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3 - Can Buffalo's defense return to the top 10?
July 25, 2017 11:00 AM | Chris Brown

Camp Countdown presented by M&T Bank will examine some of the more pressing issues facing the team on the field as they make their final preparations for the regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We'll address these subjects one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully probe for some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 27th and the Sept. 10th opener at New Era Field against the New York Jets.

A two-year slide on defense under former head coach Rex Ryan was not anticipated at the outset. An extremely complex and ever-changing scheme left players frozen at times, sometimes on the field and sometimes on the sideline. The result was the 19th ranked defense in the league, which finished 29th against the run, 19th in third down defense and 16th in points allowed.

While it was certainly a slip from where the team had been prior to Ryan's arrival, the Buffalo defense despite another scheme change is not far off from rebounding based on the points of emphasis in head coach Sean McDermott's 4-3 scheme.

Here's why the Bills, despite a schedule that has them facing more than a handful of top flight quarterbacks, at least have a shot of approaching top 10 status on the defensive side of the ball in 2017.

Better scheme fit
Not everyone on Buffalo's roster was acquired to play in a 4-3 scheme. Last year's second-round pick Reggie Ragland is probably the most glaring example. But in large part the balance of the Bills defensive roster has 4-3 front experience, and fits that scheme better.

"We're implementing a 4-3 scheme and the guys have really bought into that and that's what we're practicing and that's what we're looking forward to," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "That's what Sean 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. We think it fits our players well."

The players it appears to fit the best are Buffalo's front four. On the edges both Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson have been most productive in 4-3 schemes. Jerry Hughes posted 10 sacks with the Bills in 2014 in a 4-3 system. Shaq Lawson had 12.5 sacks in his final season at Clemson in a 4-3 scheme.

Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams both thrive in up the field, attacking type schemes that put an emphasis on rushing the quarterback. That's just what Frazier and McDermott have planned for this season.

"We want to be a fast, attacking style defense," said Frazier. "We want to be able to affect the quarterback with our front four. You want to be able to mix in some pressures when the opportunity comes. So being able to rush with four and every now and then add a fifth or sixth guy is kind of the way we want to be. But an attacking, aggressive style defense that will take the ball away."

The last time Buffalo was in a 4-3 scheme they led the league in sacks with 54. With largely the same cast of players up front, the Bills should put up solid numbers in that category.

"In order to be successful in this league you need to rely on pressuring the quarterback with your front four. Bringing six or seven really exposes your secondary and makes it tough no matter who you have on the back end," Frazier said. "So if we can get Jerry (Hughes) playing at the level we think he's capable of playing and Kyle and Marcell and Shaq Lawson comes along, that could be a formidable front four. We think those guys are more than capable."

And when there's pressure on the quarterback there are more opportunities for turnovers, an area where McDermott defenses have perennially excelled.

Under McDermott's tutelage, the Panthers defense finished in the top 10 in interceptions in three of the last four seasons (seventh, first and fourth). Carolina stood fifth in total takeaways last season (27) despite losing top cornerback Josh Norman and starting a rookie in his place. That sounds familiar.

Sacks and turnovers are the best drive killers in football. Knowing McDermott's defensive scheme has a history of producing both should prove beneficial for the prospects of Buffalo's defensive unit in 2017.

Simpler system
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the new defense is its simplicity. The complexities and endless pre-snap checks of the previous system proved confusing for a large number of Buffalo's defenders. It left players unsure of their assignments, which in turn kept players from executing at top speed. That left their unit vulnerable and capable opponents victimized the Bills as a result.

McDermott and Frazier believe in having answers in terms of 'X's and 'O's, but not to the point where their talent on the field is kept from playing fast. Their keys and rules provide quick answers so the players on the field can diagnose things quickly and react.

"Coach McDermott and coach Frazier are harping on being physical, playing fast and getting across the line and creating havoc," said Jerry Hughes. "Things I really love to do."

"I think it's just faster," said Preston Brown of this year's scheme under Frazier. "We had so many checks and whatever with Rex. Now we just kind of line up and play and that suits us as a defense. We just want to line up, play fast and have fun.

"There are always going to be some complicated things in each defense, but it's on us to take it upon ourselves to make sure we understand it and make everything simple."

More discipline
It's no secret that the defensive unit had its share of issues pre-snap last season. All the checks and alignment changes left players shrugging their shoulders looking at their teammates wondering what call they were in as the ball was being snapped.

There were also several instances where Buffalo didn't even have the right personnel on the field, or too many or too few men on the field at all. That won't happen under McDermott and Frazier.

"They're preaching the fundamentals and their playbook," said Hughes of the coaching staff. "Understanding what they want from us, the different nuances of the scheme, how we can disguise blitzes. Work well as a unit and communicate well with everyone. That's huge for us. We've had some communication issues in the past so we're ironing that out now so we can communicate as one."

McDermott has changed the entire approach to the daily routine at One Bills Drive. There must be a commitment to the process that he believes the team must practice each and every day to give themselves the opportunity for victory on Sundays.

That approach has been embraced by the players because many who were on this roster last year do not want to go through the experience of beating themselves, as was the case all too often in 2016.

"I've watched basically the last three years of Carolina's defense and just understanding how they play and what they do," said Brown. "I talked to Luke (Kuechly) a little bit when he was in Cincinnati. Just understanding a little bit of what they expect and how they want us to play in the system. So it should be a good fit for all of us."

"The defense is getting better every day. We're communicating. It's good to see," said Micah Hyde. "Coming to a new team and starting all over again and meeting these guys I'm seeing a lot of positive things. I'm excited."

While it's certainly no guarantee that the Bills will return to top 10 status as a defensive unit in year one under McDermott and Frazier, recent history indicates that this scheme is a better fit for a host of reasons. Couple that with the discipline this unit will have in comparison to the past two seasons and flirting with a top 10 ranking doesn't look as daunting as some might think.

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