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Manny Lawson Helps Buffalo Bills Toward Hybrid Defense Goal

Manny Lawson brings the Buffalo Bills one step closer to running a hybrid defense under Mike Pettine, but they're still in need of better talent (at linebacker) to get there.

Grant Halverson

From the moment that the Buffalo Bills hired Mike Pettine as the team's new defensive coordinator in January, the Rex Ryan disciple has made it very clear that he plans to run a "hybrid" defense - one that uses multiple alignments and is attack-first by nature. It's a great concept, but not the easiest idea to pull off.

True hybrid defenses - the ones that can play virtually any scheme with a specific set of techniques on a whim - require great personnel. In essence, how "hybrid" a defense can be is reliant on the number of elite and/or versatile players on the roster. The reason? Hybrid defenses - the ones that are difficult to prepare for and dictate to offenses on game days - are able to pull off all of these looks without making mass personnel substitutions.

Take, for example, the Bills' nickel defense in 2012. Schematically, there's only one player swap (a linebacker for a cornerback) when shifting from a 4-3 base to a 4-2-5 nickel. Due to personnel limitations, however, the Bills would take off two linebackers (Kelvin Sheppard and Nigel Bradham) and trot out a linebacker/safety (Bryan Scott) and a nickel corner. Those personnel limitations and the subsequent, by-necessity substitutions made the Bills very easy to prepare for - and therefore very easy to exploit.

A well-stocked hybrid defense, meanwhile, can play anything between a 3-4 variant and a 4-2-5 nickel while only making one personnel substitution. For the purpose of ease of understanding, we'll use Bills personnel to illustrate how this is accomplished, and we'll address some of the inherent issues with this method after the fact. Keep in mind this is purely hypothetical, and is really just one scenario in which personnel can be substituted.

4-3-4 3-4-4 3-3-5 4-2-5
DE A. Carrington DE A. Carrington DE M. Williams DE M. Williams
DT M. Dareus NT M. Dareus NT M. Dareus DT M. Dareus
DT K. Williams DE K. Williams DE K. Williams DT K. Williams
DE M. Williams SLB M. Williams SLB M. Lawson DE M. Lawson
SLB M. Lawson MLB K. Sheppard MLB K. Sheppard MLB K. Sheppard
MLB K. Sheppard WLB N. Bradham WLB N. Bradham WLB N. Bradham
WLB N. Bradham JLB M. Lawson LCB L. McKelvin LCB L. McKelvin
LCB L. McKelvin LCB L. McKelvin NCB A. Williams NCB A. Williams
SS D. Searcy SS D. Searcy SS D. Searcy SS D. Searcy
FS J. Byrd FS J. Byrd FS J. Byrd FS J. Byrd
RCB S. Gilmore RCB S. Gilmore RCB S. Gilmore RCB S. Gilmore

Again, this is just an illustration of how a hybrid defense can transition between schemes without taking players off the field. It's pretty clear that the Bills don't yet have the personnel to pull off all of what you see above, for two major reasons:

  • Neither Sheppard or Bradham are true three-down linebackers; Sheppard is a bit limited athletically (and thus in coverage), while Bradham is still learning the nuances of his position despite very good natural athleticism. This is precisely why, in my opinion, linebacker is by far the team's second-biggest need behind quarterback: the position has no three-down players, and that will severely cripple the team's ability to be a true hybrid right away.
  • Certain personnel that will be on the field a lot have some limitations. Kyle Williams, for instance, can't play two gaps, so lining him up as a zero-technique (or a five-technique) is out of the question. Mario Williams is really only a straight-ahead rusher, and should only drop into coverage on the rarest of occasions. Other key reserves that could play a lot - think Mark Anderson and Bryan Scott here - are situational players, which limits their ability to play except on a rotational or package-specific basis. Package-specific, remember, is the opposite of the true meaning of hybrid.

But the above does help illustrate why the idea of signing a player like Manny Lawson is appealing to a coordinator with a hybrid defense in mind: if he's not elite, he'd better be versatile. Lawson is not an elite player, but he is most definitely versatile, with the athleticism to drop into coverage and the speed to be a factor as a pass rusher off the edge, something he did not do much of in Cincinnati. In the schemes outlined above, Lawson is an every-down capable player - a linebacker in heavier fronts and a pass rusher in nickel (and dime) looks.

As the Bills continue to develop and acquire players defensively, elite talent (which lends to three-down capability) and versatility will be the two big themes. The Bills have some very talented players with versatility on hand that need to become great; Marcell Dareus and Aaron Williams come to mind. Obviously, the more great players they can draft and develop, the better - but if they're not great, they'd better be versatile. As long as Pettine is here, "great or versatile" should rule the day defensively, and an emphasis on three-down linebackers is also vital.

The Lawson signing helps the Bills take a step towards that hybrid eventuality - but in my estimation, they're two linebackers (at minimum) away from being able to make the attempt at that goal in 2013.