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Analyzing the McDermott D: The front seven makes or breaks it

You are dying for different, as is usually the case with a Buffalo Bills head coaching change.

You were happy to hear Sean McDermott say at his opening news conference: "I'm not into making promises."

You're thrilled McDermott has not yet shown up at the interview podium wearing a helmet.

You're glad you haven't seen him bicycling through Delaware Park. You don't know if McDermott has any siblings, and you don't care if you never find out.

Here's more good news from the Different-Is-Better Department: McDermott's defense is a dramatic departure from Rex Ryan's scheme.

Does that mean his results will be better? Not necessarily.

We're not here to trash Ryan, all joking aside. Ryan's defensive scheme works in the NFL . . . if he has players who fit . . . and they're bought in . . . and it's executed properly.

McDermott's defenses in Carolina ranked in the top 10 in the NFL four of the past five years. He had good players. They were bought in. It was executed properly.

Here's an analysis of the scheme we're expecting to see this season from McDermott and his defensive chief Leslie Frazier, with a look at the many ways it differs from Ryan's underachieving scheme of the past two years.


It's the key to success of McDermott's defense. McDermott likes to play zone coverages. If the quarterback has too much time, he will find the holes in the zones. The four-man rush must get the ball out of the quarterback's hands and not let him work from the pocket late in the down.

The Bills need Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson to have good seasons. They need a couple other edge rushers to chip in – maybe Eddie Yarbrough and Lorenzo Alexander. Can Lawson become a top-20 defensive end in the NFL? If not, that's hardly an all-world top-four edge rushing unit.

McDermott's Carolina defenses ranked in the top eight in the NFL in rushing four men the past five years, according to Football Outsiders. Frazier fits that approach perfectly. His last two years as a defensive chief in Tampa, the Bucs ranked third and fifth, respectively, in four-man rushes.


Don't give up the big play. Keep the ball in front of you. Play fast. Those are things zone concepts help you achieve (presuming you're getting some pass rush).

Cover 3 was McDermott's preferred coverage in Carolina, but he mixed it up, like every coach. Nobody can play one predictable coverage against NFL talent. The Bills also will play some man coverage and plenty of Cover 2, the favored coverage that helped Frazier earn a Super Bowl ring with Tony Dungy in Indianapolis in 2007.

"It's going to be aggressive," said former NFL safety Quintin Mikell, who played for McDermott in Philadelphia and Carolina. "You're going to see a lot of complex schemes, a lot of different packages. You'll see people moving around in different positions. It'll be a lot of fun to watch, especially to people who really know the game."

The standard Cover 3 defense has a safety in the middle of the field and the two outside cornerbacks responsible for the outside thirds. It's cornerback-friendly. You're going to see a bunch of off coverage, giving the receiver a cushion. Don't complain about it.

The Panthers usually allow a higher percentage of passes completed, 66 percent or so. (That statistic is inflated a bit by the fact Carolina plays four games against Drew Brees and Matt Ryan). But they've ranked in the top four among defenses in yards per completion allowed (9.6 or so) four of the past five years.


In zone coverage, the cornerbacks can have their eyes on the quarterback and break on the ball quicker. That allows them to be ballhawks. Carolina was in the top 10 in interception percentage three of the past four years.

Says Frazier: "You can see the ball come out more, whereas if you're playing a lot of man with your linebackers and your secondary you've got your eyes on your man. You don't always see the ball come out. That's the advantage to zone."

"There are some disadvantages as well because there are some holes in zones, especially if you don't have a pass rush," Frazier said. "There are pros and cons to any coverage, and some of it depends on your personnel."

McDermott will disguise Cover 3 at times by having cornerbacks play "press-bail" coverage, which Seattle does so effectively. The corner, often on the multiple-receiver side, will line up in press coverage at the snap, creating the impression of man coverage, but then drop back at the snap with outside leverage, keeping his eyes on the QB and the inside receiver.

