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Bills Defense Stays Vanilla In Pre-Season Opener

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Pre-season football is notorious for a few things. Incredibly bland game plans is one of them. Pre-season football is boring football, not because there isn't anything to be learned, but because teams are keeping their schemes very close to the vest so as not to tip their hand when the games start counting.

Therefore, it's hardly surprising that the first-team defense of the Buffalo Bills was about as predictable as you can get during Saturday night's 42-17 loss to the Washington Redskins.

The first unit wound up playing three series - 23 reps' worth of playing time - and giving up two touchdowns through a little over a quarter of the game. 20 different players saw action with the unit, as a long scoring drive in the first quarter led to some substitutions, and sub-packages brought in depth players for early reps.

After the jump, we'll break down the two main alignments the Bills used on Friday night, make a few scheme and player notes, and talk about some of the other wrinkles we saw very early in the 2010 season. This will give us a base look at George Edwards' new 3-4 defense, and how the Bills might build upon it as the season (pre and regular) progresses.

The Two Main Alignments
Of the first unit's 23 snaps, 21 came out of the following two alignments.

34 Base - As you might expect, this is Buffalo's base defensive alignment. Three down linemen, two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers, two safeties and two corners. Buffalo used this alignment 13 times with the first unit last night, and it should definitely be noted that the scheme was never once utilized on third down - only early downs. The Bills only technically gave up 98 yards (penalty yardage notwithstanding), and this alignment was dependable, as the Bills didn't give up more than six yards on any given play. Then again, Washington only threw against this defense on four of the 13 snaps.

43 Nickel - When Buffalo went to a nickel defense, they did so out of the 4-3 alignment, which again, isn't unexpected. On four of the eight snaps out of this alignment, both of Buffalo's outside linebackers lined up out of a two-point stance at defensive end, with one down lineman coming off the field and strong safety Bryan Scott subbing in for one of the inside linebackers (usually Andra Davis). On the other half of those snaps, one of the two outside 'backers would play defensive end, and all three defensive linemen would stay on the field (Dwan Edwards playing the other end position), with the same back seven. The delineation: the two-OLB-at-DE look was used on third downs, while the look that included Edwards at DE was used on first and second downs. Washington scored both of its touchdowns against the 43 Nickel alignment.

Very Few Wrinkles
Buffalo broke out two extra alignments for one snap each. They used a 43 Dime on an early third down, with Reggie Corner the dime back. They allowed a first down on that play. They also used a 44 look - four down linemen, four linebackers - on a third and one, with Torell Troup lining up between the three starting defensive linemen on that snap. They also allowed a first down on that play on a nice scramble by Donovan McNabb.

In terms of blitz packages, there was essentially nothing. Donte Whitner had a nicely-timed blitz that McNabb exploited for Washington's first score. Otherwise, it was your basic approach - four rushers, basic coverages behind them.

I anticipated that Buffalo would flip its linebackers based on the strength of the offensive alignment, but while the inside linebackers did this on occasion, the outside 'backers did not. More often than not, players listed as strong-side linebackers (most often Chris Ellis, who played quite a bit) were lined up on the weak side of the alignment. I have no idea if George Edwards plans to flip his linebackers once the regular season begins, but that was certainly not the plan last night.

The first-unit defense's performance was a mixed bag. Washington did pretty much whatever they wanted on a 72-yard scoring drive, their second drive of the game. The base defense looked far more advanced than the nickel package. The pass-rush was incredibly hit-or-miss, though the Redskins weren't waiting on a lot of complex routes to develop. Coverages were basic and reads were made slowly; it was clear that Buffalo was doing a lot of thinking out of its new alignment. A roughing penalty on Aaron Maybin and an illegal contact penalty on Davis nullified third-down stops on both of Washington's touchdown drives. Then again, the unit only gave up 98 yards (penalty yardage notwithstanding), and the Redskins were set up on the 12-yard line for their second score after a Trent Edwards interception. The defense looked pretty average, but trust me, folks - average isn't a bad place to start.

Player Reps
Before one of you adds up the reps below and says "hey, you're missing one!" - I know. In taking notes on the first team, I forgot to tally a rep for one of the players below. I have neither the patience nor the stomach to rewind my way back to find that one rep, and this list will give you a general enough idea on who played where and how often to be getting on with.

# reps Player Position(s)
23 D. Whitner SS, 44 FS
23 D. Florence CB, Nickel CB
22 K. Williams NT, DT
22 T. McGee CB
22 J. Byrd FS
21 D. Edwards DE, DT
20 M. Stroud DE, DT
19 C. Ellis SLB, DE
18 K. Mitchell WLB
15 A. Davis MLB
14 R. Torbor JLB
9 L. McKelvin CB
8 B. Scott Nickel LB
4 A. Maybin JLB, DE
4 A. Coleman JLB, SLB, DE
3 A. Moats WLB
2 T. Troup NT, DT
1 A. Carrington 34 DE
1 R. Corner Dime CB
1 G. Wilson 44 SS