Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2013 Bills Training Camp Preview: Defense

by Coast

The Bills have made wholesale changes in their organization, starting at the top, this off-season. Russ Brandon took over for Ralph Wilson after 53 years as president of the franchise. The coaching staff was replaced and a new head coach with no head coaching experience in the NFL was named in Doug Marrone. The coaches are younger, more energetic and will attack more than the old fashioned regime led by Chan Gailey that was clearly coaching as if it was 1994. As training camp begins, we will soon see if the culture of this franchise is indeed going in a different direction.

Let's start by breaking down the linebackers and defensive backs.

Mike Pettine is going to install a defense with an attacking mind set. The Bills will blitz often and show many different looks. The defense will not sit in its base 4-3 scheme like they did under Dave Wannstedt while getting shredded without making a single adjustment. The Bills base defense under Pettine will resemble the nickel formation, but will be fluid and attacking. The linebackers will be important in the varying blitz packages and in getting pressure on the quarterback. The only problem is, there is no way to know if this group of linebackers has the capability to do so. To better fit the new attack Mike Pettine defense the Bills made changes to the makeup of their linebacker corps during the offseason including the release of leading tackler Nick Barnett.

The Bills spent the 46th pick of the 2013 draft on inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, who should be a starter from day 1. Alonso comes with off the field problems, but his upside outweighs his risk. Alsono is another versatile player who is capable of playing any of the linebacker positions which will enable him to fit perfectly into the Pettine scheme. Out of all the linebackers on the Bills roster, Alonso is the front runner to be the quarterback of the defense and remain on the field on all downs.

Nigel Bradham is the favorite to join Alonso as the all down linebacker in the "nickel" base defense being installed. Bradham's speed and athleticism can make him a viable option at this position. Veteran linebackers Bryan Scott and Arthur Moats will also compete, but ideally, Nigel will separate himself from the pack.

Manny Lawson, a former first round pick of the Bungals from 2006, was signed via free agency. Lawson was brought in to play strong side linebacker opposite Mario Williams and is a versatile defender who is strong against the run. Manny's weakness is pass coverage, but his versatility and ability to play multiple positions should immediately help the Bills' defense.

Kelvin Sheppard, a very ordinary middle linebacker, was traded to the Colts for Jerry Hughes, a former 2010 first round draft pick. Hughes can play both outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme and has experience at defensive end. Hughes should be a situational pass rusher that will play behind the likes of Mario Williams and Manny Lawson.

Adding depth to the position is Marcus Dowtin who played for the Jets and is familiar with Mike Pettine. The Bills also think highly of undrafted Howard U rookie Keith Pough. Pettine thinks highly of his linebackers going into training camp but this could be lip service until we see these guys on the field. The position has been so pathetic since 2004 so it is a breath of fresh air to start over with young guys with a lot of upside/potential.

The Bills secondary is a bit of an unknown as well. Leader of the secondary, and defense as a whole, is free safety Jairus Byrd. The only problem is that Byrd is likely going to hold out through most, if not all, of training camp. Byrd will probably show up for the season, but will not be up to speed on the new defense. In Byrd's absence, and with the release of George Wilson (finally) this offseason, the safety positions are completely up for grabs.

Aaron Williams, the cast off cornerback, has switched to safety but based on what I have seen out of him since the Bills drafted him in the 2nd round, I do not have high hopes (even if he is a front runner to start at strong safety).

In Byrd's absence, Da'Norris Searcy and Duke Williams will battle it out for playing time at free safety. Searcy got some playing time in 2012, but did nothing to prove he is better than the rookie Williams. Duke brings more versatility to the defense than Searcy (Williams played some corner this spring), but Searcy may be better in run support. Let's all just hope Byrd signs his tender and gets to camp ASAP so these two can battle it out for the back up role and not starter.

At cornerback in my opinion could be the Bills' best defensive player in 2013. Stephon Gilmore. He has the potential to be the shut down corner that will take over for Revis as best in the division and maybe the conference. Opposite Gilmore is a bit of a question mark. The Bills paid Leodis McKelvin but he warrants a contract for his ability to return kicks, not cover anyone. Ron Brooks and Justin Rodgers will battle for the 3rd and 4th cornerback spots with rookies Jonathan Meeks and Nickell Robey.

The Bills have a lot of unknowns in the defensive backfield this year, but I will take that over the known mediocrity that we are used to.

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