4-3 Defense Will Be Aggressive
Defense will take a hit because of personnel losses.
by Steve Saslow
July 24, 2001
The defense, like the offense, has undergone a complete scheme change. Unlike the offense, this unit has lost four starters from a year ago. Included the four starters lost from the 1999 team, the starting unit has lost 8 of 11 regulars over the past two years. The new 4-3 defense with a version of the "46" defense is expected to be very aggressive and should take advantage of the new lighter, faster players replacing bigger, slower players that have left.
All four starters lost were from the front seven of the defense that is now completely re-aligned to include four defensive linemen and three linebackers. The defensive line has lost big powerful Ted Washington in the middle and last year's sack leader Marcellus Wiley. Pat Williams will see some double teams now as the main man in the middle but he will have company as the club will use two defensive tackles. The second starter is penciled in to be veteran Shawn Price who was re-signed after testing the waters as an unrestricted free agent. He will be challenged by talented, but very raw Leif Larsen and Air Force graduate Bryce Fisher who is trying to make the move from end.
Phil Hansen will once again man left end but will have a new partner on the right side as last year's first round pick Erik Flowers is expected to get the nod of filling in the very large shoes from the loss of Wiley. Flowers will be on the spot as he struggled during most of his rookie season. He is much lighter this year to take advantage of his speed which fits in well with the new style of defense. Rookies Aaron Schobel and Ron Edwards will help provide depth on the line. Schobel will probably be used as a pass rushing specialist on third downs.
The linebacking corp has seen an abrupt change over the last couple of weeks with the surprising release of John Holecek. This allows the Bills best player, Sam Cowart to move back inside, he was tried on the outside during the minicamps. As the lone middle linebacker he can be in for his biggest season to date, just in time for the big payday at the end of the season. The Bills willingness to put him where he wants will help them retain him when he becomes a free agent after this season. Keith Newman will once again man the strongside linebacker spot but the other outside position is up for grabs thanks to the recent release of Holecek and the earlier cutting of Sam Rogers. Jay Foreman is expected to have the early edge on this job but will be challenged by Corey Moore who also may see some time at middle linebacker. DaShon Polk has been impressive this off season and may challenge for playing time along with holdover Fred Jones.
I do wonder why Williams was so quick to switch to the 4-3 defense when he had the personnel in place to play the 3-4. That would have kept Holecek here and would have helped with the fact that the club is short of NFL caliber defensive linemen. The emphasis of the 4-3 however, is waves of quick, small players swarming to the holes and pressuring the quarterback giving him little time to throw the ball.
The swarming, aggressive style of defense from the front seven also transfers to the secondary. The defensive backs will have to play a lot of man to man coverage while the linebackers swarm. They will also be aggressive and blitz the quarterback much more than we are used to seeing in Buffalo. The good news is the starting secondary comes back intact with all four starters returning. They will also bolstered by first round pick Nate Clements who will have an immediate impact as a nickel back and may challenge Ken Irvin for playing time. Irvin has struggled in man to man coverage in the past and if he struggles he will lose his starting job. Antoine Winfield is a developing star who excels in man to man coverage at the other corner spot. The old reliable veteran Henry Jones returns as the starting strong safety. In the 46 version of the defense this position gets a lot of tackles, expect a big season from Jones who Coach Williams thinks very highly of. At free safety Keion Carpenter returns as the probable starter but could be challenged but last year's second round pick Travares Tillman who received valuable playing time as a rookie last year when Carpenter got hurt. Depth at cornerback will come from the returning Chris Watson who failed as a return man but showed surprising skills as a cover man. Draft choices Jimmy Williams and Tony Driver also should provide depth at corner and safety respectively as well as possible return candidates.
The number one ranked defense of two years ago has been totally overhauled, the talent is not nearly as good as it was even last year. The only way for some good success from this unit will be if they totally buy into the system being installed by the coaching staff. If they play within the system then they could succeed as a team since many of the stars are no longer with the team.
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