The Bills have a new head coach this season, Sean McDermott. McDermott was previously the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.
It is always a bit tricky to project how a new coach’s scheme is going to look. He inherits different players than he had at the last stop with different skillsets so there typically is some degree of adjustment. McDermott’s Carolina experience can at least show us some of his defensive philosophies.
I think one thing that is clear about McDermott is he prefers zone coverage. Last year Pro Football Focus had Carolina playing zone coverage on just under 80% of their snaps, the most in the league.
Playing zone coverage isn’t just a scheme. It is an approach to roster building. It isn’t easy to find cornerbacks capable of defending elite gamebreaking receivers man to man over the entire field. That is why good cornerbacks are so expensive. It is much easier to find players capable of defending a small area of the field. Players capable of doing this are plentiful and cheap. Despite a rough 2016, the Panthers have built a winner in recent years with a patchwork secondary full of unheralded cheap players.
Even when a player like Josh Norman develops into a top tier corner, Carolina has not liked to spend at the position. There is a reason for that.
PFF again noted that the Panthers were playing either Cover 4 or Cover 6 on one-third of their 2016 snaps. Cover 4 means that both outside cornerbacks are really only responsible for covering one quarter of the deep part of the field. That isn’t a very difficult task. Cover 6 means one of the two outside corners is responsible for covering one quarter of the deep part of the field. With such limited responsibilities in this defensive system, it is easy to see why the Panthers go so cheap at corner. You can find players who can handle such limited responsibilities very easily.
Where much of the league is investing big in cover corners, the Panthers found a way to succeed going cheap at the position. That has freed up cap space to improve the rest of their roster.
Of course, something else needs to stand out for a team to be able to hide its cornerbacks. If your corners are playing a condensed part of the deep field that frequently, it means there is a lot of wide open space underneath and not many players to cover it. And to be certain, McDermott’s scheme asked his linebackers to cover an ungodly amount of that ground with the Panthers.
Fortunately, they had the linebackers to do it in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Just look at how this play develops.
Here is where Kuechly starts the play.
This defensive call looks like a pure Tampa 2 play. You can see how much ground Kuechly is asked to cover.
And here’s the thing that makes Kuechly so great. Once he reads where the throw is going, he can go get an interception even though the throw is in somebody else’s zone.
The defender who is really responsible for this zone is in the picture. And this is truly great zone coverage. If you are covering your zone, you are doing your job. If you get to a point where you can read and make plays outside your zone, you have reached an advanced level.
When you have a linebacker who can cover this kind of group, everybody else’s job is a lot easier. It’s less field everybody else has responsibility to cover. When you have another linebacker who can cover that kind of ground, it’s easier still.
Here is a play where the Panthers play that Cover 4. Again, a cornerback’s job is pretty easy if he only has to cover one-fourth of the deep part of the field.
The three linebackers underneath are responsible to cover an extraordinary part of the field. In practice, they drop way back. Look at how clogged passing lanes down the field are with the linebackers dropping on this snap.
There is a bit of a price to be paid, and it is in the red circle. When you have a back slip out on a route, there is plenty of daylight in front of him with everybody dropping deep. But when you have linebackers who cover ground and get to the ball like Kuechly and Davis, that space disappears in a hurry. Watch them combine on a tackle here and how much ground they cover.
And this kind of linebacker play has additional benefits. If you can cover the pass against a spread formation with two or more linebackers on the field, your run defense improves.
In the modern NFL, one way to assist your run game is to spread the field with multiple receivers and force your opponent to take run stopping linebackers off the field in favor of less adept defensive backs. The Football Outsiders Almanac notes that the Panthers used 6 or more defensive backs on less than 1% of their snaps last season.
Being able to keep an extra big guy in the box at all times makes running the ball effectively more difficult.
Now again it gets tricky to play the “This was the coach’s scheme at his last stop,” game because a new team might lead to some tweaks.
What I find interesting is the circumstantial evidence McDermott wants to bring his Carolina philosophy to Buffalo. The first is the hiring of Leslie Frazier as his defensive coordinator. Frazier has roots in the Tampa 2 system. That is another philosophy heavy on zone and demanding linebackers cover a lot of ground. No team still runs a pure Tampa 2 in this day in age, but there is clear philosophical alignment.
The other big piece of evidence was the Bills trade of cornerback Ronald Darby. Darby was one of the best defensive rookies of 2015. He fit the mold of a cheap corner since he was on his rookie deal. But when obtaining a day two Draft pick for Darby in a trade became an option, the Bills pulled the trigger. A cornerback wasn’t worth losing out on that kind of asset. (Although as a counter, the Bills did use a first round pick on a cornerback this year.)
The thing is I’m not sure the Bills have the kind of linebackers to run McDermott’s system that well at this point in time. It is no surprise. This is a team that has just started a rebuilding process. It will take a few years to get the right pieces in place.
If the Jets had some pieces on offense, they might be able to exploit the Bills. This is probably going to be a running theme this year, though. We are going to talk a lot about potential vulnerabilities the Jets just don’t have the pieces to exploit.