Arguably the most important question surrounding the Buffalo Bills right now is whether or not the team can improve its historically awful pass rush. We have discussed at great length how the Bills have tried to fix the issue - i.e. drafting Penn State DE Aaron Maybin in the first round of this past April's NFL Draft. Getting a (hopefully) healthy Aaron Schobel back for (hopefully) a full season will help too. Over the past couple of days, however, another development has taken over Bills conversation: the use of the 3-4 defense.
NFL.com's Pat Kirwan briefly mentioned the development over the weekend. A few of you discussed the idea here during the same time frame. In order to clarify a few things about the likely predominance of the scheme and why it's being implemented (which, I should mention, Kurupt did a nice job of doing in the linked post above), here's how we see the 3-4 playing out in Buffalo next season.
The first thing that should be noted is that, for those of you who secretly (or not-so-secretly) wish that the Bills played a 3-4, personnel be damned, your wish won't be granted. You're going to see a zone-based 4-3 look on ninety percent of defensive plays this year. Keep that fact firmly entrenched in your mind as you go forward.
There are two predominant reasons to install a 3-4 wrinkle, and they rather go hand-in-hand: to diversify the scheme and to create a better pass rush. Generally, one of those leads to the other and vice versa. Buffalo is probably going to have only one new starter defensively - second year CB Leodis McKelvin - and that experience in the scheme is going to help immensely.
As mentioned at the top, the pass rush is the life blood of any NFL defense (that's especially true of the Tampa 2), and the Bills haven't had one in quite some time. It's a bit obvious to say, but the critical points at which Buffalo hasn't been able to generate a pass rush - i.e. passing situations as the Bills are trying to protect leads, or while trying to force a turnover or two while playing from behind - are when we'll see the 3-4 this year. We won't see it every time the Bills find themselves in those scenarios. It's something for the arsenal, and it's there purely to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It will help one player in particular...
... and that player is Maybin. Buffalo is asking an awful lot from their top draft pick. He has already revealed that he'll be taking reps at linebacker during training camp; this 3-4 wrinkle is why. The biggest concern surrounding Maybin is his college experience and whether he's polished enough as a player to consistently separate from blockers in his first NFL season. Concerned about the potential downfall of leaving him in the trenches, this wrinkle lets Maybin stand up, move around, and utilize his one tangible asset more freely - his outstanding first-step quickness.
From there, the personnel groupings are fairly easy to figure out. Some players' roles are clearly defined; Marcus Stroud would line up exclusively over center (the "nose guard"), and Paul Posluszny isn't leaving the inside linebacker post. Pass-rushing options from the standing position include Schobel and linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who was by far Perry Fewell's blitzer of choice in 2008. Schobel can also play down on the line; meanwhile, Mitchell could also shift inside next to Posluszny. Fellow defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Spencer Johnson could play defensive end, though if it's pass rush that's desired, we figure Ryan Denney and possibly Chris Kelsay have a better shot at seeing playing time.
And there, folks, lies perhaps the important point - there are a lot of options, even after lining the players up. Where does the rush come from? How are protections altered to deal with the look? This 3-4 wrinkle is nothing more or less than a means to playing to the strengths of their not-undertalented personnel. Keeping it in perspective is important - as mentioned, this is nothing but an extra look. But the idea has so much promise that it's exciting. Perhaps most exciting, however, is the idea that, like the offense installing the no-huddle, Buffalo's defensive coaches are looking at ways to get the most out of their players.