The Buffalo Bills' offense has found itself in somewhat of a quandary this season. The team has been forced to lean heavily on their run game because of injuries to EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis as well as their commitment to bringing Manuel along slowly. The problem is that the NFL has made it more advantageous to pass the ball and with only four games remaining, the Bills will likely have to find their pass game to have a shot at finishing 8-8 or have to improve next year to compete for a playoff spot.
We hear all the time that the league's trending away from the rush. That would appear to be true, but might not be entire accurate. On one hand, passing and receiving records are falling year in and year out. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is threatening the all-time single-season receiving record this year and he missed two games. In 2012, 12 quarterbacks averaged over 250 yards per game. Just 10 years ago, that number was four.
There's plenty of explanations – the most glaring being rule changes that disallow pass rushers to take cheap shots at quarterbacks, who can now stand in the pocket longer. Also cornerbacks and safeties can no longer pop a wide receiver going over the middle. You used to have to be fearless to run between the hashes as a slot receiver, now anyone can do it.
On the other hand, however, the success and usage of the run game has not changed in the NFL.
The success of the pass has increased, the pace of offenses has increased (number of plays etc), but the run game has not changed since 2002.
In fact, the average rush attempts per game in 2002 was 27. This season? 27. Average yards per carry in 2002 was 4.2, this year it's 4.1 Average total yards per game in 2002 was 116, this year it's 111. To paraphrase Biggie: Not a darn thing changed.
Do the Bills need the run game to win?
Now, how does this relate to the Bills? There have been questions all year about how Offensive Coordinator Nate Hackett has utilized the run game, how he's used CJ Spiller and whether they can compete using the run predominantly.
The answer is yes and no.
On the “yes” side, the Bills have needed the run game to move the ball. They rank 10th in the NFL in rushing yards per drive, but they sit at 31st in passing yards per drive. They certainly can't count on racking up big chunks of yards through the air from week to week. The Bills are 32nd in the NFL in yards per pass attempt with 6.2 per throw.
Guard Doug Legursky talked Thursday after practice about how good the Bills need to be from week to week to win.
“We have to be consistent. Some teams may not be as good at stopping the run but we may struggle against them. Some may be great at stopping the run and we may have a great game. It's about doing it on a regular basis. If we have a 200 yard rushing game but don't get anything going the next week then we're still not satisfied.”
The Bills are second in the NFL in rush attempts and fourth in yards, but are 20th in overall offense. Going back to 2002, you naturally find more teams in the top five in rushing also toward the top in total offense. The Atlanta Falcons ranked fourth that year and were fifth in total offense. Kansas City was third in rushing, first overall. You don't find much of that today.
Football Reference uses a statistic called “Expected Points Added” that estimates how many points a that a club should expect to earn due to the success or failure of the run game. The highest in the NFL is Minnesota with 25.75 points. The Expected Points Added figures in the passing game are much higher – the Broncos topping the league with 196.22 EPA. Four teams are over 100.
In other words, you'd have to be really, really good at rushing to be able to lean on it as much as the Bills do and still be a top offense in the league.
In other, other words, the Bills will need EJ Manuel and the passing game to roll if they're going to go 8-8 or be a playoff contender next year.
What they're saying about the run game...
Despite the amount that the Bills have relied upon the rush to move their offense along, it hasn't been as successful as Chan Gailey's run game last season. Right off the bat, you have to acknowledge that CJ Spiller has been hurt. Regardless, the yards per attempt has dropped from 5.0 to 4.2 yards per attempt.
What's the difference schematically? Offensive lineman Kraig Urbik discussed.
“Last year we did it primarily out of a one tight end, one back backfield,” he said. “This year we're doing a wide array of two tight ends, one back or two backs and one tight end. We're putting more guys in there to block, which means there are going to be more guys in the box. We're doing it more like power football.”
Interestingly, CJ Spiller has averaged 3.7 yards per carry with two tight ends in the game, while averaging 6.0 yards per carry with one tight end – both in around 60 carries. When there has been four or more D-lineman on the line, he's at 4.1 YPC, while at 5.4 YPC with fewer than four.
Fred Jackson is more of the “power back,” but Urbik says it doesn't make much of a difference in terms of how the team approaches the run.
“When we're going and doing high tempo they'll switch out and I don't even know who's in there,” Urbik said. “ I'm not looking back to see who's in there. We're not going to block differently, we're not going to think differently.”
Legursky co-signed on Urbik's sentiment that the offensive line's job stays the same (as presumably so does the scheme) whether Jackson or Spiller is in.
“We know both of them have a lot different styles,” Legursky said. “But both can get the job done just the same. That's really tough for the defense to handle. We do all of our stuff the same way up front, that gives the backs the ability to be confidence to know where we're going to be, setting them up with blocks so they can make plays.”
How about against Tampa Bay?
The Bucs may not have a great overall record, but if there's one thing they do well, it's stop the run. They are No.12 in the NFL vs. the run, allowing 4.2 yards per carry and 106.8 yards per game.
“They're a very disciplined team, they do a lot of stunting, they have really good players up front, so we have to be on our game,” Urbik said. “McCoy is an All-Pro type, three-technique guy, so we'll have to be on our game.”
*Three-technique refers to a defensive tackle's ability to line up as a 3-4 Nose Tackle, 4-3 run stuffer or 4-3 pass rusher. *
The Tampa Bay game could be a big one for Legursky. Joe Buscaglia suggested the Bills may try some of their younger options at left guard down the final stretch. The veteran guard gets it.
“For me, I've always been a guy who doesn't reach too far ahead,” Legursky said. “I just take the next game for what it is. Don't look into the future, don't look into the past. Get corrected what needs to be corrected.”
-Scott Chandler was away from practice as his wife is expecting
-Marquise Goodwin tweaked a calf muscle, but he's expected to be fine according to Doug Marrone