The Buffalo Bills lost a pair of popular defensive linemen in Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips. General manager Brandon Beane went right to work reinforcing the line with three quick signings to fill the void. The first two we previewed were all about versatility. Will the trend hold, or will defensive tackle Vernon Butler be a little more specialized?
The Carolina Panthers’ defense was considered a 3-4 last season, although it never looked like they completely committed to it. This snap has Vernon Butler playing a more traditional tackle role for a 3-4 in that he’s lined up using a 4-tech. Bills fans are used to reading about 1-tech and 3-tech. The latter of those would have Butler a bit more to his right. While a lot of what we see should translate pretty well to a 3-tech, it’s not a guarantee.
Back to the play. I only have one thing to say about it. That’s some pretty nice change of direction from a 330-lb lineman.
Here he is playing the 1-tech, which should be a pretty clean transition to the Leslie Frazier/Sean McDermott defense. Butler was asked to take on a double team pretty often. This shouldn’t be expected every snap, but it shows his upside. Like we saw with Shaq Lawson, the Panthers declined Butler’s fifth-year option because he wasn’t living up to expectations. He did in 2019, also like Lawson, but will now need to try to continue that progress with a new team.
On this snap, the expectations seem to be similar to how Buffalo used defensive ends last season. Protect the gap, react, and make a play. Butler is patiently waiting for something to develop before making his move. Rotating into the backfield, he’s an unwelcome surprise for quarterback Russell Wilson.
We again have a big man moving like a much smaller one. Against partial resistance from the guard, what appears to have been intended to result in a quick-strike pass was far too slow to account for Butler. He didn’t attack the quarterback recklessly, either—he moved with intent and dislodged the ball.
Here’s another sack, which came one play after the last one. He starts off as a space-eater with read-and-react responsibility. Thanks to good awareness, he’s in position to head off quarterback Jameis Winston to avoid a positive scramble. It’s also noteworthy that he’s quick enough to make that happen in the first place. Butler times every step of this well. He raises his hands when Winston still has a chance to pass, which gives him just enough time to close and finish.
I focused a bit more on highlights for Vernon Butler than I usually would because I think it’s important to know the kind of player the Buffalo Bills are hoping they’ve landed. Butler’s time on the field was limited in 2019, playing less than 40% of Carolina’s defensive snaps, yet he still had a productive season. Six sacks, seven tackles for a loss, and eight quarterback hits are a decent stat line for sure.
The big disclaimer is that Butler was in his fourth year and had never come close to this level of production before. Was it a scheme issue? Well that’s a problem, because those years came in a more traditional 4-3 defense (including a year with McDermott). If it’s a motivation issue, can they unlock it now that he’s been paid? The Buffalo Bills are hoping it’s a case study in late blooming. If so, they could have found a steal.