a brief excerpt from Brian's piece that explains his reasoning before I get into mine.
It is clear that Buffalo needed to improve there pass rush from a year ago, and they did so in a big way with the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. In passing situations, all indications are that the defensive front will consist of Anderson- K. Williams - Dareus- Mario. That is a 4 man front that could be as good as any in the league at getting after the passer.
So how does Merriman fit into the picture? Mark Anderson was signed as a pass-rush specialist, so it doesn't seem likely that Merriman will be able to unseat him and get reps at DE in passing situations. However, there is still a highly productive role Merriman can play on this team in blitz packages. To demonstrate this role, lets fast forward to week 4 against the Patriots. Lets say its 3rd and 10 and NE breaks the huddle in a typical offensive package consisting of Welker, Gronk, Hernandez, Woodhead, and Brandon Lloyd. Buffalo counters with a nickel package.
Buffalo adjusts its base defense by replacing Morrison and Sheppard with Byron Scott and an extra CB. Without trying to predict the CB depth chart, I just went with Gilmore, McGee, and Williams. Patriots line up in shotgun with Woodhead to Brady's right. Gronkowski lines as the TE on the right, along with Welker who lines up as the Z (or flanker). On the left, Lloyd is split wide as the X and Hernandez is in the slot.
In this very basic defensive alignment, Buffalo goes with man-to-man coverage. Gilmore plays inside on Hernandez, McGee covers Welker, and Aaron Williams goes for Brandon Lloyd. Scott is playing nickel LB and attempts to neutralize Gronk, while Barnett stays at home and spies on Woodhead in an attempt to take away the screens and check downs. Byrd and Wilson give help over the top.
The Bills are attempting to generate pressure using only there defensive front. The Giants have had success doing this against the Patriots, and the Bills DL is probably now talented enough to get some pressure this way as well. The Patriots will have to adjust what they want to do offensively to account for the Bills talented pass rushers. Gronk will have to give Mario a solid chip on his way by, slowing Mario but also delaying his own release off the line, giving Scott an advantage in coverage. Woodhead will be in the backfield as a blocker in place of an extra weapon in the passing game. If Anderson starts causing teams a lot of trouble off the edge, they may even need to bring Hernandez into the backfield as an H back to chip Anderson before entering his route. With just a base nickel package and no blitzing, the Bills are able to force the Patriots to change their offense to account for their DL talent.
Merriman would play the role of either Mario or Anderson in this package, but neither will leave the field unless injured or fatigued. IF Merriman is effective enough to truly be a threat as an edge rusher, then he might come in Dareus or Williams to give the big fellas a quick break. In this situation Anderson and Merriman would be DE's and Mario Williams would slide inside to DT, much in the same way the Giants often use Pierre-Paul. Mario did this in Houston and is effective in this role, but it's only worth removing Kyle or Dareus if Merriman is showing glimpses of his old self or they need a break. For this reason, a 2011 Shawne Merriman doesn't really have a significant role in this base nickel package when the team is healthy. However, when the Bills want to dial up the pressure and send more than 4 rushers, a healthy Merriman could make a huge impact.
Nickel 5-1-5 (Merriman as SAM)
The Bills want to generate more pressure, so Merriman checks in and a LB (Scott) checks out. Kyle and Mario Williams slide one gap toward the weakside, leaving 95 attacking the strong side A gap and 94 attacking the B gap. This creates a space for Merriman to step in and rush the edge from a stand up position. The only adjustment in the secondary is that Wilson is now man-up on Gronk.
Functionally, this package is very similar to Ron Rivera's 3-4 on passing downs (because he blitzes both OLB's most of the time). Merriman is acting as the SAM and Anderson is acting as the JACK, despite the fact that he is rushing from a stance. When Gailey said Merriman will not be playing OLB, he was referring to our base packages. He didn't want him having to cover and play in space, but rather focus on just getting to the QB. This formation puts Merriman in as natural a position as he knows, plays to the strengths of the rest of the line, and provides an extra pass rusher.
