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Bills Defensive Improvement Relies On Variation

Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards is flying under the radar. While fans and the media have paid attention to C.J. Spiller's electric runs, grading Trent Edwards' every drive, and watching Chan Gailey transform the offense, the Buffalo defensive coordinator hasn't been talked about much.

I doubt Edwards minds. His road is rocky enough, transforming Buffalo's personnel into a winning defense, without having attention from the media piled on his shoulders. For sure, the media has paid attention to the switch to the 3-4 defense, and Buffalo's struggles in the preseason defensively. In his defense, the defense has been vanilla all preseason. We get our first look at the real scheme on Sunday.

Then there's the question that's been brought up on this site and alluded to by Gailey himself: what is the Bills' defensive scheme going to be? The answer to that might be found in Edwards' background. After the jump, we'll see why the Bills may be a 3-4 in name only.

Edwards played linebacker at Duke University from 1986 to 1989. After his playing career was done, he coached as an assistant at Florida, Duke, Georgia, and Appalachian State between 1991 and 1997. His pro career started in 1998 as the linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. This is where we begin to find some answers.

Edwards began his pro coaching career under the tutalege of Dave Campo, and he would work under Campo later in his career as well. Campo's Cowboy defense worked the same scheme that Jimmy Johnson had installed in the late 1980s: the famed Miami Hurricane defense.

The Hurricane defense was a standard 4-3 defense where the strong safety played like a linebacker. Beyond that, the defense was vanilla, and operated much like the Tampa 2 does currently, with fast, athletic players dropping into standardized coverage zones while the front four rushed the passer. The Hurricane defense employed both cornerbacks and the free safety splitting the field in thirds (Cover 3) with no receiver running behind them. The four linebackers and the strong safety played in underneath coverage zones. Edwards worked with Campo until 2001.

In 2002, Edwards became the assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach of the Washington Redskins, working under defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Lewis played a 46 variation, which he implemented in Baltimore during their Super Bowl year, with Peter Boulware rushing the passer from his strong-side outside linebacker position. When Lewis moved on in 2003 to coach the Cincinnati Bengals, Edwards became the defensive coordinator and ran Washington's 46 defense under head coach Steve Spurrier.

Edwards and Campo worked in the same capacity as their Cowboy years for the doomed 2004 Cleveland Browns. After that year came to a merciful close, Edwards moved on to the Miami Dolphins, where his education in the 3-4 defense began. Edwards would learn the 3-4 under Dom Capers initially, and then Paul Pasqualoni.

While Capers' head coaching career fizzled with the Texans, he is widely considered a master of the Bullough-Fairbanks 3-4 defense, which the Dolphins employed and the Packers currently employ under Capers. Pasqualoni continued Capers' work in Miami.

What can be learned from all this?

Buffalo will run a 3-4 in name only. Don't be surprised to see the Bills running any version of the 3-4 or 4-3. Don't be surprised if Buffalo runs different defensive formations on a week-to-week basis, or even a drive-to-drive basis. When talking about Buffalo's defensive formation, "multiple" may be the best word to use.

Keep in mind that Buffalo played a 4-3 last year, played 4-3 against the Detroit Lions in the preseason, and Edwards has a history of running a 4-3. Buffalo's personnel also support this. Most of Buffalo's 3-4 ends can play 4-3 defensive tackle. Most of Buffalo's 3-4 OLBs can play 46 strongside OLB or 4-3 defensive end. Most of Buffalo's 3-4 inside linebackers can play 4-3 outside linebacker.

Defensive Line
Most of the Buffalo defensive linemen should see a marked improvement over their 2009 performance. Kyle Williams will always be Kyle Williams: a meat and potatos player who goes hard every snap. With the Buffalo front moving from 30 front to 40 front, Williams shouldn't be exposed to long spells of standing up to center-guard double teams. His play will again be borderline Pro Bowl, though he'll never be a household name.

Torell Troup should see playing time and be effective, though no one will ever know. Troup is Casey Hampton without the movement skills, which is essentially a fire-hydrant of a run-stopper. As he learns to fight off double teams better, Troup's play should improve the run defense.

Marcus Stroud should have a great year. He was perhaps the most miscast of Buffalo's defenders in the Tampa 2. Stroud's game isn't penetration. It's all about engaging his blocker and then beating him with strength. This is exactly was his role should be as a DE in the 30 front or DT in the 40 front.

