In a stadium filled with natural light and designed shade all across the 30-yard line, the Buffalo Bills’ defense lines up in a three-man front on the 20-yard line for what is the first play of their first preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. This is what’s expected to be the Bills’ base line this season, but as any American football fanatic knows, it only goes as far as its name suggests: the first level of a defense. There’s always more.
When the first play is over, a five-yard pass from quarterback Andrew Luck to an out-cutting Reggie Wayne, the second begins at the 25-yard line and the defense lines up again. Unsurprisingly, it’s a different look. A four man front. This is Mike Pettine’s defense: versatile and multiple.
“From a scheme standpoint, we want it to be multiple front, multiple coverage, pressure. Make it look like pressure and get out. Something that offenses will struggle to prepare for,” said Pettine, the Bills’ defensive coordinator.
Like Pettine goes on to later say, it all starts in the trenches, where the Bills struggled immensely last season. They were primarily a four-man front then, lacking sophisticated concepts under the direction (or misdirection) of Dave Wannstedt. He was extremely vanilla and the defense suffered as a result, giving up five yards per carry on the ground. This year, things are going to be different under Pettine, who will incorporate three, four and 46 Bear fronts from nickel and dime packages.
Nickel and dime packages consist of the five and six defensive back packages, which Pettine was partial to under Rex Ryan when with the New York Jets. These will be played behind the front, hoping to match the vertical speed and lateral quickness of today’s quick-hitting, post-modern offenses. At the front of the defense, Pettine will use multiple players to play multiple techniques in an effort to assign less defenders against the run, as well as confuse blocking schemes.
“Similar to what offenses do to defenses with empty formations or the up-tempo or the Wildcat or the tackle over or unbalanced. All the stuff that doesn’t take them a lot to do but causes a lot of preparation issues for us. We want to be the same way and maybe line up in a call that we might only run once every three games. But at the same time, it’s a difficult look for them to block,” Pettine said.
Three-man fronts are naturally associated with the 3-4 defense. Traditionally, a two-gap scheme that features defensive linemen only holding up blocks from zero (head up on the center) and four (head up on an offensive tackle) techniques, it has since evolved into one-gap principles that feature linemen rushing from shaded techniques, such as the one (outside shoulder of center) or three (outside shoulder of a guard). Pettine combines both principles into one front, as he did against the Colts in Week 1.
From left to right of the three-man front, Pettine has the left defensive end reduced down to a three technique outside the right guard while the nose tackle is a one technique on the shoulder of the center and to the far right, a five technique end is head up on the left tackle.
When playing a four-man front, Pettine doesn’t change a whole lot as far as techniques go. His interior linemen are still playing one and three techniques, respectively. What changes is his ends, who are playing five or wider techniques. In the same game against the Colts, Pettine used his two ends as nine and “ghost” nine (no tight end, but a wide technique nonetheless) techniques.
There’s one other front that Pettine is partial to: the 46 “Diamond.” It’s one that’s most closely associated with his former boss, Rex Ryan, who learned it from his father and originator Buddy Ryan. The Diamond front consists of three defensive linemen covering both guards and the center, which causes problems for offenses.
“Some of the things we do that are kinda rule breakers for them. I know one of the things is the 46 front. [It] causes a lot of protection issues and a lot of issues in the run game as far as changing roles. We like to jump in and out of that,” Pettine said.
The main reason why Pettine runs these is because it’s the only way to keep offenses off-balance. It makes the quarterback’s keys unclear, giving them less time to deconstruct the defense as the play clock winds down.
In addition, it gives the offensive line less time to sort out their assignments. This is best shown by his inclination to “sugar” the A-gaps with linebackers, as if they are going to blitz, and then drop them late into coverage. It’s something he’s spoken about in the past and did against the Colts in the aforementioned preseason game.
Lined up in an exotic two-man front that features two ends at the three technique, Pettine put his inside linebackers in position to threaten the A-gaps before the snap. When the play began, only one of them came, with the other dropping late into underneath “Robber” coverage and almost intercepting a poorly thrown pass by the nearly-sacked quarterback.
This is done for two reasons:
1. Against a blitz, the quarterback is instructed to throw “hot” or to the nearest receiver to get the ball out of his hand
2. It messes with the offensive line’s protection scheme.
The protection scheme falls apart on the play above because of the inside linebackers, even though only one came. When the interior gaps are threatened, it forces the blockers to pinch inside because they’re taught to protect the inside first, as it is the quickest way to get to the quarterback. That leaves the line vulnerable on the outside, and they pay for it here, with the quarterback getting obliterated and throwing right into Robber coverage.
Going into the regular season, Pettine and the Bills will have their hands full with the absence of star cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who could be lost for two months with a hand injury, and a suspect secondary. This could be tough on Pettine, who relies on plenty of man coverage in the back end, but he has experienced this in the past while with the Jets, namely losing cornerback Darrelle Revis to an ACL injury and dealing with a questionable set of safeties.
The best way to compensate is to use a multiple front, nickel and dime based scheme with pressure packages that confuse the quarterback and his protection. For Pettine, that’s what his defense is all about.