On an annual basis, the Football Outsiders Almanac provides NFL fans with the most unique pre-season look at the NFL and their favorite football teams. The book contains not only FO's signature DVOA statistics and projections, but also useful data such as package-specific personnel usage, situational statistics (how often did the Buffalo Bills go for it on fourth down?) and feature-length write-ups on each team. The book isn't perfect, but it offers fans nuggets of information that no other outlet provides. You can buy the Almanac at this link.
I read the Bills chapter in the book earlier this month, and came up with some questions that Aaron Schatz, author of said chapter and FO's Editor-in-Chief, was kind enough to answer. The big question, for me, had to do with defensive alignments.
The Bills ranked near the bottom of the NFL in terms of defensive personnel variation in 2012, to the surprise of no one. The New York Jets, however, used their base 3-4 defense on just 25 percent of snaps, spreading the love between various nickel and dime formations as well as a standard 4-3. Schatz told me that the Jets, under now-Bills coordinator Mike Pettine, were one of three defenses in the league last year (New England and Indianapolis were the others) to play both a 3-4 and a 4-3 on 10 percent of snaps - but he also offered the following caveat.
"One thing I should note is that marking defensive personnel is very difficult, especially when you use the group of volunteers like we do," Schatz explained. "There are a number of players in 3-4 defenses who are essentially hybrids who move back and forth between playing as linebackers in a standing position and playing as linemen with a hand down. We've given our charters the directive to mark these players based on whether they have their hands on the ground or not. That means that a lot of those plays where we've marked the Jets as a 4-3, one of the ends might be Calvin Pace or Bryan Thomas. Maybe someone else would consider that a 3-4 still, I don't know. The other thing to remember is that 3-4 versus 4-3 doesn't matter that much when the rise of spread offenses has forced teams to play nickel or dime more than half the time. I'd rather chart by one-gap versus two-gap, but honestly, I'm not sure I am a good enough scout to mark that myself, let alone the volunteers, and then you get into the problem of defenses who are playing mixed fronts where one side is one-gapping and the other side is two-gapping, and now everyone reading this has a headache."
Suffice it to say: the Jets used five different defenses on between 14 and 25 percent of snaps last season, and even if it's the same personnel grouping running each unit (that's the point of a "hybrid" defense, after all), the idea that we're going to see a ton of different looks from Pettine this year isn't myth.
Some of the other topics Schatz and I discussed:
The Bills used "11" personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) on a whopping 72 percent of plays last year - by far the highest figure in the league, and up from their No. 5 ranking of 49 percent in 2011. Schatz agrees that with a no-huddle offense and elite spread-concept talent like C.J. Spiller on hand, we can expect more of the same under Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett. "I don't see why not," Schatz said. "There's also just a general league-wide trend here. 11 personnel was used on 39.5 percent of plays in 2010, 40.4 percent in 2011, and then jumped to 45.7 percent in 2012."
FO's stats back up the idea that Kevin Kolb might improve significantly behind a better offensive line. The Almanac puts Arizona's line through the wood chipper, and Schatz believes that Kolb has a much better chance for success behind Buffalo's line (assuming he plays, of course). "Absolutely," Schatz said. "We know that sacks are more the responsibility of the quarterback than conventional wisdom seems to believe, and there's no doubt that Kolb has had a higher Adjusted Sack Rate than the other Arizona quarterbacks over the last couple years. But it isn't all him, it's a combination of him and the line, and that line is pathetic. Buffalo, on the other hand, was the best offense in the league by Adjusted Sack Rate in 2011, and was No. 10 in 2012. I doubt that's mostly Ryan Fitzpatrick's awesome pocket presence."
Just twice in the last eight years - in 2005 and 2008, with Carolina - has special teams coordinator Danny Crossman had a Top 10-rated unit by FO's metrics. In every other season, Crossman's units ranked somewhere between No. 22 and No. 30. There is still plenty of reason to worry about that area of the team, but Schatz is also quick to point out that it's easier to turn things around on special teams. "The good news is that special teams are much less consistent from year to year than offense or defense," Schatz explains. "There's a smaller sample size to measure, and value is more dependent on a few big plays, and there's more personnel turnover."
Schatz balked at discussing the idea that a more two-gap oriented defense might marginalize a player like Kyle Williams, but did offer this: "I will say that when they were screwing around with a 3-4 in 2010, Williams didn't have any problems. Remember, he made the Pro Bowl as the nose tackle that year."
Once again, if you're looking for unique pre-season information on the Bills and the rest of the NFL, this is the link to click.