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Buffalo Bills defensive scheme: nickel base for Mike Pettine?

NFL teams are spreading the field with increasing frequency. Add in the Mount Everest of the AFC East, which resides in Foxboro, and the Bills may lean towards a base nickel defense to attempt their climb to the top of the division.

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Jared Wickerham

If you're still trying to figure out whether the Buffalo Bills will play more 3-4 or 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, it may be time to ask a different question entirely: will the Bills' base defense be a nickel defense?

All you need to do is hit the tape (seriously football junkies, go drop cash on NFL Game Rewind immediately - you won't regret it) to figure that might, indeed, be the direction that Pettine is headed with the Bills. Not only does every NFL team use enough spread formations to demand a huge chunk of nickel defense these days, but the Bills have to beat the New England Patriots to get where they're trying to go - and to defend the pass-happy Patriots, you're playing nickel and dime defensive eight or nine plays out of every ten.

I spent a large portion of my allotted blogging time over the last two weeks studying the all-22 tape from last year's two Patriots versus New York Jets games to try to get a sense of how Pettine lined his former club's personnel up against the best offense in the NFL. Pettine threw a lot at Tom Brady - we'll get into some of the variations next week - but the most-used defense was a nickel look, using 3-3-5 personnel, that lined up as you see in the two stills below.

Notice the following two things about those two stills; they speak heavily of how Pettine lined up against New England:

  • The team's linebackers (from left to right: Demario Davis, David Harris and Calvin Pace, lined up over the left tackle on the right side of the defensive line) do not shift based on the strength of the offensive alignment.
  • The team's interior defensive linemen (typically Muhammad Wilkerson and Mike DeVito) both lined up in the three-technique far more often than not; that's unusual to do on a consistent basis, and it left the center free to either double down or roam the second level on most plays.

Pettine's defense dictated; it did not overreact to what the Patriots were doing with personnel groupings, formations and motions. He moved his front six around some - there were plays when Pace was lined up in a middle linebacker role, for instance, and others when they abandoned one-gap principles and shifted to a two-gap alignment with their defensive linemen - but by and large, he did more chess-playing with his defensive backs. Safeties would team up with linebackers on overload blitzes, step up in the run blitz or drop down to cover a receiver one-on-one. Rarely did he send more than four rushers - but he'd often show six pre-snap and make Brady guess as to which four were coming.

But that's the detail. We'll talk more about that next week; for now, the focus belongs on the basics.

Perhaps the biggest key point about how Pettine lined his defense up against the Pats is that he relied on just about every player on the field to be able to play multiple positions. The inside linebackers must be able to perform on the strong side or the weak side. The designated pass rusher must be able to drop into coverage on occasion, slot defensive backs must defend the run, blitz and cover, and the safeties must be able to cover or play center field. This is precisely why the team targeted versatile athletes at several positions this off-season.

From this point forward, I am going to be operating under the assumption that the "base" defense for the Bills - i.e. the one that they use more often than not - will be a nickel defense. They won't need to line up exactly as shown above - they can flex a tackle down to the one-technique, or they can use a zero-technique and two five-techniques out of the same personnel grouping, as the Jets often did - but from a personnel standpoint, I expect 3-3-5 nickel to be the most-used grouping.

That's based purely on what the Jets did, of course; Pettine may look at his new group of personnel and formulate entirely different plans. I believe, however, that he has enough athleticism and versatility at the top end of the depth chart to attempt in Buffalo a lot of what he did in New York. If I had to guess what that nickel alignment would look like to start training camp, it'd mimic what you see below.

Anticipating some questions about the above lineup from the readership before they're asked:

  • If the Bills did decide they wanted to shift down into two-gap techniques, I would expect Kyle Williams at the nose, with Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams covering up the tackles. What you see above is a much better fit for these players' skill sets, so I'm not anticipating as much of the two-gapping stuff as the Jets did - though that might be a long-term goal.
  • Yes, Mario will probably need to play some SAM linebacker next year if Pettine plans to do things the way he did under Rex Ryan. Far a much better idea of what Mario will be doing next year, however, fire up that NFL Game Rewind you just bought and watch how the Jets used Quinton Coples. You can expect Mario to play more three-technique than SAM linebacker.
  • There's an awful lot riding on Kiko Alonso and Nigel Bradham. If Pettine wants them to do what Harris and Davis (and Bart Scott) did in New York, they're going to be facing a steep learning curve - and they're going to need to be dynamite at the point of attack, where the Jets had more size at linebacker than do Alonso and Bradham.
  • Why did I put Ron Brooks as the nickel cornerback, and not a different corner or one of the team's fancy versatile safeties? Simple: Isaiah Trufant, a corner with similar athletic traits as Brooks, was used in that role by the Jets, and he was all over the field against New England. Brooks is not their only option there, but I believe he projects well as a slot corner.
  • Who is "Williams" at safety? Well, it's Aaron Williams, as he has a distinct experience advantage over rookie Duke Williams, but both offer a lot of the same athletic traits. I'm telling you right now, do not be surprised if Duke Williams is a Bills starter by the end of his rookie season. That safety position behind Jairus Byrd is wide open. Duke can do a lot of what Aaron can do from a coverage standpoint, and he brings a bit more physicality to the field.

Last season, the Jets were more reliant on their defensive backs than were the Bills. While Buffalo spent about 53.7 percent of its snaps lined up with personnel groupings featuring five or more defensive backs, the Jets were up at 56.4 percent. (That data comes courtesy of Pro Football Focus.) The Bills did, however, spend much more time in the nickel defense (527 snaps) than did the Jets (365). Why, then, should the Bills base out of the nickel with the Jets' former coordinator in town? Because the Jets also spent much more time with six defensive backs (183 snaps to 54) and seven (64 to 17) than did the Bills. It's a defense that's more reliant on the secondary. If they can perform basic defensive functions with more defensive backs than a typical base defense, then they should make a five-defensive back package their base defense.

We've only begun scratching the surface of this defense, readers. Until next week, when our film session will focus on how Pettine pressured the Pats (that's going to be visual aid heavy, so keep a clear mind for next Friday), feel free to leave your feedback on this post and/or check out previous installments of our Bills re-watch series.