"I've gone in every year saying we are going to play defensive linemen in waves, and every year we don't do it. Well, I guarantee you we're going to play defensive linemen in waves this year." -- Marv Levy. July 5, 1993.
The Buffalo Bills are showing signs they might achieve one of Marv Levy's long-stated but unfulfilled goals.
Over the past six games, the Bills have exhibited their best defensive line depth in more than five years. Young defensive ends Sean Moran and Marcellus Wiley have been used -- albeit briefly -- to spell starters Bruce Smith and Phil Hansen in each of those games. Add to the mix veteran Jim Jeffcoat, who has been out the past three games with a knee injury, and the Bills have six defensive linemen they are willing to throw into the game.
It's an old but hard-to-achieve concept: play them in waves. Rest your starters on the defensive front periodically, and they will be fresher to make the big plays when you need them most -- when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter.
"We have some young guys who can step in and play this year," said Smith. "We finally have some depth where some of us old guys can get out of the game and get some breaks. When we're out of the game, I don't feel like we're missing a beat."
"We're trying to keep the starters as fresh as possible, but we're trying to get them in on the key plays," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "And you can't be sure when those are."
The fact Levy for years has been unable to build quality defensive line depth puts him in the overwhelming majority among NFL coaches. Almost no team can truly "play them in waves."
"Most of the people who play a lot of defensive linemen don't have good ones, they have bad ones," Phillips said.
Phillips is a proponent of the idea -- to a point. He wants to be able to spell his ends -- Smith and Hanson -- briefly during the game. He also replaces his other premier pass rusher, Bryce Paup, with second-year man Gabe Northern on occasion.
But those starters simply are too good to want to substitute for them extensively during the game. When you have the league's past two defensive MVPs, "playing them in waves" is taking a good idea and going too far.
It's not really an issue with nose tackle Ted Washington, unless he is injured. Washington comes out on all obvious passing downs anyway, so Phillips feels he doesn't need to be relieved at another point in the game.
Phillips admits he gets antsy about taking Smith out even for a few plays.
"It's a two-edged deal," Phillips said. "When is the big play going to happen? You want Bruce out there for it. But you don't know if the big play is going to be on first down or third down. If you knew it was always on thrid down, then it would be simple. Rest Bruce on first and second. But it doesn't work that way."
Smith is enjoying another outstanding season, with nine sacks. But he is 34 years old. Getting a couple of plays off figures to be good for him, particularly later in the season. And there are occasional games in which the defensive linemen desperately need a break. One example was last year's playoff game, when Jacksonville was fresher than the Bills in the fourth quarter.
"Yeah, but we didn't have any backup players," Phillips said. "Moran was only a rookie then."
The main reason the Bills have rarely spelled their starters in past years was there was too much of a dropoff between them and the backups. That may be changing.
Moran's progress this year has been a pleasant and perhaps mild surprise.
He was a fourth-round draft choice out of Colorado State last year and saw little defensive duty as a rookie.
"He has made a big jump from last year," Phillips said. "He's gotten a little bit stronger. He's got great speed, and he's learned to utilize his talents. That's what a guy does, hopefully, in his second year. They learn that first year, and they either jump forward or they don't. He's gone forward."
At 6-foot-3, Moran is a couple of inches shorter than the prototypical NFL defensive end.
"Yeah, but he's faster than all of them," Phillips said. "He's got great speed."
The 275-pound Moran, who has 15 tackles, showed his speed Monday night in Indianapolis. He sacked Jim Harbaugh in the second quarter, and he had a key pressure on Paul Justin in the fourth. The Colts faced a third-and-2 play from the Bills' 13, and Moran forced Justin to hurry a throw, which fell incomplete, to force a field goal.
Moran got off to a good start in training camp. Because Smith held out, Moran got extensive duty with the first unit most of preseason. He has played a lot the past three games as the third-down pass rusher due to the injury to Jeffcoat.
"I've been getting more and more experience, and Jim has been helping me," Moran said. "He's watching me all the time and has been like a second coach to me. He basically tells me about the players I've been going against, because he knows them all. He teaches me his moves and what he does with them."
"Sean is close to being a tremendous defensive lineman," Jeffcoat said. "He's real active, and he moves like a linebacker."
Wiley, the Bills' second-round draft choice in April, has spelled Smith on a few first- and second-down plays in recent games. When it gets to a third-down passing play, Smith almost always comes back in.
"We think he's talented," Phillips said. "He's progressed well. But you can't groom a player at the expense of the team. That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to play as well as we can all the time."
Wiley has made 10 tackles. He had a big stop on Barry Sanders in the second half of the win over Detroit.
"Marcellus has unlimited potential," Jeffcoat said. "The biggest thing he has to learn is to understand the game -- the depth of the quarterback, how offensive linemen set on different plays, that kind of thing."
"I came from a less-established program than most of these guys," said Wiley, a Columbia product. "So I didn't know the terminology or the complexity of the game. Pass rushing is a lot of leverage and technique and experience and repetitions. I've only played defensive end for two years, so there's a lot I have to learn.
"But I think I've actually picked up the run earlier than expected."
Improved strength has helped the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Wiley in that regard. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times at the scouting combine workouts in February. He was up to 34 by March, 40 by training camp and 45 now.
"We think Wiley is good enough now to play some," Phillips said.
The last team to truly play defensive linemen in "waves" with great success was Dallas. Jeffcoat was one of eight starting-caliber linemen on those mid-1990s Super Bowl squads, which included Charles Haley, Leon Lett and Tony Tolbert. He thinks there might never be a group that deep again.
"It would be pretty hard to get eight like that together," he said.
The Bills aren't shooting for eight or even a wave. But a little bit of depth could help their defense go a long way.