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Howard Simon's Blog

Marrone hits home run with defensive coordinator

I’ll admit I was scratching my head when the news broke that Doug Marrone was bringing Nathaniel Hackett with him from Syracuse to be the Bills Offensive Coordinator.
4 years as an offensive quality control coach(the lowest rung on the NFL coaching ladder) doesn’t qualify as thorough NFL experience in my opinion.
Marrone really didn’t say much in his introductory press conference but one nugget he did throw out there was that he would be looking for coordinators with “thorough NFL experience” especially on the defensive side of the ball.
He followed through with that emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.  The skepticism I had with the Hackett hire was trumped by my excitement over the selection of Mike Pettine as the Defensive Coordinator.
It appears there is a belief around the NFL that the Bills defense was not as bad as the statistics would indicate.  Perhaps the issue was coaching and schemes. 
Some of the coaches who interviewed for the Bills  job were interested in part because they felt there was enough talent on the roster that it wouldn’t be a massive rebuilding project. 
Pettine, who turned down a contract extension from the New York Jets early last season, could have waited things out.  There are a number of teams that have yet to hire head coaches and therefore a number of staffs have yet to be built.  But the 46 year old Pennsylvania native jumped on the Bills offer when Marrone called.
Pettine has been around some very successful defenses thanks to his relationship with Rex Ryan.  Say what you want about Ryan, his loud personality, his bold guarantees and his somewhat creepy Mark Sanchez tattoo, the man knows how to build and coach a defense.
Pettine, who was the first assistant hired by Ryan when he got the job with the Jets, has spent the last 10 years working with Ryan.  He was the Jets Defensive Coordinator for the last 4 seasons and coached with Ryan in Baltimore the 6 seasons prior to that. 
In all 4 years with Gang Green, they boasted a top 10 defense and while Ryan was the mastermind, he gradually gave more responsibility to Pettine who ended up calling the defensive plays in 2011 and shared them with Ryan this past season. The Ravens defenses, with Pettine serving as outside linebackers coach, were in the top 6 from 2005-2008.
Even though Pettine doesn’t have Ryan’s personality, he still gained the respect of the Jets players and he shares Ryan’s aggressive, attack philosophy when it comes to defensive schemes.
“He’s the smartest defensive coach I’ve been around,” Defensive Tackle Mike DeVito told the NY Daily News after the paper reported the possibility of Pettine leaving after the season.  “He’s at another level when it comes to knowing defenses and play calling so obviously he’d be a guy that would be missed.”
For those of you that thought one of Dave Wannstedt’s weaknesses was the inability to make in game adjustments, one Jet believes that is one of Pettine’s best assets.
“His ability to change on the fly is something that stands out to me,” said safety Yeremiah Bell.  “He does a good job of adjustments and seeing what other teams, how they’re trying to attack us.  He’s right up there with the good coordinators who can, after halftime, figure out what they’re trying to do.”  Bell is an unrestricted free agent in March and could be one of a few defensive players interested in following Pettine to Buffalo.
Devito and safety LaRon Landry will be free agents as well.  Linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace and safety Eric Smith might all be salary cap cuts and could be available too.  Pettine is bringing Jets Assistant Defensive Backs Coach Jim O’Neil with him to Western New York.  O’Neil has received some credit for helping Landry produce what turned out to be a Pro Bowl season.
In addition to his years of NFL experience, Pettine obviously has intimate knowledge of a division rival and he was part of a staff that did a better job than the Bills when it came to beating New England.  In Ryan’s 4 years, the Jets went 3-6 against the Patriots including a playoff win at Foxborough in the 2010 post season.
The move weakens a division opponent by taking away Ryan’s right hand man and a key coach on the defensive side of the ball, the strongest part of the Jets.
One league source told WGR Marrone wanted Pettine so badly that he flew to New York right after his introductory press conference on Monday.
Pettine should also give the Bills defense some badly needed creativity.  The Jets used a base 3-4 but played a 4-3 at times in games and mixed in the old Buddy Ryan “46” defense, bringing 8 men up to the line of scrimmage.
They liked to use overload blitzes, sending multiple blitzers from one side of the defense.  New York also had some packages with 7 defensive backs and used a 3 safety nickel package.  According to Football Outsiders, the Jets blitzed 46% of the time in 2010 and 30% in 2011.  According to the Buffalo News the Bills blitzed on less than 20% of the plays last season.
One possible problem Pettine might need to address is the Bills secondary.  Ryan builds his defenses from the back and puts a lot of responsibility on the corners, who need to excel in man coverage, and the safeties.
As far as the Bills corners go, Stephon Gilmore looks like he will be able to handle that challenge but there are question marks all over the remainder of the depth chart at that position.  Look for the Bills to address cornerback early in the draft and perhaps in free agency.
The hiring of Pettine and the secondary friendly scheme might help the Bills convince playmaking safety Jairus Byrd to forego free agency and stick around.  Perhaps Pettine will push the Bills to go after Bell or Landry when the market opens up to bolster the position. 
Jim Leonhard is another name to keep in mind.  The former Buffalo Bill played 3 seasons for Ryan and Pettine and boasts the football smarts that are valued in their schemes.  Leonhard is with the Denver Broncos but will also be a free agent in March.
As much as we talked about quarterback this past season, and understandably so, the defense killed the Bills.  Going into the 2012 season, most of us thought a vastly improved defense would help spur the Bills into a playoff spot.  That might happen one year later, thanks to the presence of Mike Pettine.

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