Ever since the Buffalo Bills hired Mike Pettine to take over as the team’s new defensive coordinator, there has been speculation regarding the type of defense he will operate. One of the biggest questions regarding the defensive switch is where recently signed defensive end Mario Williams will line up.
Pettine coached under the tutelage of Rex Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens from 2001 through 2008, and with the New York Jets from 2009 through 2012. With both teams, Pettine and Ryan’s defenses generally operated out of a 3-4 front.
When asked what the Bills’ defense will look like, Pettine had this to say:
"We are a multiple front, multiple packages. We'll be in 3-4, we'll be in 4-3, we'll be in 46, if you can draw up a front, we'll probably be in it," he said. "The cornerstone of our system is its flexibility and its multiplicity, that you can mold it to your talent.
While this is a very vague response, it’s safe to assume that the Bills will be employing some variation of the 3-4 defensive alignment. So where does Williams fit into all of this? Does he play as a stand-up, pass-rushing linebacker? Or does he stay on the defensive line, holding down the defensive end position in the three-man front?
3-4 Outside Linebacker
Outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are generally required to rush the passer and defend the run. They aren’t routinely asked to drop into coverage, like their 4-3 counterparts. The pass-rushing outside linebacker is usually lined up over the “weak” side of the offense; typically the opposite side of the tight end. These players must be quick and strong, with the ability to beat the much bigger offensive linemen they face.
3-4 Defensive End
Historically, defensive ends in a 3-4 have been tasked with merely occupying offensive linemen, in order to give linebackers the freedom to make plays. However, players like the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt and the Arizona Cardinals’ Calais Campbell have been more “attacking” defensive ends. Defensive ends in the 3-4 are much bigger than those in the 4-3, which is why most players that are defensive tackles in a four-man front often transition to defensive end in a three-man front.
How Have Mike Pettine’s Defensive Ends Performed?
Throughout Pettine’s time with the Ravens and the Jets, he’s made one thing clear: he likes to get after opposing quarterbacks. Just because history says that defensive lineman are only asked to occupy offensive linemen, doesn’t mean Pettine abides by this.
In Baltimore, Pettine has used players like Trevor Pryce, Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata to not only set the edge, but to attack the quarterback. Pryce contributed 13 sacks with the Ravens in 2006, and Shaun Ellis totaled 11 sacks during the 2009-10 seasons with the Jets.
Most recently, Pettine has utilized the talents of Muhammed Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, who combined for 10.5 sacks in the 2012 season.
Is Mario Williams Better Off At Defensive End or Outside Linebacker?
When Wade Phillips took over the defensive coordinator position for the Houston Texans in 2011, Williams was moved to outside linebacker. He only played five games before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season, but he recorded five sacks in that span.
According to ProFootballFocus’ Signature Stats (Subscription Required), Williams generated 22 quarterback pressures in 122 pass rush attempts. His 14.5 Pass Rush Productivity score—a grade that weighs quarterback hurries, hits and pressures—was ranked second in the National Football League among all 3-4 outside linebackers.
While Williams performed admirably as a linebacker with the Texans, he’s probably best suited for playing with his hand in ground. Williams is listed at 292 pounds, but he stated on Twitter that he had eclipsed 300 pounds last year in Buffalo. He definitely has the necessary bulk needed to anchor against offensive linemen. He’s a large man, and standing him up at outside linebacker might make him a target and a liability when asked to drop into coverage.
While Williams is a pass rusher first and foremost, his impressive skill set would allow him to set the edge in a three-man front and get into the backfield and attack the quarterback.