Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag, 6/6: let's talk linebackers

Wesley Hitt

Are the Buffalo Bills' linebackers elite? And exactly how much change should we expect between Mike Pettine and Jim Schwartz? Defense takes center stage in this week's Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag.

Before we dive into this week's Buffalo Rumblings Mailbag, I need to register a plea: we need more Buffalo Bills questions coming our way. Many previously-submitted questions have become irrelevant over time, or moot altogether, and we're in need of a fresh influx of inquiries for our weekly mailbag post. Anything Bills-related on your mind that you'd like to see discussed? Send it on over to buffalorumblings@gmail.com.

This week's pair of questions were submitted by Sam W and commenter flagday84, respectively. Thanks for sending these in, guys!

This article lists the Bills' linebackers as the second-best in the NFL. Do they really even belong in the Top 5?

Who am I to stand in the way of a man singing the praises of anything Bills-related? Especially considering, in this case, that the writer is Danny Kelly of Field Gulls fame. He's one of the best in the business. (Seriously. Read his stuff.)

To me, where the Bills ranked was not nearly as interesting as how they were classified. Kelly identified two elite linebacking groups in the NFL: the San Francisco 49ers and the Bills. That... seems off to me, for one chief reason: the 49ers have two every-down linebackers (a rarity in today's league), while the Bills have only one.

Kiko Alonso played 1,145 snaps (100% of total) for the Bills last season. No other Bills linebacker (or, rather, players that will be playing linebacker this year) surpassed 300 snaps played. Brandon Spikes, signed as a free agent from New England, played 685 snaps (59.7%) last season, and his severe limitations in coverage keep him a two-down player. The jury is still out on Nigel Bradham (284 snaps, 24.8%), who may not even beat out veteran Keith Rivers (418, 37.0% with the Giants) for a starting job.

By comparison, NaVorro Bowman (1,040 snaps, 97.7%) and Patrick Willis (863, 81.1%) were every-down mainstays as key cogs for one of the best defenses in the league over the past four years. Between them, Bowman and Willis have eight first-team All-Pro selections. No Bills linebacker currently on the roster has even been selected to the Pro Bowl. I can't fathom any angle by which Buffalo's linebackers should be mentioned in the same breath as San Francisco's.

That said, Spikes has earned his reputation as one of the best run-defending linebackers in the league, and we all know how good Alonso can be. The Bills are most definitely better at that position.

Why do the Bills essentially start from square one every time they hire a defensive coordinator?

I would argue that they haven't. The Dave Wannstedt promotion in 2012 was not an especially dramatic one scheme-wise, even though everyone called the George Edwards system a 3-4. The Bills were not a 3-4 team in 2010 and 2011. They weren't even a 3-4 team last year under Mike Pettine, when you get right down to it.

Moving to Jim Schwartz in 2014 will not be as dramatic a scheme shift as many expect it will be. The Bills have been a one-gap defense for a very long time. Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are still going to rush the passer, just as they did last year; Hughes will have more opportunities to do so, in fact, because he'll probably be playing more. Alonso is still the every-down linebacker. The defensive tackles' roles will be completely unchanged.

Instead of nomenclature, I have spent most of my time this spring mulling two things regarding the Bills' new defense under Schwartz:

  • Scheme-initiated role changes: Alan Branch played over 50 percent of snaps last season. His role will likely diminish in a base defense that is not nearly as likely to use him as more than a reserve. He won't factor into the rotation equation at end in the base defense like others at his position (namely Jarius Wynn and Corbin Bryant) can. Manny Lawson was a strong-side linebacker under Pettine; he'll be an end for Schwartz, likely used as a rotational player. He's likely to play less, as well. His position shift also opens the door for a third linebacker (either Rivers or Bradham, or perhaps rookie Preston Brown eventually) to see more time than Pettine's defense allowed for. I figure that those are the only role shifts affected. Personnel changes will affect some other areas, as well (see: middle linebacker, nickel cornerback, safety).
  • Pass down philosophy: NFL teams spend much more time in their passing-down sets than their base defense these days. Back in March, I wrote an article about how Pettine used a base defense, a "heavy nickel" with Lawson as the stand-up linebacker next to Alonso, and dime variants as his go-to on obvious passing downs. This, I believe, is where the biggest differences between Pettine and Schwartz may show through. Pettine is known as one of the league's most aggressive and creative blitzers, using overloads and odd-man looks to attack blocking schemes. Schwartz is more of a four-man rush guy, with occasional blitzing and the "Wide 9" look he's commonly associated with. The coverages behind the pressure fronts will be changing, too; Pettine preferred press man mixed with a bit of zone, while Schwartz is likely to emphasize zone coverages a bit more prominently. This is what most people focus their angst for the scheme change on, but we're only talking about part of the defense to begin with.

From there, in my opinion, differences will be negligible, and it'll be all about improving in areas that have long plagued the team (i.e. run defense).

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