Know Your Enemy: Buffalo Defense

Being carried off the field is the ultimate honor for a coach, so the Buffalo Bills’ defense hoisting defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, atop their shoulders after last weekend’s victory in Detroit should indicate the high regard the unit has for their coach. Or if, as reported, Schwartz asked the players to carry him off, then maybe he’s just an @$$hole.

Either way, the Bills employ a 4-3 scheme that sees both Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in a wide 9 alignment, a concept that puts offensive tackles on an island in space and creates opportunities for big plays against the passing game. The linebacking corps is an aggressive unit led by former Patriot Brandon Spikes. This group attacks the line of scrimmage in run support, but their approach can be exploited with underneath routes and play-action. The secondary relies on confusion to generate turnovers; this unit is very adept at rolling its alignment just prior to the snap to confuse quarterbacks and receivers alike. Every member of the Patriots’ offense will need to turn in a quality performance if New England is to leave Buffalo with a victory. And if they carry Josh McDaniels off the field afterward… would anyone blame them?

Defensive End – Mario Williams (#94)

The former #1 overall pick for the Texans in 2006 has reinvigorated his career since signing with Buffalo as a free agent. After having his final two seasons in Houston cut short due to injury, Williams tallied 10.5 sacks for the Bills in 2012 and racked 13.5 last season. From his wide 9 alignment, Williams uses speed to beat tackles one-on-one in passing situations and has 3.5 sacks through five games this season. Williams also possesses incredible strength, as demonstrated on this red zone play from Week 5 in Detroit:

The Lions try to run Reggie Bush off-tackle to the right of the offensive formation. Off the snap Williams uses his right arm to control LaAdrian Waddle, Detroit’s big offensive tackle, and then drags down the speedy Bush and holds him to a two-yard gain. Whoa.

Defensive Tackle – Marcell Dareus (#99)

The Bills are currently atop the league in sacks with 17 and this University of Alabama product has a team-high five of them. Dareus was selected third overall by the Bills in the 2011 NFL draft and has tallied at least 5.5 sacks in each of his three full NFL seasons. Against the Lions he got to Matthew Stafford for a loss three times, the most impressive of which occurred on this play:

Hughes’s wide alignment draws the left tackle outside, leaving Dareus to contend with both the left guard and center. The mammoth defensive tackle overwhelms the double team and records the sack. He uses a swim move to beat the guard (despite being held by the blocker) and powers past the center to the backfield. Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell face a difficult challenge in containing the former SEC standout.

Defensive Tackle – Kyle Williams (#95)

Opposite Dareus stands another SEC product, veteran Kyle Williams. Now in his 9th NFL season, the former LSU Tiger is coming off a 2013 campaign where he amassed 10.5 sacks and 42 tackles. A very crafty player, Williams calls upon a number of techniques to best run and pass blockers alike. In the Bills Passing Preview we provided examples of Williams using a swim move:

And later a strong push-pull move:

Sometimes sheer strength carries the day. Here Williams steamrolls through a double team to make a tackle against Donald Brown of the Chargers:

Williams was inactive against Detroit due to a Week 4 knee injury. Should he be limited or unavailable against New England, Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles will see time atin his position. Bryant had one tackle against the Lions in Week 5, while Charles assisted on two stops.

Defensive End – Jerry Hughes (#55)

Representing the other side of Buffalo’s wide 9 bookends, Hughes poses a stern challenge for left tackle Nate Solder. Selected 31st overall by Indianapolis in the 2010 NFL draft, the Colts tried to convert Hughes to a strong-side linebacker but the experiment failed, leading to his trade to Buffalo in April 2013.

The Bills used Hughes as a situational pass rusher last season and he responded with 10 sacks. This season, Schwartz installed him as a starter at defensive end and Hughes has flourished at his natural position. He is a high-motor player that requires attention from snap to whistle, as demonstrated on this play:

Hughes begins from a very wide alignment and gets upfield in a flash. Detroit left tackle Riley Reiff looks to have the defender under control but, when Stafford looks to break the pocket, Hughes continues his pursuit and, with a violent chop, separates the ball from the quarterback.

While it may seem odd to caution a center about the playing style of a defensive end, Stork needs to be cognizant of Hughes’s quickness off the snap, like Kansas City’s Tamba Hali:

With his eyes locked on Miami center Samson Satele, Hughes tries to get a jump off the Dolphins’ silent count to time his pass rush. However, he springs forward early after the center merely turns his head to the left, a clear offsides infraction. If the Patriots are forced to go to a silent count in Buffalo, Stork needs to be aware of the defensive end’s desire to jump the snap and mix up the silent count from play to play.

Strong-Side Linebacker – Nigel Bradham (#53)

After a solid career at Florida State, Bradham was selected by the Bills in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft. As a rookie he started 11 games at strong-side linebacker, but saw his playing time reduced in 2013 after a failed move to weak-side linebacker. Schwartz now has the linebacker playing in a more familiar position, and Bradham has rewarded his defensive coordinator with a strong start to 2014 including 8 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Schwartz leaves Bradham on the field when Buffalo employs a nickel package, and when the Bills look to bring pressure from these situations the former Seminole is likely to be the defender called on to blitz. Here is an example of Bradham blitzing in a sub package:

Here, the Dolphins have Ryan Tannehill in the shotgun using 11 personnel. Buffalo has a sub package on the field, with both Bradham and Preston Brown showing an A Gap blitz. Off the snap both linebackers begin to blitz, but then Brown backs off into an underneath zone while Bradham continues his rush, nearly getting to the quarterback after bulldozing through Lamar Miller’s attempted block.