Another way to mix it up is with Cover 3 cloud coverage. The corner on one side plays bump and run, then passes the receiver off deep. A safety then drops from underneath toward the deep sideline, putting two safeties and one corner in the back three. This allows for press coverage on a dangerous receiver with a safety over the top, making the Cover 3 play like a Cover 2 on that side of the field.

Having a versatile safeties helps. That's why the Bills signed Micah Hyde. He has corner skills and can play underneath or deep.

"It was built for safeties, ball hawking, blitzing, schemes, stunts," Mikell said. "It won't be boring. You might see Cover 2. You might see quarters. You might see roll coverage. You might see a safety blitz, a corner blitz."


We can hear fear-the-worst Bills fans grumbling already about a preponderance of four-man rushes. Great, we're getting the second-coming of Dave Wannstedt.

Don't worry. Wannstedt, you'll recall, ran the 2012 Bills defense like it was 1992 (as if he had Dallas' all-world talent). Wannstedt blitzed just 15 percent (by News statistics), the lowest total of any NFL team the past five years.

McDermott blitzes enough to keep offenses honest. He blitzed (five or more rushers) between 24 percent and 28 percent the past four years, by Football Outsiders stats. That ranked between 17th and 24th. It's not a gambling defense, like Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams and Todd Bowles prefer.

But McDermott and Frazier aren't passive. They blitz and threaten the A gaps (on either side of the center). This will help Kyle Williams. The O-line has to account for the A-gap blitz before the snap, which can cause the center to be a tad late helping to block the defensive tackle even when the blitz doesn't come.

McDermott almost never rushes three, and Frazier never rushed three in Tampa.

Of course, Ryan's 3-4 scheme was far different. Ryan liked to play man coverage and leave his corners on an island. Ryan's defenses often ranked in the top 10 in big blitzes (rushing six or more), especially when he had Darrelle Revis in New York. Buffalo was No. 3 in six-plus rushers in 2015 (at 13 percent) and No. 13 in 2016.

When Ryan wasn't sending the house, he liked to threaten it and drop eight men into coverage. The Bills ranked third in the NFL in three-man rushes last season at 16.8 percent. You won't see that this year.


Besides good edge rushing, the other key to good zone coverage is fast linebackers. They chase down underneath receivers. They close seams in the zone quickly.

Carolina has one of the fastest, best linebacking corps in the NFL. Luke Kuechly, a three-time first-team All-Pro, is the best middle linebacker in the game. He ran 4.58 in the 40-yard dash out of college. The outside backers are converted college safeties. Thomas Davis (now 34) ran 4.52, and Shaq Thompson ran 4.64.

Those three have the speed to drop a tad deeper and squeeze the space between themselves and the deep safeties yet still close fast on shorter pass routes. Kuechly has the speed to drop deep in the middle to make the Cover 3 play like a Cover 2. Yet he still limits yards after catch underneath.

Bills middle linebacker Preston Brown proved he can thrive in the 4-3 under Jim Schwartz three years ago. He ran 4.79. Who knows what Alexander runs at age 34? (He was 290 pounds coming out of college.) Ramon Humber ran 4.56 out of college. Will offenses take advantage of Alexander and Humber (mostly a career backup) in coverage?

"Lorenzo defies his numbers," Frazier said. "He's 34 years of age, he doesn't play that way. He plays like a guy 25, 26 years of age the way he runs and competes."

Frazier marveled at how Alexander chased down a scrambling Carson Wentz in the preseason game in Philadelphia.

"You would not know that he was 34 years old running down a fleet, athletic quarterback the way he did," Frazier said. "We've got some guys with some speed. I think Preston runs better than you would expect for a big man. Ramon is probably the fastest and the quickest of the three. So I don't think we're as slow as some people might think. That competitive speed is a big deal. Lorenzo has it, Preston has it and so does Ramon."

McDermott's defense will be as good as the front seven.

How good is the Bills' front seven? We're going to find out.


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