Nickel 5-1-5 (Merriman as Jack)
This is the same personnel, but Gronk and Hernandez flipped sides. Buffalo could have Merriman and Anderson swap sides and line-up against this the same way as above (with Merriman as SAM). The JACK is generally a more explosive edge rusher, so unless Merriman goes back to being guy we all remember flicking the imaginary light switch up and down 15 times a season again, Buffalo probably prefers to have Anderson on the weakside working in space. The reason I'm showing this look, however, is that if Gronk started on the right then motioned left, this is how the D would become aligned. If Merriman is going to get some sacks this season, this would be the situation where he has the best chance to make something happen: one-on-one with the tackle from his natural stand up position. It is also an advantageous position for Mario Williams. With Merriman attacking the edge and the tackle sliding out to meet him, Mario is left 1-on-1 in space with the RG. If Woodhead doesn't identify that mismatch and help out that would make for a long day for Tom Brady.
Nickel 5-1-5 (Barnett Blitz)
Here the Bills take a page out of the Ryan family playbook and send Barnett on a blitz through the A gap. This type of blitz, especially with an athletic LB, is often times very effective with a short delay, however it can also function as a simple overload blitz. Barnett blitzing leaves Woodhead uncovered, so it falls on Merriman and Anderson to turn and run with him into the flats if he crosses their face. Last season it seemed like Buffalo couldn't get any pressure at all unless they sent this many pass rushers. Even when the QB got pressured he was usually able to stay put long enough to find a WR breaking the coverage. With the changes we've made and players returning from injury, I'm optimistic that this season running a blitz like this at the right time will put defenders into the back so quickly that the QB will have no choice but to check to his hot or take the sack.
If Buffalo can anticipate how teams will try to react to these blitzes, they can force them into huge mistakes. Say Brady identifies the Barnett blitz. He has seen the play above on tape a few times in the first few weeks. He identifies the following areas as soft spots in the coverage and determines that they are his hot reads.
He expects that Gronk and Welker will be open on a slant if they get inside position, and those will be the two players he looks to get the ball to quickly. Woodhead may be available as a safety valve, or he may stay in and block. Brady comes up to the line thinking he has an easy 10-15 yards.
Nickel 5-1-5 (Zone Blitz)
The ball is snapped and Barnett blitzes as anticipated. Brady turns to right to hit one of his two targets. Wilson starts to run with Gronk, but quickly peels off and settles into a short zone. Mario doesn't rush, but rather peels back into a short zone over the middle. Byrd cycles over the top to take away the seam. Both Wilson and Mario are now in perfect positions to intercept a Brady pass if he doesn't identify the coverage. Against inexperienced QB's this can turn into a pick-6 quickly. Brady is more likely to identify the zone blitz, but even so he will either have to dump to Woodhead and hope he gets past McGee and Wilson or try to look to the other side of the field. If he attempts the latter, he won't have very much time before the overload blitz breaks through or, at the least, collapses the pocket and gets some big bodies in the pass lanes.
The defense was not effective at blitzing last season. They couldn't generate pressure without sending at least two extra rushers, and they weren't talented enough in the secondary to hold coverage on an island for long. Not only did they not have the right personnel, but I don't believe they had the right coaching. Edwards had one of the most simple and unimaginative defensive playbooks I can imagine. The blitzes above are just a few examples of the hundreds of blitzes that could be run from that formation. Edwards inability to put his players in the right position to make plays was almost as detrimental to the team as the lack of personnel. It's the only way to explain Maybin's ineptitude in Buffalo while he managed to contribute with Rex Ryan and the Jets.
This year, however, I think we can make the blitz work. Wannstedt is a much better defensive coordinator than Edwards and will put the guys in much better positions to make plays. He will also have a much better roster to work with. The teams CB's are significantly better at the top of the depth chart (drafting Gilmore, healthy McGee, more mature Aaron Williams) and they have better depth. Most importantly, they have a front 4 that can generate some pressure on its own and make the offense adjust to stop it. However, just because the front 4 can make things happen on its own doesn't mean they don't need some help here and there. The Giants probably have the best pass rushing DL in football. That line can get pressure on any given play, but offenses can adjust, keep an extra guy in protection, and still function effectively. That's why they have Mathias Kiwinuka, one of the best pass rushing LB's in all of football, and he is the extra piece that makes that pass rush elite. If Merriman is even close to the kind of player that he used to be, he can be that guy for Buffalo. Accounting for Mario, Anderson, Kyle and Dareus is going to be hard enough for offenses. Buffalo could probably run all of the plays above with Moats instead of Merriman, and simply having the extra body rushing the passer would be helpful. Having a healthy Shawne Merriman in that position would be game changing. To me, that is the epitome of an 'X-factor'.