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Sean McDermott Will Try to Save the Bills Defense

Buffalo hired another defensive-minded coach on the heels of its failed Rex Ryan experiment, but that’s about all McDermott and Ryan have in common

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

One of the first dominos of the NFL head-coaching shuffle has fallen, and the name involved isn’t too surprising. Sean McDermott was thought to be a top-tier candidate on Black Sunday, and less than two weeks later the former Panthers defensive coordinator has been hired by the Bills.

McDermott, 42, has risen incrementally to reach this point. Last season was his sixth as Carolina’s coordinator (and eighth as a coordinator overall, after spending two years in the same role with the Eagles). He first handled play-calling duties in Philadelphia when legendary coordinator Jim Johnson took a leave of absence because of his declining health in 2009. Johnson, who died in July that of year, shaped McDermott’s approach as a coach (seriously, go read what he’s said about Johnson in the past; he adored the man), although McDermott’s recent defenses with the Panthers lacked the frantic blitzing that defined Johnson’s best units with the Eagles.

In terms of both personality and scheme, McDermott’s hiring should be construed as a purposeful overcorrection by the Bills. If former coach Rex Ryan’s scheme was too complex for his players, as nose tackle Marcell Dareus claimed after the season, then Buffalo’s defenders should love McDermott. Carolina’s finishes in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA during McDermott’s tenure are as follows: 32nd, 11th, 3rd, 15th, 2nd, and 10th. Aside from a rough go with a depleted roster in Year 1, that’s a hell of a stretch. And that success was built on a straightforward 4–3 system that involves a healthy amount of zone defense and a group of well-schooled players adhering to their responsibilities.

When the Panthers were at their best under McDermott, they got pressure with their front four, dropped seven into coverage, kept their cornerbacks protected with safety help, and let their linebackers clean up every blade of grass in front of them. That type of defense is everything that Ryan’s was not, and the Bills have to hope that returning to an approach that closely resembles Jim Schwartz’s in 2014 (when the Bills finished second in defensive DVOA) will improve that side of the ball in a hurry.

Personnel-wise, the Bills have the pieces along the line — with Dareus, defensive end Jerry Hughes, and 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson — to transition from Ryan’s mixed fronts to McDermott’s 4–3 (defensive tackle Kyle Williams’s murky future with the organization notwithstanding). The questions lie with the rest of the depth chart. Carolina’s defensive leap during McDermott’s second season coincided with the Panthers drafting a guy named Luke Kuechly. Former third-round pick Preston Brown turned in a solid second season under Ryan, but if he’s to become the man in the middle of McDermott’s defense, the linebacker will have to fill a drastically different role. In the secondary, McDermott’s zone-based scheme would be a departure for corners Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore, but at this point the more pressing concern is whether Gilmore — an unrestricted free agent — will even be on the Bills roster next fall.

Those are all issues for the coming months, though. McDermott is a smart coach who won’t use a cookie-cutter approach with players who don’t fit a certain scheme. No matter the mechanics of Buffalo’s new defense, the franchise has hired a coach with a proven record of orchestrating excellent, disciplined units and someone who earned this type of opportunity. It may seem surprising that the Bills chose to go with a defensive-minded coach after the perils of the Ryan regime, but going from Ryan to Ron Howard’s fairly blasé younger brother is a departure in its own right.