How is the running game, and what does the future look like?
The Buffalo Bills have played through two-thirds of their season, compiling a 7-3 record in their first ten games. It’s an appealing place to be—in sole possession of the AFC East lead—but things aren’t perfect.
The bye-week break is the perfect time for self-scouting, understanding a team’s strengths and weaknesses, and thinking about the future.
Let’s go ahead and do that—with an eye focused on the Bills’ rushing offense.
As awesome as Buffalo’s passing offense has been, the rushing offense has been just as disappointing in 2020. The Bills have had a long string of excellent rushing attacks, in part because their quarterbacking was so unreliable. But for five seasons from 2015 to 2019, the Bills ranked in the top ten in both rushing yards and rushing attempts. This year, they’re down to 22nd in rushing attempts, and their rushing yardage is ranked 29th in the league. In terms of yards-per-attempt? Down to 25th.
Devin Singletary, ostensibly the lead back, had 775 rushing yards at 5.1 yards per carry last year. This season, he’s on pace for 642 yards and rushing at only 4.1 yards per carry.
Last year, the Bills got 566 yards and a measly 3.6 yards per carry out of Frank Gore. They upgraded with rookie Zack Moss, but only barely—thanks to time missed with injuries, Moss is on pace for only 416 rushing yards. He’s only managed 3.8 yards per carry so far.
Josh Allen’s been extremely focused on pocket passing this year, but he still gets his rushing production. He’s on pace for 446 yards this year, down from 510 last year and 631 as a rookie. He’s still a touchdown machine at the goal line, on pace for eight rushing touchdowns this year.
For a while, the Bills had an elite running back and exceptional schemes designed for him. The last couple years, they combined a running back committee with Josh Allen’s fleet feet, and it kept paying dividends.
But now the Bills can’t figure it out. Why?
We could start by pointing to Buffalo’s passing focus. According to Mike Sando’s “Cook Index”, the Bills rank third in passing frequency on early downs earlier in games—in other words, their likelihood to pass in a “neutral” situation. Just going by raw stats alone, the Bills are on pace for 592 pass attempts and 395 rush attempts—a major shift from last year’s 513-465 split. Those 70 fewer carries can account for some of the raw rushing numbers.
But we’re also not seeing the same efficiency as before. In other words, the individual plays are failing. Things have shifted schematically, and players aren’t executing when it counts.
Right off the bat, I could tell you that a big problem with the Bills’ rushing offense is running into unfavorable situations—specifically, running into run blitzes.
Josh Allen, at the line, is given leeway to start with one play, and “Alert” to a different call based on the defensive look. This often means he’s given a packaged play with a pass and a run, and he needs to decide whether to stick with the original call or change it up. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can also issue the call himself, if the team lines up before headset communication cuts off.
Ideally, Allen can identify when the defense is lined up to stop a running play, and Alert to a pass play that beats their blitz. Or maybe the pass play is the primary call, and so he should stick with it instead of changing to the running play.
We have no way of knowing which calls Allen starts with, and which plays he’s able to switch to on a given down. What we do know, is that the Bills are running into the teeth of the defense more than you’d like to see.
Take this play, where the Bills are facing seven defenders all lined up at the line of scrimmage. You can see Allen point to his helmet, the universal “Alert” signal that changes the play at the line. The Bills, though, run a basic slow-moving wide zone run, which gets blown up by the backside defenders. Surprise surprise, they were sitting at the line of scrimmage, essentially unblocked, and they blitzed to the runner.
Here’s another example from the Arizona Cardinals game. Though Arizona starts with only six men “in the box” (which would suggest favorable running numbers against seven possible blockers), a seventh player creeps into the box before the snap. Furthermore, the two linebackers both clearly show signs of blitzing. The Bills opt for a simple zone run up the gut, and it goes absolutely nowhere.
The blitz awareness isn’t just a playcalling problem. It’s also a player problem. In the passing game, Allen has occasional blindness to late blitzers (or blitzers coming from the secondary), but in the running game the Bills have a similar problem. See, players like Gabriel Davis and Dawson Knox are frequently asked to make blocks for run plays. The Bills run with either 11 or 10 personnel 90 percent of the time, meaning three receivers, a running back, and either a receiver (Davis) or tight end (Knox) on the field. In this “spread” attack, if the Bills line up in a more condensed formation, that final blocker will be near the backfield, and needs to be heads-up about their blocking assignment. They need to watch for stunts, gap exchanges, and zone blitzes, and whether or not they seal the edge can be the difference between a one-yard gain and a play that stretches for ten yards. Too often, they’re losing their one-on-one assignment.
Take this play against the New England Patriots as one example. Gabriel Davis needs to block a (very obvious) blitzing corner in front of him (defensive left side). He’s late to the assignment, and the defender nearly has a tackle-for-loss. Dawson Knox, as an H-Back, needs to come across the formation and hold up the defensive lineman in the backfield. Instead, he’s completely blown away, and the lineman makes the tackle.
If both players handled their assignment, Zack Moss is running toward number 30 with a head of steam and no one else in the area. Instead, the play goes nowhere.
The discussion of rushing issues cannot go by without talking about some metric trends. To be more specific, the Bills have a clear preference for running direction (and a clear area of weakness for which direction they run).
In 2019, the Bills had a balanced rushing attack that mainly ran up the gut, but evenly attacked each side of the defense. Their top tactic was to attack the edges of the defense using pin-and-pull and outside zone runs. 132 of their 361 carries (36.6 percent) went off-tackle or to the sideline, but 25 of their 42 explosive runs (59.5 percent) came from those plays.
