Examining How The Buffalo Bills Fit In Rex Ryan’s Hybrid 3-4 Defense

Terry Pegula’s first big move as the new Buffalo Bills Owner was hiring the most enigmatic personality on the open market in new head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan, an outspoken and highly regarded defensive-minded coach, was the biggest “name” available, and he will reportedly earn $27.5 million over the next five years to lead the Bills. Shortly after the hire was official, it was announced that the team terminated the contract of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who’s 4-3 defensive philosophies do not mesh with Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 scheme.

Many fans didn’t want Schwartz to leave, which is understandable. The Bills’ defense was a big part of why the team posted its first winning season this millennium. However, it’s important to note that the scheme Ryan will bring with him for 2015 is essentially the same scheme that Buffalo ran in 2013 when Mike Pettine, a disciple of Rex, was defensive coordinator.

The biggest concern surrounding the “3-4” or “4-3” and assume they are concrete schemes that need specific players for every position. That notion is true to a point, as 3-4 defenses will typically value length and agility with their edge defender, while a 4-3 defense may covet a bigger and more powerful edge rusher for that particular scheme

In recent years, defensive coordinators (Rex Ryan led the charge) around the league have steered more from true “base” defensive fronts, choosing instead to operate out of “hybrid” fronts, that combine concepts from the 4-3 and the 3-4 within a single play. By combining those concepts, Ryan is creative enough to find roles that maximize the talent at hand, so that they aren’t passing over good football players that might not fit a more traditional scheme.

The team will obviously look to acquire certain role players to fill out the roster and provide depth, but the building blocks necessary to run the scheme are already in place for the most part.

Defensive Line

Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Stefan Charles

When looking at positional versatility, it’s important to remember that pretty much every team runs a “hybrid” defense, by nature of the term. The rise of the passing game in recent years has forced defenses to play in nickel or dime packages, where a defensive lineman or linebacker is taken off the field in place of a defensive back.

Old-school traditional 3-4 defenses called for a massive space eater at nose tackle. The nose tackle’s primary job was to take on double teams and hold his ground at the zero-technique (directly over the center) so that the linebackers behind him can make plays. Nowadays, nose tackles are still asked to take on double-teams, but they’re aligned at the one-technique (in between the center and guard), so that they can penetrate the backfield.

The role of the defensive end in a 3-4 defense calls for more of a defensive tackle than an edge rusher, as they’re aligned as interior players. In 4-3 schemes ends align outside the offensive tackle, but in 3-4 schemes, the outside linebackers are typically responsible for playing the edge.

Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams have established themselves as premier interior linemen, while up-and-comer Stefan Charles possesses the traits desired for all three roles along the defensive line.

Defensive tackle is a position that will likely be addressed this offseason to provide adequate depth.


The linebacker unit will see the most shuffle, as it’s the position that really sees the most change in responsibility from 3-4 to 4-3 defenses. Before worrying about Jerry Hughes and Kiko Alonso both being listed as “linebackers” despite serving totally different roles, let’s separate the outside linebackers from the inside ‘backers.

Outside Linebackers/Edge Rusher

Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, Randell Johnson (Jerry Hughes?)

In 3-4 defenses, the outside linebackers are your pass rushers instead of the defensive ends in a 4-3. While their labeled at different positions, their role is essentially the same despite being in a two-point stance compared to a three-point stance—rush the passer and set the edge against the run. When worrying about the potential “fit” of a pass rusher for Rex Ryan’s defense, erase the terms “4-3 Defensive End” and “3-4 Outside Linebacker” and replace them with “Edge Defender.” If they can fulfill a specific role (ie situational speed rusher, third-down edge-setter/run defender), Rex will find a spot for him.

Mario Williams will technically  be moved from a down-lineman to a stand-up pass rusher, but he’ll be a moveable chess piece in Ryan’s exotic, multiple and aggressive defense. Mario’s obvious primary role will be same, get after the quarterback and set the edge,but don’t be surpised to see him kick inside to defensive tackle, drop into coverage from a defensive end position, or rush the quarterback from a linebacker position. Maybe it will all happen on the same drive!

Manny Lawson was a big contributor in 2013 under Mike Pettine. Hee’s the ideal “SAM” linebacker in 3-4 or Under fronts, because he’s got a long frame that’s athletic enough to drop into coverage, but strong enough to set the edge against the run. In 2014 his role was diminished due to his fit in Jim Schwartz’ system, but he should be a bounce-back candidate in 2015.

Jerry Hughes had a breakout season as a situational pass-rusher in 2013 that led to a full-time role last year under Schwartz.  Despite the switch back to running a 4-3 scheme, Hughes still aligned at the nine-technique (outside the tight end) in a two-point stance, essentially serving as an outside linebacker. If the Bills and Hughes agree to a new contract, he’ll be a fun player for Ryan.

Randell Johnson is a player to keep an eye on. Athletically and physically, he’s the prototypical 3-4 edge defender. A situational role like the one Hughes played in 2013 could be appealing for Johnson this year.

Inside Linebackers

Kiko Alonso, Nigel Bradham, Preston Brown

This is where things will get interesting. Kiko Alonso emerged as a “legend “in his 2013 rookie campaign, racking up 159 tackles and four interceptions as the “Mike” linebacker. Alonso was better suited for a weakside role, but the lack of depth at linebacker forced him to take on more responsibilities, particularly against the run where he struggled at times.

He tore his ACL during the offseason, which led to the emergence of former fourth-round pick Nigel Bradham. Like Alonso, Bradham is best suited for a weakside role. Regardless of what Rex Ryan chooses to do on defense, Bradham and Alonso will both have to see the field as much as possible.

Preston Brown was a big surprise in 2014, as the rookie third round pick played 94-percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps. Prior to the draft, the knock on Brown was that he was simply a two-down run stuffer, or “thumper” that could be exposed in coverage. He laughed at those notions, grading out as the third-best 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage, according to ProFootballFocus’ metrics. With Brandon Spikes’ status as a free agent up in the air, it’s safe to assume that Brown will be the team’s starting “Mike” linebacker.

Final Thoughts

While the Bills’ defense enjoyed great success in 2014 in a 4-3 scheme, they have versatile and talented players that should make the switch back to a 3-4 relatively seamless. The team will likely attempt to bring back Jerry Hughes and Brandon Spikes, who are both well-suited for Ryan’s scheme, but regardless of the outcome, the Bills are in great shape on defense.

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