4 Buffalo Bills
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The 3-4 is history, but the revamped staff will still try to win with defense
By Paul Zimmerman
Phil Hansen, the 11th-year defensive end, was puzzled as he sat in on the first meeting with his new coordinator, Jerry Gray. He'd heard that Buffalo was going to abandon the 3-4 defense it had used since 1979, the longest-running 3-4 act in the NFL. The intricate mesh of read and react that the Bills had employed while finishing as the league's third-ranked defense last year, following a year in which they were quietly No. 1, was being scrapped in favor of a more active hit-the-gap approach. What he and his fellow defenders wanted to know was why.
"Coach Gray said to us, 'Do you know who had the No. 1 defense in the league last year?'" Hansen recalls. "That was an easy one. 'The Ravens,' we all said. 'Wrong,' he said. 'It was the Titans.'"
Baltimore set a 16-game-season record for fewest points allowed, but the league uses yards allowed to determine its team defensive leaders. Tennessee was tops in that category. The Titans weren't too shabby in the points department either, permitting only two more offensive touchdowns than the Ravens had. Tennessee's defensive coordinator last season was Gregg Williams, who is now the coach in Buffalo.
The Bills have been top-heavy on defense ever since quarterback Jim Kelly retired in 1997. So it was only natural for Buffalo to hire a coach with a defensive background to replace the fired Wade Phillips, and what the Bills got in Williams was one of the least known but most respected individuals in the business.
In 11 years with the Oilers-Titans, Williams worked under Buddy Ryan and Ryan disciple Jeff Fisher, so he got a thorough education in the Bears' 46 defense. From his first boss in Houston, Jack Pardee, he got a taste of the George Allen style: Crash the pocket and pick up the run on the go. As one of the first quality-control assistant coaches, he says he learned to look for small hints, "how a lineman plants his hands, how he positions his feet, which will tip off a draw or a screen." He became intrigued with the Bud Carson system of crowding the box with eight men and then having the linebackers and strong safety fly off into their coverages just before the snap, an approach that was based on reading the tip-offs. "As soon as I saw that, I said to myself, That's for me," Williams says. He became what he calls "a historian, an avid reader of old football books." But he also became a whipper, "the extrovert and disciplinarian," he says, for Pardee and Fisher, low-key types.
Williams faced a daunting problem when he took over in Buffalo: The Bills were $19 million over the salary cap. Defense was sacrificed for offense. They couldn't afford to match the Chargers' offer for pass-rushing end Marcellus Wiley. Three more starters, nosetackle Ted Washington and linebackers John Holecek and Sam Rogers, were trimmed. There was room for one big signing, and that was for game-breaking wideout Eric Moulds, who settled for less money than he could have gotten elsewhere in order to stay with what he calls "a team that has a chance to win, a team with a defense that can take the other team's quarterback out of the picture."
Williams will have a chance to work his magic with a defense that, except for a pair of standouts, looks good but not great on paper. Sam Cowart, an active, athletic linebacker, will be the middle man in a 4-3 for the first time in his four-year career. "He'll be on the field for every one of our 13 packages," Williams says. Then there's cornerback Antoine Winfield, small but ferocious. "He plays as if his hair's on fire," personnel director Dwight Adams says.
On offense, the release of Doug Flutie means that Rob Johnson has the quarterback job all to himself this year. Johnson will be in a quick-read, quick-pass system, but no one knows how he'll hold up. Last year he held the ball while waiting for his receivers to clear. He went down time and again and finished with the worst sack-to-drop-back ratio in the league.
Buffalo fans remember the way the season ended. Johnson came apart in two late games, and the Bills blew a playoff shot. What they don't remember, however, is that until those unfortunate outings, Johnson had had his moments. Through 13 weeks he was among the league leaders with a 91.9 rating.
Running will be by committee, just as it was last season. The offensive line is a work in progress. The question is whether Williams's new defense can cover for an attack that survives, rather than thrives, just as the Ravens did last year.
Issue date: September 3, 2001