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Monday, March 15, 2010
Bills might model 3-4 D after Saban's

By Tim Graham

George Edwards & Nick Saban
George Edwards, who previously worked with Nick Saban as the Dolphins' linebackers coach, may implement Saban's 3-4 scheme in his new role as Buffalo's defensive coordinator.
How would the Buffalo Bills look if they ran Nick Saban's Alabama defense?

That might be the style they're after.

Since the Bills announced they were going to switch to a 3-4 defense, coach Chan Gailey and coordinator George Edwards have been careful not to provide any further details.

There are different 3-4 philosophies, and the Bills haven't publicly committed to anything.

"You don't have to play the same type of 3-4," Gailey said last month at the NFL scouting combine. "You can adjust to do what your players do best, and that's one of the reasons I hired George Edwards because he has the knowledge of different types of 3-4s to be able to adjust people and put them in the best spots to do their job."

Bills fans have been hungry for some sort of idea, and it's difficult to believe the Bills don't have an ideal defense in mind as they work through the free-agency period and toward April's draft.

Bills cornerback Drayton Florence might have given some insight over the weekend with a series of tweets between him and legendary Bills running back Thurman Thomas.

Florence sent out a public plea to get in touch with Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain because (and I've cleaned up the tweet-speak) "he knows the defense we're going to be running, same as Alabama's defense ... and he made all the calls."

Florence later tweets: "I want to talk to [McClain] about the way they ran their 3-4 in Alabama because we're going to be playing a similar style. Edwards and Saban are the same type of [defensive coach]."

Saban is a Bill Belichick disciple. When Saban was head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he hired Edwards to be his linebackers coach.

So what does a Saban-style 3-4 defense look like?

I reached out to Scouts Inc. analyst Steve Muench for his thoughts. Muench prefaced his comments by saying he hasn't done any kind of film study on Saban's defense itself, but has spent enough time evaluating Crimson Tide players to offer a broad strokes opinion.

Says Muench:
"I feel like they are very aggressive on most first and second downs with the strong safety playing a big role in run support. But they also hedge their bets by dropping into Cover 1 or Cover 3 in an effort to take away the big play off play-action. Alabama, like other 3-4 teams, can walk an outside linebacker up to the line of scrimmage, effectively giving it a four-man front.
"Finally, they excel in underneath, matchup zone coverage, which is to say players don't just let receivers catch the ball in front of them and then make the tackle. They match up and track players when they enter the area of the field they are responsible for. This requires a great deal of discipline and communication to prevent breakdowns in the coverage.
"This is why Saban is so great at what he does in my opinion. It's not only his obvious football acumen. It's also his ability to communicate with his players and minimize human error on game day."

I also found this analysis of Alabama's defense from Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com, a respected site that analyzes on coaching strategies and philosophies. Brown also contributes to "The Fifth Down" blog at NYTimes.com.

In his piece, Brown gives a detailed look into what he considers Saban's most common defense, Cover 1 Robber, and a base zone blitz. Brown also excerpts passages from one of Saban's actual Louisiana State playbooks:
"[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.
"In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first -- defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.
"Finally, our job is to take the ball away from the opponents' offense and score or set up good field position for our offense. We must knock the ball loose, force mistakes, and cause turnovers. Turnovers and making big plays win games. We will be alert and aggressive and take advantage of every opportunity to come up with the ball. ... The trademark of our defense will be effort, toughness, and no mental mistakes regarding score or situation in any game"

All of that sounds good and comes off as idyllic coachspeak.

Keep in mind those objectives reflect Saban's proven defense more than reasonable expectations for a team that's overhauling its roster and transitioning from a 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme.

But it might provide some idea of what Bills fans can hope for under Gailey and Edwards.