Dwan Edwards is a lot like Williams in terms of what to expect: he'll play a lot like he did last year for the Ravens, stuffing the run and giving great effort. Spencer Johnson should see most of his playing time in 40 front looks on passing downs. John McCargo showed improvement during the preseason, and his retention on the 53-man roster shows that he may have a future with the team. Alex Carrington should have a small impact as he learns the position, though Carrington is the most physically gifted end on the team.

We might as well start out talking about Aaron Maybin, since his play is a huge hot-button topic. Don't expect much from Maybin until about mid-season. He's young and learning a new position. His struggles have been timing together the use of his hands with his feet. He may be miscast in all of Buffalo's 40 fronts as an end, where he rushes from a four-point stance. Maybin comes out of this stance like a rocket, but hasn't successfully executed anything except a speed and bull rush from this stance. This is mostly due to him moving too fast, with his upper body lunging out too far ahead of his lower body.

Watching Maybin rush out of a two-point stance is almost like watching a different player. He's under control and uses his hands and feet well in conjunction with each other. Maybin is best used as a stand-up 3-4 linebacker until he learns to rush more under control.

Chris Kelsay is expected to continue to play below the worth of his contract, though he will play well. He's near ideal as a strongside outside linebacker. Kelsay punishes the tight end coming off the line, and can stack and set the edge very well. He's an average pass rusher that needs help to get to the QB, but those three traits usually make for a good 3-4 strongside outside linebacker.

Chris Ellis' emergence as an option at OLB allows Buffalo to continue to develop Maybin at a speed he can handle. Ellis is similar to Kelsay and probably best at strongside outside linebacker, though he has more natural athletic explosion than Kelsay. Reggie Torbor, though technically a starter, will begin games on the field mostly due to his experience and ability to keep mistakes to a minimum. Once Ellis or Maybin prove reliable, Torbor should return to his best role as a second-teamer.

The inside linebackers will play only as well as the defensive line, which is charged with keeping them free of blockers. Andra Davis is a near perfect strongside inside linebacker, taking on and shedding blocks well, showing average drop depth, provding some penetration, and playing mistake free. He shouldn't be relied upon to man-cover backs and tight ends, though.

Paul Posluszny should see a dramatic jump in tackles and in plays made if he's kept clean. Posluszny's best trait might be his instincts, and seeing the field from the weakside without having to worry about dropping 20 yards into coverage should put him into much better position to make plays. Like Davis, he shouldn't be asked to do much in the way of man coverage. In fact, the Achilles Heel of the defense is the inside linebackers' lack of coverage ability.

Akin Ayodele is the primary reserve, though he's best suited to back-up Davis on the strongside. Ayodele is like Torbor: best as a reserve. Arthur Moats is a bundle of energy that needs to learn how to play the position. Don't expect much. Keith Ellison should see most of his work in passing down sub-packages and in 4-3 looks. Ellison will be steady and underappreciated, again.

The defense's strongest unit is waiting for Leodis McKelvin to break out. Practice McKelvin makes mental errors in bunches. Preseason McKelvin looked like the player we expected at No. 11 overall in 2008. Expect to see McKelvin rise to the occasion during games, and supplant Drayton Florence or Terrence McGee as the starter sometime in 2010.

Florence is bigger than McGee and best used against outside receivers, where his length can be utilized. He doesn't have elite talent, but he's experienced and will make plays. McGee is best used as the nickel cornerback, if McKelvin improves. McGee has good change of direction skills, great ball skills, and good instincts that cover for declining in-line speed and lack of height.

While free safety Jairus Byrd enjoyed a great rookie season, don't expect his interception total to equal his 2009 output. Everyone knows him now, and will gameplan accordingly. If he stays healthy, his instincts should impact the passing game of each opponent even without making interceptions, as his presence is a deterrent by itself.

Though most won't agree, Donte Whitner should finally play well enough to justify his salary and Twitter account. The strong safety is key in most 3-4 defenses (ask Pittsburgh). Whitner should be used in coverage, on and off the line of scrimmage, and in blitz packages. Whitner's stat line should be the most diverse on the team.

Edwards should sleep better knowing he has Bryan Scott and George Wilson as reserves. Wilson's high energy and ball skills make him a capable reserve at both safety positions, while Scott is a tight end eraser that can also play linebacker in a pinch.