Some decently significant, but more or less obvious information was confirmed by Head Coach Chan Gailey today – Buffalo will utilize a four-man front in their base defense for 2012. Obviously, that’s not exclusive as most teams in the league play more of a hybrid scheme nowadays (as Buffalo has since Gailey’s hiring) but whereas they played with four down linemen on around 45% of the plays for the past two years, that number should greatly increase in 2012. No matter the formation or alignment, the new strategy is very clear – this team wants to put as much pressure on the quarterback as possible. That’s what Dave Wannstedt does with his units, and you can look for him to send multiple rushers on almost every play, with the hopes of giving his defensive backs ample opportunities to make plays if the main goal (a sack) can’t be achieved.
The only new assignment that Gailey would be committal to in his press conference regarding the defense was his announcement that Kelvin Sheppard, the second year pro, will be the starting middle linebacker. Presumably, that would move fellow 3-4 ILB Nick Barnett, one of the team’s best defenders in 2011, to the weakside where he can better utilize his athleticism and have more freedom with his movement around the field. The scheme shift creates a need for a strongside linebacker, as most of the corps will either be changing positions (Kelsay back to end, Johnson to tackle) or be out of a job (presumably Davis, Torbor, and Eddins). This leaves Arthur Moats, Danny Batten, Shawne Merriman, Scott McKillop, Chris White, and Kirk Morrison for Wannstedt and his staff to figure out what to do with. White, McKillop and Morrison (if re-signed) will likely battle for the backup middle linebacker position in camp (though Gailey says he’d like to add a ‘stout’ number two there during the offseason) and Gailey sees Moats and Batten as ‘tweeners’ who will get their shot at linebacker, but will likely end up being depth at defensive end. Merriman wasn’t mentioned today, but there’s a good chance that he mans the strongside role if noone gets added there. His pass rushing and leadership capabilities make him a great fit on paper, but his lack of lateral ability and movement in pass coverage may make him a situational player, likely with his hand in the dirt on passing downs.
The front-seven shifting doesn’t just displace the linebackers, but the line itself will also see some changes. Starters won’t look much different, with Dareus and Williams plugging the middle, but Chris Kelsay returns to his natural spot at left end while it remains to be seen what happens at the opposite end of the line. Even before today’s announcement, it was no secret that Gailey and Nix would like to bring in a pass rusher, and right defensive end would be the most ideal place to put them. Amongst those ending 2011 listed as linemen, you can expect Dareus, Williams, Torell Troup, Spencer Johnson, Kellen Heard, Lionel Dotson, Jay Ross and Dwan Edwards all end up as tackles. This, obviously, will displace a good chunk of these guys, most notably Edwards, who is due a decent sized paycheck (around 4.5 million) this year for someone who will be a situational player, at best. Jarron Gilbert, a late-season acquisition, should remain at end if he makes the roster, and I’d imagine Alex Carrington, the team’s 2010 3rd round choice, to play there as well while also shifting inside occasionally. Kyle Moore will probably be lumped in with Moats and Batten, as he is a college end turned linebacker, and will be moved to wherever his strengths suit him best.
We’ve also had quite a few coaching changes since the season ended – the most notable was already discussed here a few weeks ago when Defensive Coordinator George Edwards was fired and Inside Linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt was promoted to take his place. Since then, though, there have been a handful of staff moves on both sides of the ball. On defense, Outside Linebackers coach Bob Sanders was promoted to the title of Linebackers coach, taking in the ILBs since Wannstedt has bigger fish to fry. Also, the team picked up William Inge, who coached linebackers at the Universities of Cincinnati (’08-’09) and Buffalo (’10-’11) while also serving as UB’s Defensive Coordinator in those two years, to be their Assistant Defensive Line coach. Adrian White has been promoted from Defensive Quality Control to Assistant Defensive Backs coach, and taking his role is University of Pittsburgh graduate (’08) Eric Thatcher. Thatcher started at free safety in Wannstedt’s defense at Pitt for three seasons, so he already has familiarity with Wannstedt’s scheming and playbooks, which could help him acclimate much easier.
On the offensive side of the ball, Quarterbacks coach George Cortez left the team to become the head coach of the Hamilton Tigercats of the Canadian Football League, and in his place comes former Ole Miss offensive coordinator David Lee. Lee has been a quarterbacks coach in the NFL previously, with stints both in Dallas and Miami, and while on South Beach he was the man responsible for bringing the Wildcat offense into the pros, something that bodes well for Brad Smith going forward. He also, through working in Miami, has worked extensively with Tyler Thigpen which should be beneficial. Another former University of Buffalo coach (Tight Ends, ’01-’05), Andrew Dees, was brought in to replace Bobby Johnson as the Assistant Offensive Line coach after Johnson took a position with the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching their Tight Ends. Wide Receivers coach Stan Hixon left Buffalo for the same position on Bill O’Brien’s staff at Penn State, and moving into his role here is Tight Ends coach Bob Bicknell, who held that position for the past two years. This leaves Bicknell’s former position as the only one left to fill on the coaching staff heading into the offseason.
We’ve had our first contract situation taken care of before the season is technically over, as Garrison Sanborn signed a three-year extension to keep him as Buffalo’s starting long snapper. I’ve noted before how well he plays the least recognized position in football, and after playing in all 48 games over the past three years, he’s earned a new deal to keep him in town.
Also, I’m proud to say that From the Rockpile will be moving to a new address soon. We are currently in the process of getting everything functional on new servers with two new URLs, one full-length and one designed for shortlinks. This should be going live sometime this month, and once it is, I’ll be sure to update everyone here as well as on my Facebook and Twitter pages so you can update your bookmarks and subscriptions. I’m very excited about this move to a legitimate .com and hope that you’ll all continue to be a part of things when we make the shift.
That’s all for this time – expect something a little less stale than coaching assistants shuffling around in the next installment. Thanks for reading, I’ll see you all after the Super Bowl.