Buffalo Bills 3-4 Defense: How Can Teams Attack Mike Pettine’s “Attacking” D?

I’ve been so pumped about the newfound aggressive stance regarding the Buffalo Bills switch to a “hybrid” 3-4 defense that I’ve been only writing posts and series’ pumping them up. This time, however, I’ve decided to take a look at the New York Jets’ and the Baltimore Ravens’ defenses (from which Coach Pettine is a disciple of), in order to see which plays/concepts have typically hurt them the most.

(Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP)
(Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP)

The Bills have built their defense through the offseason in a similar fashion to the ways of the Ravens and Jets, adding just two defensive free agents (Manny Lawson, Alan Branch) cost and acquired Jerry Hughes in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts.

The team opted to bolster the remaining holes on the defense via the draft, selecting a pair of versatile safeties in Duke Williams and Johnathan Meeks, while adding another player with scheme diversity in linebacker Kiko Alonso.

So what are some plays that have proven to be 3-4 defense beaters? Let’s turn to NFL.com’s All-22 Tape to find out!

Weakside Runs

In a 3-4 defense, the three down lineman need to be able to occupy blockers in order for the linebackers to do their job. The two outside defenders pictured here are responsible for “setting the edge” or dropping into coverage.

The Jets’ defense is playing “Cover One” meaning there is man to man coverage outside, with the free safety playing “center field.”


Being that the Raiders are in a shotgun formation with an in-line tight end, a weakside run isn’t expected in this situation. However, Jason Campbell hands the ball off to Darren McFadden who beats the linebacker on an outside run for 70 yards.

ESPN New York had this to say in it’s game recap:

The Raiders exploited a weakness, picking up huge chunks of yardage on the perimeter. That’s the knock on the Jets; you can beat them on the edge because the linebackers aren’t the fleetest bunch of guys around.

McFadden went around left end for 70 yards, exploiting terrible containment by the defense. Bart Scott couldn’t get off his block, Kyle Wilson took a bad angle, and just like that, McFadden was in the end zone, and the Raiders had closed to within 17-14.

In this situation regarding the Bills’ personnel, Nigel Bradham/Jerry Hughes/Marcus Dowtin would likely be on the field, considering that the team would likely be in a “Nickel” base that features smaller defenders.

Runs Up The Middle

In a one-gap 3-4 defense, the down-linemen are only responsible for one gap, or blocker. While this gives more flexibility in the pass rushing aspect of the scheme, an undersized nose tackle can be exposed.

Considering the team’s movement to undersized, athletic linebackers coupled with the Bills’ run defense woes over the past several seasons this could be a killer in 2013.


Here, the San Francisco 49ers are lined up in a traditional 3-4 front with outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Parys Haralson ready to blitz. The 49er’s featured one of the best front sevens’ in the National Football League.

Marshawn Lynch managed to take a handoff from Russell Wilson and run it up the middle, and beating Patrick Willis, arguably the best inside linebacker in the NFL, for a 16-yard gain.

Now Nigel Bradham, Kiko Alonso and Chris White have tons of potential, neither can do the things Willis does as an inside linebacker and power running teams could prove to be tricky for the Bills’ 3-4 defense.

Tight End Seam Passes

The emergence of the receiving tight end has begun taking the league by storm, as seven tight ends eclipsed at least 800 receiving yards last year.

saints cowboys1

Here, the Dallas Cowboys are in “Nickel” defense, but based out of their 3-4 package. Instead of an outside linebacker, they line a cornerback over the New Orleans Saints’ tight end Jimmy Graham with a strong safety over the top.


Graham easily beats the corner, using his size and athleticism to break away, while the wide receiver’s “go” route causes the strong safety to leave him open. Drew Brees connects with Graham for what ends up as a 29-yard gain.

In the Bills’ case, it would either be Ron Brooks or Bryan Scott lined up over the tight end in this situation. However, just as atrocious the Buffalo Bills run defense has been, covering tight ends has been an equal issue.

Wide Receiver “Fake” Post

No. 1 wide receivers are no longer being lined up strictly at the “X” or “Y” outside positions, as more coaches are moving them around in order to create offensive mismatches.


Here, Indianapolis Colts’ wide receiver Reggie Wayne is lined up in the slot against the Green Bay Packers’ “nickel” 3-4 package.

At first, it appears that Wayne is running an inside crossing route.


However, when Wayne fakes his inside route, the cornerback bites. This is where miscommunication becomes an issue. Does the strong safety stay with Wayne, or does he stay back and defend T.Y. Hilton, who is running a deep “go” route. In this case, Wayne got left one-on-one and Andrew Luck hit him for a 30-yard gain.

With Aaron Williams’ move to safety coupled with the influx of young and inexperienced players on the roster, it’s safe to assume that communication will be key, especially towards the beginning of the year.

While I’m completely pumped for whatever Coach Pettine has up his sleeve for the upcoming season, I just thought it’d be fun to take a look at what opposing teams would likely use to attack the Bills’ new-look defense.

One Reply to “Buffalo Bills 3-4 Defense: How Can Teams Attack Mike Pettine’s “Attacking” D?”

  1. Im worried about our run stopping in 3-4 and nickel. In 3-4 we dont have a true nose guard in kyle williams so if we put branch or troup out it seems to show our hand and take an important play maker off the field. In nickel our linebackers are already undersized so taking one ofg the firld seems to be at a disadvantage especialy if we have scott on the te bc he’s horrible against the raun. Nickel robey is alao a liability if he becomes starting nickel corner. Seems like were going for smaller and faster on the back end. This defense line has been gaping. Hopefully kiko is a takle machine and bradham blossoms. We need stout linebacker play or were in trouble. Well have new england rushing 200 yards a game on us.