News of the reshuffling and the additions on the Buffalo Bills coaching staff were overshadowed Monday by the announcement of a defensive adjustment that will include switching to a 4-3 formation from a base 3-4 which was used under coach Chan Gailey the last two seasons.
The move isn't surprising considering the Bills used a four-man front for most of last season due to personnel and injuries. The shift began during the team's Week Eight victory over the Washington Redskins, the first game rookie Marcell Dareus moved from 3-4 defensive end to 4-3 defensive tackle.
Dareus and the Bills responded with a season-best 10 sacks, the second most in franchise history, in a 23-0 shutout win.
"When we hand you a lineup card, it's going to have two defensive tackles, two defensive ends and three linebackers, it's going to start that way," Gailey said. "But how much we end up in even spacing [or] odd spacing, I can't tell you that today. I think that's determined by players and the offense we're playing and what they give us."
The Bills also announced the additions of Andrew Dees and Eric Thatcher to the team's coaching staff. Dees, the one-time University at Buffalo tight ends coach under Jim Hofher, has been named the assistant offensive line coach and Thatcher will serve as the defensive quality control coach.
Bob Bicknell will coach wide receivers after coaching tight ends the previous two seasons, while Adrian White will serve as the assistant defensive backs coach after serving as the defensive quality control coach since 2008. Bob Sanders will coach linebackers after coaching outside linebackers last season.
A Syracuse University product, Dees joins the Bills after spending last season as the running backs coach/recruiting coordinator at Massachusetts. He coached the offensive line at Temple from 2006-10 and coached tight ends at UB from 2001-05. The 16-year college coaching veteran enters his first season in the NFL.
Thatcher joins the Bills after spending last season as the assistant defensive backs coach at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. Thatcher was a three-year starting free safety at Pitt and upon his graduation in 2008, he started his coaching career at St. Vincent College in 2009 and then served as a graduate assistant at Pitt in 2010.
The lone remaining staff position that needs to be filled is tight ends now that Bicknell has moved to coaching the wideouts.
"The candidates at the tight ends position we're continuing to interview are very good candidates," Gailey said. "That's what allowed us to make that move as well. We think we have some really good candidates there."
The shift in defensive philosophy is the latest renovation of a team that hopes to avoid another rebuilding year after finishing 6-10 last season. A day after the season, Gailey fired defensive coordinator George Edwards and replaced him Dave Wannstedt, who coached the inside linebackers last season.
Also, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon left for Penn State, assistant offensive line coach Bobby Johnson left for Jacksonville to become the tight ends coach while quarterbacks coach George Cortez became the coach of the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The elevation of Wannstedt to defensive coordinator was the first indication that the Bills were moving to a 4-3. Buffalo was a 3-4 defense in name only last year.
"If you look around the league today people are playing four-man fronts and three-man fronts, they're playing a little bit of everything," Gailey said. "We're going to try and put our guys in position to be successful, whatever that position might be. If it's odd spacing sometimes or even spacing sometimes."
Chris Kelsay was labeled as an outside linebacker. But he lined up as an outside linebacker with three other linebackers on the field on only 10.5 percent of his plays, according to Neil Hornsby, head of ProFootballFocus.com, which goes in depth on NFL analysis. That's how much the Bills showed a more or less traditional 3-4 look. Kelsay is the best example to use, because the Bills used several pass rushers after outside linebacker Shawne Merriman was lost for the season. Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said after the season the Bills were in a nickel defense -- with five defensive backs -- on 47 percent of their plays in 2011.
"[A], I think that we want to utilize our personnel to the best and we feel like this will allow us to do that," Gailey said. "B, Dave is very knowledgeable in this defense and he's the guy we wanted doing the job and that's another reason we're doing it. And, C, it's easier to find people. It's tougher to find people in the true 3-4 in a lot of ways. It makes it a little bit easier to find people from time to time to run a four-man front than a three-man front. It gets extremely hard to find those outside 'backers year in and year out. It gets tougher and tougher."
In addition to Kelsay, the Bills used defensive ends Spencer Johnson and Alex Carrington at outside linebacker and both played with middling results coming off the edge.
Dareus and Kyle Williams likely will start in the middle, giving the team a potentially formidable tandem at defensive tackle. The Bills are looking at upgrades at defensive end where Johnson, Carrington and Dwan Edwards combined for 5.5 sacks.
Merriman, Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard look good on paper at linebacker but the only certainty is Sheppard at middle linebacker, Gailey said.
"I know Shep's going to be in the middle," Gailey said. "Don't hold me to anything after that. Shep's in the middle, I know that."
The Bills draft/free agent shopping list remains the same: Land a pass rusher at either defensive end or outside linebacker and a shutdown corner.
"You still want to rush the passer and you still want to cover them," Gailey said.