ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills' defense was atrocious against the run last year.
They ranked 30th in rushing yards yielded. Only one team surrendered a worse average than their 4.7 yards per carry. They gave up a league-worst 134 first downs on the ground and 18 runs of 20 yards or longer.
That was when they operated out of a 4-3 defense. Under new head coach Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator George Edwards, the Bills are working out of a 3-4, a scheme that can be susceptible to the run by nature of its design.
How do the Bills plan on improving their run defense in this transition?
In a word, creatively.
"We're trying to show one thing, and we're going to do another, which we haven't done in the past," nose tackle Kyle Williams said after Thursday's early minicamp session in the Bills' field house. "You have guys like Tom Brady; when they know what coverages you're going to be in, it's a tough road to hoe. They can identify where they need to go with the ball most of the time, and they can get rid of the ball quickly. We're going to confuse some things, disguise some things."
As much as the Bills' dreadful offense has taken blame for their problems, the defense under head coach Dick Jauron was just as troubling. Yes, the Bills ranked second in pass defense last year, but a contributing factor was that opponents trampled them on the ground.
Jauron favored a Tampa 2-style defense, using smaller and quicker defenders. Tony Dungy popularized the Tampa 2, implementing it with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and using it to win a Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts.
ESPN Stats & Information found the Bills allowed an NFL-worst 5.3 yards per carry against a loaded box (more defenders than blockers).
Here's another eye-opener from ESPN's researchers: The Bills allowed 6.6 yards per carry on third-and-2 or shorter.
"When Coach Edwards got here," linebacker Paul Posluszny said, "one of the first things he talked about was 'It doesn't matter how many blitz packages we have, how many different schemes we have, if we don't stop the run we're going to have problems.' We've got to be able to do that."
The Bills will be sturdier against the run partially because defenders need to be larger and more rugged than the streamlined athletes used in a Tampa 2.
But in a conventional 3-4, spaces hover over the guard positions before every snap, creating natural holes to run through. The tradeoff is versatility at linebacker. Offenses can't be sure whether they're going to blitz, stuff or cover.
"It's comforting to know when you step in front of somebody, they have no idea where you're going to go," Williams said. "In the past, they pretty much knew what we were going to do. Now they also have to look past [the defensive line] and wonder if a linebacker's coming or what we might be doing."
The linebackers, not the defensive linemen, become are the stars of the 3-4 defense. Roles are too rigid in a 4-3 and limit their opportunities to make plays.
"Our 'backers are coming downhill now and taking guys on rather than fast flowing over the top to the ball, where we got hurt on a lot of cutbacks and things," Williams said. "With the way we're going to do the 3-4, we're going to try to stack things up at the line and make [the runner] bounce outside so we can rally and go get him."
The Bills aren't suited to resemble the AFC East's other 3-4 defenses, which are more traditional. Their rivals have behemoth nose tackles like Vince Wilfork and Kris Jenkins taking on two blockers at a time.
Williams is small nose tackle at 6-foot-1 and 306 pounds, but he's shifty. Bills center Geoff Hangartner said Williams has "been a pain in my behind" in workouts and is "country strong."
Hangartner also noted how the Bills' switch to a 3-4 should help Buffalo's offense prepare for the upcoming season. Buffalo faced a 3-4 defense 11 times last year, and quarterback Trent Edwards has an awful history against that template.
The more the Bills compete against a 3-4 in training camp, the more comfortable they'll be when they see one on Sunday afternoons.
"Our defense last year was the complete opposite of a 3-4," Hangartner said. "It was hard last year to get guys that play a 4-3 to give you a good look in practice in a 3-4. It's only going to help us prepare for games."