Head coach Sean McDermott earned his stripes in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball. As a defensive coordinator in Carolina, he had some of the most athletic linebackers in the league in Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson. This was always the strength of his defenses, so he needed to create a way to keep them on the field as much as possible.
So McDermott chose to stay in base defense with three linebackers far more often than the NFL average. The package was often referred to as ‘big nickel’. So, instead of substituting Thompson out and a cornerback in, he would keep Thompson in. That put a tremendous amount of responsibility on Thompson because he would have to be well-versed in nickel corner techniques and coverages.
There aren’t any statistics sites that track defensive personnel for our consumption, but the closest data that I could track down was courtesy of Sports Info Solutions (SIS). According to SIS, in 2016, McDermott’s final season as defensive coordinator of the Panthers, they utilized their ‘big nickel’ or base defense 6.3% of the time in situations where the offense faced 3rd and 4+ yards. The league average that season was 1.16%.
In his inaugural season in Buffalo, the Bills stayed in their base defense or ‘Big Nickel’ with three linebackers 7.5% of the time in 3rd and 4+ situations, when the league average was 1.89%.
This offseason, the Bills had been experimenting more and more with the package, trying to find a player that fit the role that Thompson played. Their base defense along the second level is Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Lorenzo Alexander, but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier doesn’t want Alexander matched up vs. tight ends and wide receivers in passing situations. Plus, in passing situations, Alexander was going to be an X-factor as a pass rusher from the defensive end and defensive tackle positions.
So the team approached it in a different manner. Rather than having an athletic linebacker like Thompson who can help in run support but also match a tight end down the field, they chose to go to more of a three-safety look. They decided to bring in safeties, guys who can cover like a defensive back but that are tremendous players in run support.
General manager Brandon Beane started by signing free agent Rafael Bush in the offseason. Bush came over from the New Orleans Saints and has experience playing in three-safety looks. Bush is 5-foot-11 and around 200 pounds, so he doesn’t possess the size of Thompson, but he is comfortable playing near the tackle box. In 2017, Bush was within eight yards of the line of scrimmage on 78% of his snaps.
Buffalo also drafted Siran Neal in the fifth round, and I believe his future will be in this role.
Neal offers an enormous amount of versatility. He played linebacker, corner, and safety at Jacksonville State. Watching him down at the Senior Bowl was a treat, but doing this consistently against NFL wide receivers is a lot to ask.
— PFF (@PFF) January 25, 2018
Neal is still adjusting to the complexities of an NFL defense and talent across the field, so expecting him to match up with WRs and TEs regularly isn’t an option yet. Right now, I think he is more of a box safety who can help in run support but still has a lot of learning to do in the coverage department.
Neal fires his gun and lights up the big RB Williams! pic.twitter.com/PJocNqpLLp
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) May 3, 2018
But when the team sat down in the offseason to map out gameplans against their opponents, they obviously wanted to incorporate this three-safety package, which is called ‘Buffalo’. Initially, the Bills only wanted to use this package versus 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs) or 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs) because many of the teams on their schedule have 2-3 tight ends that can create potential mismatches versus the run and pass.
Fans got a glimpse into it this past weekend versus the Chargers.
The role played by Thompson in Carolina and Bush in Buffalo, as I mentioned, is a hybrid role between linebacker and nickel corner. The lines between nickel personnel and their ‘Buffalo’ package were blurred against the Chargers because of the injuries to corners Taron Johnson and Phillip Gaines.
Bush had to play slot corner and as a quasi-linebacker in their ‘Buffalo’ package. The delineation was much clearer based on the personnel packages offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt sent onto the field.
Any time the Chargers sent out 21 personnel with their true fullback, TJ Watt, on the field, the Bills made sure that linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was in the game. So they essentially stayed in their base defense to primarily defend the run.
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) September 19, 2018
But the Chargers utilize an array of personnel groupings and alignments, so sometimes they aligned in a basic I-formation, like the one above, but instead of a true fullback in the game, they sent out a tight end. So really, it’s 12 personnel, and on those occasions, the Bills made sure that Bush was in and not Alexander.
The thought is to simply get a more athletic player on the field versus teams that can run and pass efficiently out of two tight end looks.
The Bills were in their ‘Buffalo’ package versus 12 personnel on 9/10 plays. The only other personnel grouping against which the Bills utilized this package was 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs), but rather than sending out a tailback and fullback, the Chargers had running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler in the game with the two tight ends, so a formation that can still be pass-heavy.
As far as play selection, the Chargers chose to pass on only three plays, one of which included the 22 personnel set that I mentioned. Rivers went 2/3 for 11 yards by completing a four-yard pass to Allen on a crossing route and a seven-yarder to Gordon out of the backfield.
The defense surrendered 31 yards on the ground on seven attempts, which is a healthy 4.4 yards per carry. That average was boosted by a 22-yard run by Ekeler on a counter run that the Bills had trouble stopping in the first half. This was the third-longest gain by the Chargers’ offense on the day.
The ‘Buffalo’ package may have just made its appearance, but it likely won’t be the last time we see it. The question is how much longer will Bush play that role? On the surface, Neal appeared to be destined for this role. If the losses stack up, would Buffalo be better served to play Neal and let him work out the kinks?
For a look at the ‘Buffalo’ package employed by the Bills against the Chargers, here’s the cut-up: