C.J. Spiller’s a long way from puking.
Instead, it might be Buffalo Bills fans who are feeling a little sick to their stomach over how the running back is being used – or not used – in the team’s offense.
Spiller appeared to turn the corner from a nagging high-ankle sprain in Week Nine, when he carried 12 times for a season-high 116 yards. He was removed from the team’s injury report last week, with coach Doug Marrone declaring him “full go” for Week 10 at Pittsburgh.
But Spiller got only 22 offensive snaps Sunday against the Steelers. He finished with 23 yards on eight carries and another 11 yards on three receptions in the 23-10 loss at Heinz Field.
The Bills’ first four offensive plays were runs by Spiller, for a combined 9 yards. From that point, however, he touched the ball only seven times for the remaining 53 minutes of the game.
“I thought we had some opportunities and we missed some holes early on. I thought we tried to bounce too many things outside, which is always difficult to do against this defense,” Marrone said after the game. “You have to pretty much run downhill and make a lot of yards after contact to be successful.”
Marrone made it clear Monday that the decision to use Spiller as little as the team did against Pittsburgh had nothing to do with his injury, and everything to do with the team’s game plan.
As for whether that will involve Spiller more in the coming weeks, Marrone was noncommittal.
“Could increase, could decrease,” he said. “We’ll see week to week.”
That’s a long way from playing Spiller “until he throws up,” as offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett famously said during training camp.
The first four weeks of the season, Spiller averaged 18.75 touches per game – a pace that would have given him exactly 300 for the season. Spiller’s previous career high was 250 touches last year – when he produced 1,703 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns.
That made 2,000 yards from scrimmage sound like a realistic goal coming into 2013, but the high-ankle sprain suffered in Week Four against Baltimore nagged Spiller for more than a month.
There were still flashes of the explosiveness he showed last year (like the 54-yard touchdown run in Cleveland), but it was clear Spiller wasn’t the same player. Marrone sat him in Week Eight at New Orleans in an effort to get him to 100 percent.
Even though Marrone said he was “full go” prior to playing Pittsburgh, Spiller indicated that he wasn’t there yet.
“Just little twinges here and there,” he said last week. “The good thing is that it calms down a whole lot quicker than what it had done in the past. That’s the encouraging part. … Still not where I wanted to be, so we’ll just continue to do the things that we need to do.”
With Spiller hobbled, the Bills have relied on Fred Jackson to be their featured running back. Jackson is playing about 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, while Spiller is at about 30 percent.
How much has that hurt the Bills’ running game? Buffalo is averaging 140.7 yards per game on the ground, seventh most in the NFL. The Bills’ 1,407 rushing yards through their first 10 games in 2013 is almost identical to the 1,412 yards the team had in the same time last year.
The Bills, though, managed just 95 yards on the ground Sunday in Pittsburgh – the third time in the last four games they’ve been held to less than 100 rushing yards.
“As far as the running backs, I think both players are productive in their own way with two different styles, which isn’t a problem. In the same sense, you know, did we run the ball like we wanted to the other day? Absolutely not,” Marrone said.
Marrone said the problems in the run game start up front with the offensive line, and that the blocking on the perimeter by the team’s tight ends was at times subpar.
“To be able to run the football, you have to do all those things well,” he said.
Of course, part of what makes Spiller such a dangerous weapon is his ability as a receiver.
Under Hackett, the team is not running screen passes as much or as well as they did last season under Chan Gailey.
Spiller so far has three catches for 20 yards on screens this year, according to statistics kept by The Buffalo News (the rest of his 19 catches have come on swing routes, flares or dump offs). Through 10 games last year, he had 11 catches on screens for 162 yards.
Jackson, meanwhile, has 31 catches, with 10 of those coming on screens for 87 yards, according to News statistics. That’s up from eight screen passes for 52 yards through 10 games last year.
Jackson saw 44 offensive snaps Sunday against Pittsburgh – double the number of Spiller. It’s clear the team views him as its “every-down” back, especially if Spiller’s ankle injury is no longer a concern.
One of the reasons is Jackson’s ability to protect the passer. He’s viewed as one of the better blocking running backs in the NFL.
Spiller, on the other hand, allowed a sack of quarterback EJ Manuel in the fourth quarter on one of the few times he stayed in to protect.
Playing Spiller and Jackson together is something Hackett has rarely done. But if the team is determined to play Jackson on passing downs because of his blocking ability, it’s one way the team can get Spiller more involved in the offense.
“Whenever I’m out there, I’ll just try to take advantage of the opportunity. I won’t get caught up into how much I’m playing on offense,” Spiller said. “That’s up to the coaches.”