It’s not unusual to hear NFL players on teams that have gone through coaching changes talk about how the new scheme that will be implemented is a “better fit” for their talent.
That has certainly been the case with members of the Buffalo Bills this offseason.
It’s not just lip service, though. You would be hard pressed to find anybody – outside of Rex Ryan – who thought changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4 was ever a good idea in the first place. Now that the Bills are going back, there has been universal approval of such a move.
“A lot easier!” defensive end Shaq Lawson said with a smile when asked about the change. “The 3-4 was a lot more difficult for me last year. I'm back to doing something comfortable. I've got my hand in the dirt all the time. I'm not pretty much playing in space, guarding receivers and things like that.
“The 3-4, there's a lot to learn with it. The 4-3, it's simple. Put your hand in the dirt, go get the quarterback and set the edge in the run game.”
That’s the approach fans longed for the last two years. Instead, they got Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus dropping into coverage at times – and lamenting it after games – and general mass confusion at others.
It’s been rehashed time and again, but the Bills had a top-five defense before Ryan arrived. They attacked opposing quarterbacks relentlessly, leading the NFL with 54 sacks. That number plummeted to 21 in 2015, the first year under Ryan. More importantly, the defense ranked 19th in yards against and 15th in points against. Those numbers were nearly identical in 2016 – 19th in yards against again and 16th in points allowed.
“It’s 2017, and history is history. We are looking forward to the 2017 Buffalo Bills team and we haven’t really dwelled on anything that’s happened in the past,” new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “Our focus has really been on the group of guys that are here right now, and that’s been our approach. We’ve set what we think are going to be our standards for this team on defense and we’ve talked to them about how we want to achieve our goals on defense. We really haven’t reflected back on any part of the past, whether it’s 1964, 2002 or 2015. That hasn’t been a part of our conversation. It’s all about the 2017 Bills.”
No more complicated pre-snap adjustments. No more late substitutions. A full 11 players on the field at all times. It sounds simple, but sometimes that’s all it takes.
“Guys have really bought into that and that’s what we’re practicing and that’s what we’re looking forward to,” Frazier said. That’s what Bills coach Sean McDermott "is most familiar with, with his experience in Carolina and our experience together in Philadelphia, and that’s what we’ve brought to Buffalo as well. It’s what we’re both most comfortable with, and we think it fits our players well.
“We had a system that we talked about prior to getting here and it was based on a 4-3, not anything that has happened here in the past and we tried to really put that conceptually together and we feel good about the direction that it’s gone.”
Ping-ponging back and forth between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes is a recipe for failure. Players are drafted for one scheme and then find themselves expendable when it changes. Luckily for the Bills, the expected key contributors on defense look to fit better in a 4-3. Lawson, for example, is back to doing exactly what he did at Clemson. Fellow defensive end Jerry Hughes also excelled in a 4-3 before seeing his numbers dip in Ryan’s scheme.
"A lot of us have already played in the 4-3 scheme, so we kind of understand some of the little nuances the coaches bring," Hughes said last month.
Still, a new scheme is a new scheme. There will be an adjustment. To that end, the Bills have had strong attendance during their offseason workout program, which has reached “Phase Three,” which includes 11-on-11, on-field work.
“We’ve been able to really work within the rules to get some things accomplished that we needed to get accomplished,” Frazier said. “Based on the limitations and what we were able to get achieved in Phase One and Phase Two – it has prepared us to have a good Phase Three, which is our 10 OTA practices. The guys have adapted well, the coaches have done a good job of instituting the things that we’ve wanted to get across to our players from a communication standpoint, which is almost all you can do in Phase One and Phase Two.”
Frazier, who spoke with the media for the first time Thursday since being hired, touched on a few other topics, including:
• Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus: “In the short time we’ve been here, and having a chance to go back and look at some of his tape, he’s an impressive football player for sure. What we’ve been doing this offseason, he’s really bought into everything we were been asking him to do. He’s been attending every meeting, every practice – I think he’s only missed maybe once, if that. He’s been terrific in what we’ve asked him to do.”
• First-round draft pick Tre’Davious White: “We did a lot of work prior to the draft, just getting familiar with him both as a player and as a person, and he hasn’t disappointed once he’s gotten into our building. He’s an outstanding young man and a very, very good football player and obviously we feel that way drafting him with our first pick in 2017 so we’re very pleased that he’s a part of our team.”
• Safety Micah Hyde: “Micah had a very good career in Green Bay. He had a ton of ball production, so to add him to our roster is big for us. We think he has a chance to really make a difference as far as taking the ball away. … He’s a versatile guy in the secondary. He can tackle, but he can cover good tight ends, good running backs – he’s just a very versatile player who has provided great production.”