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Bills go from 3-4 to 4-3 in measured fashion, and look formidable

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Mario Williams gives the Bills another huge part for their converted 4-3 defense. (US Presswire)  
Mario Williams gives the Bills another huge part for their converted 4-3 defense. (US Presswire)  

Transitioning from one defense to another as can be as problematic as a coaching change, and coaches who rush into the scheme transition just because they believe in a system often are doomed to failure.

The advice from Bill Parcells: Don't rush!

Parcells once sat down with me to talk about the transition from a 4-3 defense to his favored 3-4.

I watched him make the transition with the Jets and I remember how long he took to make the switch in Dallas. He's against making the switch until you all the critical pieces up front are in place. That's why Mike Zimmer stayed in a 4-3 package under Parcells for the first two years (2003-04).

2011 starting defense
Position Player
LDE Marcell Dareus
NT Kyle Williams
RDE Dwan Edwards
LOLB Chris Kelsey
LILB Andre Davis
RILB Nick Barnett
ROLB Shawne Merriman
LCB Terrence McGee
SS George Wilson
FS Jarius Byrd
LCB Leodis McKelvin

In 2005 Parcells signed NT veteran Jason Ferguson and drafted DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears and the transition was in play. Patience ruled that call in Dallas, and the same logic works for the 2012 Buffalo Bills.

Bills GM Buddy Nix is a smart and patient man. Nix and coach Chan Gailey hired Dave Wannstedt in 2011 while they were deep into a 3-4 defense. They didn't change to a 4-3 because Wannstedt -- a coach steeped in the 4-man front philosophy -- arrived at Orchard Park. They set their sights on 2012 for the transition and set a 12-month course to get the right players to foster the change.

Compare the starting 3-4 lineup for opening day 2011 and the projected 2012 lineup and you realize the Bills have done in one year what it took the Cowboys two years to accomplish: A masterful job of securing the right talent before the move.

Dareus can play DE in this scheme but will be much more effective inside as a "3 technique." Kyle Williams is more quick than powerful and he will do even more damage shaded on the center as a "1 technique." Dwan Edwards is now a backup.

Kelsey returns to his natural position (DE) but relegated to backup, too, and this improves depth. Andre Davis is gone. Barnett is better suited to play in a 4-3 front (scheme he played when originally drafted by Green Bay) and Merriman becomes a situational pass rusher which adds length to his career which has been up and down with injury. The only change in the secondary is McKelvin, who is now third string.

To make their 4-3 move, the Bills got two excellent defensive ends in free agency and moved all three linebackers to their natural positions. The addition of their 2012 first-round pick at corner (Stephon Gilmore) helps a secondary that already was fifth in the NFL in interceptions. Five retained players are at new positions and three new players join the starting unit. Not only do they make a major transition, they also improve their depth considerably.

2012 projected starters
Position Player
LDE Mario Williams
LDT Marcell Dareus
RDT Kyle Williams
RDE Mark Anderson
SAM LB Kirk Morrison
MIKE LB Kelvin Sheppard
WILL LB Nick Barnett
LCB Terrence McGee
SS George Wilson
FS Jarius Byrd
LCB Stephone Gilmore

Some points about the new lineup:

The Bills will not be giving up 4.8 yards a carry as they did in 2011. They will generate more than the 29 sacks they did last year. They will not be forced to blitz to get to the quarterback like they did last year when more than half of their sacks came off such pressure. I dare say they will improve on the 20 interceptions from 2011 because the front seven will be much better. Last year the Bills were No. 26 among NFL defenses. Look for a big jump in 2012 because they made the transition the right way. Take a look at the 2012 projected lineup, and it is impressive.

 This D-line alone should generate close to 30 sacks and stop the run. There are three potential Pro Bowlers in the group -- if we ever have another Pro Bowl.

 At linebacker, Morrison had 210 tackles in 2008-09 at this same position; Sheppard is a 245-pound natural middle backer; Barnett is a run and hit player with good pass coverage skills (nine INTs, 28 passes defended when he played in this scheme in Green Bay. This group should also generate close to 250 tackles as well as 6 sacks and 4 interceptions.

 In the secondary, Wilson and Byrd combined for seven INTs last season with a mediocre pass rush.

The key backups on this defense are solid. Carrington and Dwan Edwards can back up the tackles, Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman will get some pass rush while Aaron Williams and Da’Norris Searcy add depth in the secondary. The Bills can incur some injuries and still play well.

The Bills are now looking like a fine 4-3 defense built for the long haul.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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