As you look at the 2020 numbers, you’ll see a clear outlier: The Bills are absolutely pitiful running behind the right guard or right tackle, and they’ve shown a strong preference to avoid it. While the Bills have a healthy 4.2 to 4.5 yards-per-carry left of center, to the right it’s a disgusting 1.9 to 2.9 YPC. The team has had 13 explosive runs left of center, and three right of center. They seem to understand this disparity, and take steps to stay away from the problem area. Out of 168 runs, 27.4 percent go to the right of the center, while a full 48.8 percent are pointed left of center.
There’s a slight bias toward runners, here. Devin Singletary averages 4.0 yards per carry off right tackle, while Zack Moss is at 1.0. But they’re both pitiful off right guard, and the aggregate numbers tell a more reliable story.
Both Brian Winters, who’s started eight games at right guard, and Daryl Williams, the starting right tackle, carry some blame for the lousy rushing numbers. Winters, for one, has struggled big time against athletic defensive linemen. Chris Jones feasted against Winters in the Kansas City Chiefs game, in particular. But when re-watching the film, I wasn’t too upset with most of his play. He’s generally in the right place, and does a good enough job climbing to the second level on his blocks.
One issue I have with these two players is the number of mental mistakes. Williams and Winters are often not on the same page when they block—and all it takes is one opened gap to blow up the running play. Remember that Devin Singletary has one of the lowest composite athleticism scores in the league. Zack Moss is no Saquon Barkley. If an unblocked defender waltzes into the backfield, the play success rate drops dramatically.
Take this play from the second New York Jets game. I think it’s supposed to be a wide zone run to the left. At least, the LG, LT, and TE all move like that’s the case. Meanwhile, Winters and Williams form a conga line on the backside of the play.
Winters should’ve stepped toward defender #94 and taken a double team with the center. That would’ve freed the center to climb to #46, and at that point we’re off to the races. Instead, he steps the other direction, and Williams runs right into him.
Another problem is that the zone blocking that the Bills love to use is not at all suited to Williams. He has slow feet. When asked to make a more difficult reach block, he ends up lunging and tripping over himself trying to make the play.
So, in essence, the Bills have a right guard who struggles with athletic pass rushers, a right tackle who struggles to block in space, and mental errors between both of them.
Through the end of 2020
The top priority with this segment is the same as the top priority for the passing offense: Find their top five offensive linemen and stick with them. Eight different players have started games on the line for the Bills this year. Cody Ford’s played three different positions, and Jon Feliciano might be doing the same this year. Is Mitch Morse good to go or did head coach Sean McDermott just put him on notice with his Week 10 benching?
In theory, a line of Dawkins-Ford-Morse–Feliciano-Williams is the best five players available. But whoever plays, the group needs to gel and start kicking butt. They also need to stay healthy and play together.
Mental errors, on a whole, need to be cut down in the running game. That goes with the pre-snap play selection, and also goes with the players asked to block at the perimeter.
The Bills should consider incorporating more draw plays, given how frequently they pass the ball. They shouldn’t be afraid to let Allen tuck and run more frequently, especially since he’s started sliding more at the end of a play.
Backup running back T.J. Yeldon is set to become a free agent, while the Bills have at least two more cost-controlled seasons of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. The offensive line is also facing four unrestricted free agents: Daryl Williams, Jon Feliciano, Brian Winters, and Ty Nsekhe. We haven’t been able to see the full picture of Williams and Feliciano side-by-side, but if the right side of the line can’t improve in the remainder of the season, Buffalo needs an upgrade.
At least for now, there are plenty of starting-caliber offensive linemen on the market, until teams begin re-signing their own. That includes players like Austin Blythe, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Garrett Bolles, Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney, and David Sharpe.
The Bills could also opt for another rookie. IOLs Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, Creed Humphrey, and Zion Johnson might be able to replace Feliciano/Winters (and/or eventually Morse) in the lineup. At tackle, there seem to be several players who could settle into that late first- or second-round territory, even though the list is still shaking out: Liam Eichenberg, Jalen Mayfield, Alex Leatherwood, Dillon Radunz, and Daniel Faalele.
Thinking about running backs for a second, is it presumptuous to say that Travis Etienne should be on Buffalo’s radar? Go ahead, slay me for suggesting that the Bills should be thinking about the dreaded first-round running back. A luxury pick to end all luxury picks, after the Bills spent two third-round picks on runners in the last two years.
I’ll preempt you on the C.J. Spiller comparisons. Yes, those are two speedy running backs, both stars at Clemson, both practically the same size, who spent four full years in college and filled up their trophy cabinet. Let’s be clear though: While he’s not an effective return man, Etienne’s production blows Spiller out of the water. He’s a lot more than a “waterbug.”
But let’s circle back to what Etienne could give Buffalo’s offense. His burst and acceleration would jumpstart the rushing offense. An effective receiver, he wouldn’t hold back the passing game. This team doesn’t have a breakaway threat, and having a player who could turn a six-yard gain into a 60-yard gain would put them on the same level as Kansas City.
At least, that’s how I’d sell it.
In the same way, I could make a case for picking Rondale Moore on day two of the draft: Yes, he’s only 5’9” and 175 lbs. And in his case, the production hasn’t kept up with the hype of his freshman season. But his astonishing speed and quickness are missing from the Bills today. Imagine replacing Isaiah McKenzie’s jet-action role with Moore, who’s one of the fastest players on the field in college football.
Either way, the need here isn’t a dramatic one, since the running game shouldn’t be a focus in the future. But, if nothing else, the Bills need to have five starting linemen in place.