Bills Hire Mike Pettine. Let’s Figure This Out

Updated: January 9, 2013

Now that the Bills have hired former Jets assistant Mike Pettine as their defensive coordinator, many fans have wondered how they are going to utilize their current defensive personnel, which is currently tapered to play a 4-3 style of defense. Pettine, a student of Jets head coach Rex Ryan, spent seven years as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, and the last four as defensive coordinator of the Jets. There has been some debate over who actually called the defensive plays in New Jersey, so I can only go off of the fact that Pettine stated that they shared that responsibility depending on the game situation. In terms of which defense the Bills are going to play next season, I don’t have an answer to that. Mike Pettine is the defensive coordinator. I’m just a guy. But I can give a background on him, the defenses he has used, and what that could all mean.

Most of the response from Bills fans thus far has been concern that the Bills will transition back to a 3-4 defense, which is probably closest thing you could label Pettine and Ryan’s defense with the Jets. I don’t find this as much of a concern as other fans seem to, as one of their strengths as defensive architects was their ability to switch up fronts based on offensive personnel. Erik Frenz wrote an article about this today, which contained some interesting tidbits about the fronts that the Jets used in the past. In 2011, the Jets ran a 3-4 front 37% of the time, which was the entirety of their base packages of that season (meaning sets with four players in the secondary). So a little over a third of their plays were run in a standard 3-4 (in 2012 they began running more 4-3 concepts, but certainly not enough to label it a 4-3 defense). What’s interesting is the array of different formations that they used in 2011. The Jets ran 19% of their plays out of a 3-3-5, a defense only recently utilized beyond Morgantown, WV, and ran 16% of their plays out of a 1-3-7. These defenses are built to confuse highly complex, timing-driven offenses, which can be said about most of the NFL’s teams at this point. These defenses are rooted in 46 concepts, which were created by Buddy Ryan in the 80′s (for the Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears) and passed on to his sons, Rex and Rob. It’s a high-volume blitz concept that worked extremely well in the 80′s for stopping the run and creating quarterback pressure, and more recently has worked in varying degrees of success in flustering quarterbacks.

Just a quick refresher on the original 46: Three members of the defensive line line up over the center and two guards. The weak side defensive end (I would call it “defensive end”, but pretty much every position in the 46 could be put into “quotes”) lines up outside of the tackle. Two  outside linebackers line up on the strong side, and then generally the strong safety moves into the box to serve as an additional middle linebacker (with the middle linebacker). That’s a very general description of it, but the modern version of it generally looks like this:

(from Buffalo Rumblings)


The 46 is intended to frustrate the quarterback and occupy blockers to make space for linebackers to make tackles. This defense still calls upon a pass rusher on the line of scrimmage and defensive tackles that can occupy blockers and occasionally make plays. The Bills possess these players in Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Linebackers with pass rushing ability are also important, as is a strong middle linebacker against the run (though I suppose all defenses could use one).

The Bills won’t be running a 46. That’s not what Pettine and Rex Ryan ran in New Jersey, and for the most part, a straight 46 has been phased out of the league. There are still people that defend the 46 as a defense that can be used in any situation, but in general, the defensive play callers of the league have not displayed that sort of confidence in it. Modern NFL offenses simply use too many receivers and too many quick reads for an eight-in-the-box defense to work effectively. And like the intelligent football coaches that they are, proponents of this system like Rex Ryan have adapted to the league and introduced some of the aforementioned formations like the 1-3-7.

You can quibble all you want about the number of players on the line of scrimmage, but I don’t think that’s nearly as important as it’s being made out to be. Pettine will more than likely implement a system that requires versatile players. It will also require pass rushers. Mario Williams qualifies as both, possessing both the athleticism and size to play on the line of scrimmage or standing up. Remember, Williams had five sacks in five games in 2011 as an outside linebacker. But whether the Bills defense looks more like a 4-3, a 3-4, or a Super Mighty Taco, they are going to need another pass-rushing linebacker. Pettine is going to send pressure. He’s going to send it from many different angles and positions.

Another concern for Pettine’s defense is our secondary. The Jets cornerbacks were in man coverage a good portion of the time, often on islands, in either man-free or bump-and-run coverage. This is a lot easier to get away with when you have two Pro Bowl cornerbacks (like the Jets have). The Bills have Stephon Gilmore, who seems up to the task, and essentially nobody else who has proven to be effective in man coverage. This is a situation where Aaron Williams could either thrive at cornerback or possibly move to free safety (or if those don’t work, another team).

The hiring of Pettine tells me that the Bills will probably address defense heavily in the offseason. Although there are some players well-suited for this sort of defense (Williams x2, Dareus, Gilmore, Byrd, and to a lesser extent Bryan Scott and Alex Carrington), there is very little second-level pass rush pressure on this Bills roster. It also makes the second cornerback spot even more of a glaring weakness. I believe that the Bills will address one of those needs in the first round of the draft (much to the chagrin of those projecting the Bills to take a quarterback and wide receivers in the opening rounds). This is a reasonably strong draft for addressing defense, with pass rushers like Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, and Texas A&M’s Demontre Moore looking likely to go high in the draft. Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner would also be an excellent fit for this new defense if he chooses to enter the 2013 Draft.

All in all, I approve of the hiring of Mike Pettine (I’m making a statement like my opinion matters). Jets fans seem to have him in high regard, as does their local media. According to Football Outsiders, who are considerably more intelligent than I, the Jets defense was ranked 1st, 5th, 2nd, and 9th in Pettine’s four year tenure as defensive coordinator. Yes, four top-ten ranked defenses. So I’m going to give this a chance. Maybe the defense is going to change, maybe the defensive personnel is going to change; most of all, I’m just hoping that the results change.

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