In this next example the Bills use the same look, leading to a sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Against Houston’s 11 personnel Buffalo employs their nickel package and again Brown and Bradham show double A Gap blitz:

As with the previous play, Bradham continues into the pocket while Brown cuts off his pass rush and works into a zone near the line of scrimmage. Bradham is able to track down the Texans quarterback for a sack. When Buffalo puts their nickel package on the field it will likely be Bradham who blitzes and New England must be ready.

Middle Linebacker – Brandon Spikes (#51)

It is what it is but it ain’t what you think.”

One more thing to note with respect to Spikes is that Buffalo kept him on the field against Detroit when using a sub package.

Weak-Side Linebacker – Keith Rivers (#56)

Another member of the Buffalo defense selected in the round one of the NFL draft, Rivers enters his seventh season in the league and first with the Bills, finally settling in as a starter on the weak-side after disappointing years with the Bengals and Giants. As seen here, Rivers is an aggressive defender against the run:

Houston runs Alfred Blue off tackle to the right behind fullback Jay Prosch. Rivers identifies the play quickly and flies into the B gap to fill the hole. The linebacker violently collides with the fullback but manages to work off the block and corral the ball carrier.

However, his aggression can be exploited by play-action. In the next clip, the Texans have Prosch and Blue in the backfield against Buffalo’s base 4-3. Fitzpatrick fakes a handoff to Blue and, reading the run, Rivers flies up into the B gap to his side in an attempt to meet Prosch’s block:

The rookie fullback is not blocking and continues into a passing route. Rivers cannot arrest his momentum and the fullback gets past him for a gain of 24 yards. New England ran a very similar play against Cincinnati on Sunday night, with James Develin picking up a first down on a 10-yard gain. Look for the Patriots to utilize this concept against Rivers on Sunday. As with Spikes, the Patriots need to use Rivers’s aggression against him in the play-action passing game.

Left Cornerback – Leodis McKelvin (#21)

The 11th overall selection in the 2008 NFL draft, McKelvin already has two interceptions in the 2014 season. Here the cornerback is lined up across from DeAndre Hopkins in a Cover 3 alignment:

McKelvin gives the wide receiver a big cushion off the line and then stays with Hopkins on the post route. Positioned well, the cornerback makes a play on the ball in the air and pulls in the interception.

While receivers can beat him off the line of scrimmage when he shows press coverage, McKelvin’s closing speed allows him to recover on routes and get back in position to play the ball. In Week 2, Jarvis Landry beats McKelvin’s attempt at a jam, but the defensive back recovers and cuts underneath the receiver on the throw:

Even when beaten by a receiver McKelvin’s recovery speed makes him a threat in the secondary. Tom Brady needs to be aware of this ability and make sure the cornerback has not re-established good positioning prior to making a throw to his side of the field.

Right Cornerback – Stephon Gilmore (#24)

Yet another first round selection, the former University of South Carolina defensive back has made one interception this season. Gilmore is a strong player in zone coverage and on this play against Detroit the cornerback is on the outside in a Cover 2 alignment:

Detroit has their 12 personnel on the field and rookie Eric Ebron runs a quick out from a wing alignment. Gilmore recognizes the route and covers ground quickly, upending Ebron and holding the play to a minimal gain.

Here, Gilmore is on the outside in Cover 3 alignment. Philip Rivers checks down to Donald Brown out of the backfield and the cornerback comes upfield and makes a safe and solid tackle:

When playing in man-to-man coverage, Gilmore can be beaten; in isolation, he needs deep safety help. Here, the former Troy Trojan is in the slot against Keenan Allen, and the wide receiver beats Gilmore one-on-one on an out route:

When Gilmore is in man coverage, New England needs to attack the cornerback and look for receivers to gain separation down the field.

Safety – Aaron Williams (#23)

Now in his fourth season, Williams moved from cornerback to safety in 2013 and started 14 games before an injury curtailed his season. The former University of Texas Longhorn typically plays near the box for Buffalo and is a vital piece to their run defense. Williams already has 23 tackles through five games, including 9 against San Diego in Week 3. On this play, watch how the safety does a tremendous job of tracking down Donald Brown on the attempted draw play:

His aggressive nature against the run is something for New England to exploit in play-action. Watch what the Lions do against the Buffalo Cover 2 coverage. Williams is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen on this play:

Even playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage with minimal responsibilities against the run, Williams’s first three steps are towards the line of scrimmage when he reads run. The safety recovers well and breaks on the out route to make a hard tackle, but the Patriots need to capitalize on his over-eager pursuit tendencies.

Safety – Da’Norris Searcy (#25)

The product of the University of North Carolina enters his fourth NFL season and his first as a full-time starter. Searcy usually occupies the deep centerfield role for Buffalo, and is a hard hitter and strong defender in zone coverage as evidenced on this play against Houston:

Searcy is deep in Cover 1 but shaded towards Andre Johnson who is the inside receiver in Houston’s slot formation. Johnson runs a post route which the safety quickly recognizes, breaking on the ball and delivering a hard shot to Johnson.


With six former first round draft choices in their starting lineup, Buffalo’s talented defense poses another stern test for New England on Sunday. The defensive front with their wide 9 alignment on the edges generates pressure on passers and, in conjunction with the linebackers, contains the running game. The secondary disguises their coverage well prior to the snap and the defensive backs are strong hitters and solid tacklers. A total team effort will be necessary for the Patriots to regain sole possession of first place in the AFC East on Sunday.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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