Sean McDermott’s Defensive Philosophy | Detail Oriented


The Bills hired Sean McDermott for several reasons. They obviously love his pedigree, knowledge, philosophies, attention to detail, and all of the other buzz words that you hear when new coaches are brought on board. I am not here to analyze that, though. I am here to break down some of the nuances of what he does on the field.

“We’ll have an identity on the field in all three phases and it starts with doing things the right way, playing hard all the time – smart, disciplined and tough football – a product that these fans will be proud of on a weekly basis.” -Sean McDermott

Good teams often take on the personality of their coach and from watching several hours of film, I believe that his defensive units have taken on his personality. I look forward to witnessing the transformation that the defense will undergo as he leads our beloved Buffalo Bills.

So, over the next few weeks I want to convey some of the Xs and Os that show the type of defensive techniques McDermott runs, and also how his core values permeate through the hierarchy down to his players. So here is the first defensive play of this series:

The offense is aligned in a 3×1 trips bunch set. Head coach Sean Payton calls a verticals concept. This concept is very good against cover three teams, which is the type of defense that McDermott predominantly used in 2016. The WR that is aligned at the point of the bunch is running a route often referred to as the ‘bender’. He typically runs vertically, then bends towards the middle, splitting the two high safeties.

The Panthers, like most teams, check to ‘box’ coverage vs. trips bunch looks. Even the Bills ran it in 2016. Check ‘box’ is a pattern matching coverage that is determined by the receivers’ routes.

“I’m a big believer in fundamentals and techniques, I’m a big believer in character.”-Sean McDermott

The success of this play lies in the details. Whether you buy the ‘detail oriented’ mumbo jumbo that the media sells you is your choice. For me, I let the play on the field sell me. When you turn on the film, McDermott’s ‘detail oriented’ philosophy certainly shines.

The play call accounts for every wide receiver on the field and helps the defense maintain the upper hand. To the trips side they maintain a +1, meaning there are four defenders to cover three wide receivers. To the top of the screen the Panthers have two defenders to cover one wide receiver. McDermott even keeps Davis near the line of scrimmage to account for the running back, just in case there is a check down.

As the ball is snapped, the trips wide receivers run switch releases to confuse defenders. This often creates confusion if the defense is in man coverage or if the defense is pattern matching, but the defense doesn’t blink in this case. As the receivers switch release and expand the width of their routes, the defenders adjust. They also expand while maintaining the proper leverage of the defensive call. They continue to their landmarks with their eyes up on the receivers through to the quarterback, which is fundamental to zone coverage. Since the receivers do not run crossing routes (rather, they get vertical) Kuechly and the nickel corner between the numbers continue to gain depth. Luke takes away the bender, who is trying to split the safeties.


McDermott’s defense wasn’t statistically top notch in 2016, but the full context should mitigate your concerns. They lost Luke Kuechly for much of the year and gave major playing time to rookie cornerbacks. But again, the truth lies in the details. The Panthers only bring a four man rush here. In my opinion, their front four doesn’t match up talent-wise to the Bills. Regardless, the guys show that they are coached well. Focus on the movements of their defensive ends Mario Addison and Charles Johnson. Post snap, left defensive end Johnson reads that Brees is putting the ball in the belly of Ingram and recognizes the left guard pulling to ‘kick him out’. The play looks like a power run, so he squeezes the gap. The right defensive end, Addison, notices that Brees isn’t setting deep in the pocket, so he adjusts his rush angle. If it is a run, then he still has his run gap accounted for. But as he transitions to a pass rush he hits the depth he wants to attack the tackle with, then he gains the upper hand by using his length and hands to get inside control of the tackle. He does this while also controlling the tackle’s left arm, in case he needs to perform an arm lift to get by.


As the ends realize it is actually a pass Addison keeps his rush point low, which will take him right to the QB’s proverbial ‘spot’. Johnson adjusts by taking a wider angle due to the leverage of the guard and because of the angle taken by Addison.


Even the shade defensive tackle recognizes the pocket movement by Brees and the angles of attack by the defensive ends, but most importantly Brees’s possible escape route. Defensive tackle Kawann Short arcs outside to a point where Brees can not escape the pocket to his left. All of their hard work and discipline lead to a sack.


Although the Buffalo media mocks the statements made by owners and coaches when they are hired, there can be truth in them. So before the media mocks the statements they should check the film and the play on the field. McDermott has always been a coach that has kept his defenses simple, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t detailed. His players execute the techniques that are taught to them. They know the strengths and weaknesses of the defensive calls, and that is a sign of a detail oriented coach.

The words spoken by Terry Pegula, Kim Pegula, and even Sean McDermott may have been cliches, but in this situation they do ring true.


Here’s the play in full:


Stay tuned for more play breakdowns encompassing the new head coach’s philosophies and schemes.