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The bar can’t get any higher for Bills running backs

Where do they go from here? There’s best in the league and ... that’s it. That’s the standard.

Anything less this season would have to be a disappointment for a Buffalo Bills running game that topped the NFL with 2,432 yards last year. Right? The goal doesn’t get any clearer than that, does it?

Fine. But the task figures to be enormous, even for a team that has the talent and commitment to the run to make it happen.

For one thing, the Bills needed every bit of the 568 yards quarterback Tyrod Taylor contributed with his legs to reach that statistical perch. Their hope for this season is that he makes a larger impact with his passing arm, because: 1, it will likely result in more difference-making plays; and 2, it should help reduce his exposure to injury.

For another, opposing defenses will be far more determined to prevent the Bills from having success on the ground.

To top it off, the Bills haven’t had the best of offseasons with their running backs. First, rookie Jonathan Williams, a fifth-round draft pick who was expected to upgrade their depth, was arrested on July 14 in Arkansas on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. One day later, the NFL announced it was suspending Karlos Williams for the first four games of the season for substance abuse.

With No. 1 back LeSean McCoy missing some offseason practice with a tight hamstring, the Bills are likely to be forced to tap into their depth – which they tried to enhance by the signing of James Wilder Jr. and re-signing of Boom Herron.

“It will be a great challenge, there’s no question,” coach Rex Ryan says. “But it starts with the players. We have really good players. We’ve got a great stable of backs, we’ve got a physical offensive line, and we’ve got a scheme that changes. So it’s not just that you’ve got to stop the power. You might have to stop the counter. Can we run zone plays? Yes. Can we run gap schemes? Absolutely. Can we run zone reads? Yes. We run it all, we run the gamut.

“We’re multiple, probably the most multiple team in the league in the run game. So that helps us. But, again, make no mistake: It starts with our players.”

Last season, the Bills had exceptional performances from left guard Richie Incognito and left tackle Cordy Glenn. They rewarded both with huge pay raises. Center Eric Wood also performed at a consistently high level. The trio allowed the offense to overcome John Miller’s up-and-down rookie season at right guard, and Seantrel Henderson’s struggles at right tackle from his bout with Crohn’s Disease.

McCoy, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, didn’t allow missing four games with multiple injuries to stop him from producing a team-high 895 rushing yards and becoming the lone Bills player to be an outright Pro Bowl selection. Karlos Williams was a powerful and explosive alternative as a rookie, and even No. 3 back Mike Gillislee made high-impact runs.

“I’m a big fan of Shady McCoy,” Wood says. “He did a great job for us last year. He started a little slower, like we all did. It took him a second to get going, but when he did, man, he’s a special player. I expect big things out of him. And Karlos had a great year last year. He’s kind of that downhill thumper, a great change-up from Shady. Mike Gillislee did awesome, so I’m excited about all the running backs we’ll have back there.”

Steep learning curve

There was a significant learning curve with the complex blocking scheme Greg Roman installed in his first season as the Bills’ offensive coordinator. In a constant effort to keep defenses off-balance, Roman likes to use an ever-changing variety of personnel groupings and places heavy emphasis on movement and shifting before the snap. He also likes to do plenty of pulling with his guards, working in tandem with the tight end.

Even with nine years of NFL experience, Incognito calls it “the most complicated offense, run game and pass-protection game, I’ve ever been associated with.” Learning it required constant reference to his notes, sometimes even while sitting in front of his locker just before the opening kickoff of a game.

“Last year we came in and we were learning G-Ro’s system, and it took us two to three, four games to find a rhythm, to figure out how he wanted us to hit blocks, where the running backs’ aiming points were,” Incognito says. “And I think it was a learning process for him as well, finding out what we run well, what we don’t run well. And I think you could see, as the season went on, we really kind of found our groove and we found our core plays that we were going to build off of and complement.

“Carrying that over into the offseason, I think it’s just fundamental focus, learning the plays over again, learning the nuances of each play. Now that G-Ro knows what we like to run and what we’re good at running, it’s a matter of building in plays to complement that, going over the offense and mastering the things we did well last year and improving on the things we didn’t do so well. That’s what the focus was this offseason.”

Says Roman: “You get what you emphasize. I think we have emphasized” the run, “tried to build that foundation, and moving forward we would like to maybe branch out a little bit if need be.”

Expanding the plays

Roman plans to continue to employ what worked last season – the power runs up the middle, the counters, the zones, the gaps. However, through self-scouting, he’s mindful of his tendency – which is true with pretty much every offensive coordinator – to call the same plays over and over because of the sense of comfort their consistent success provides. Rather than simply change the formation to give the illusion that a different play has been called, a tactic that will continue, Roman also plans to add a new blocking scheme or two or use a different scheme more often.

And why not? The Bills have the line and the diversity of running styles among their backs to handle pretty much anything thrown their way.

“I thought we had a great mix last year of running the ball with the power game up the middle and getting the ball on the perimeter and using some speed and athleticism,” Wood says. “And in this league, defenses are so good, guys are so big and so strong, you have to mix it up like that. But there were times last year where we imposed our will and we were more physical at the point of attack and we gained yards. And there were times where Shady made a guy miss on the outside and took it for big gains.

“We found that” mix “as the year went on. Our outside runs weren’t as successful earlier in the year, and as those got more effective, it opened up everything. And we hit a few deep balls, too. It all correlates with a successful offense, but I think the combination of being physical and going up the middle, as well as having a little finesse game and getting the ball outside, was big for us.”

Physical football

Ryan is often criticized for taking an outdated approach to the game: Pound the football on offense and win with defense.

Some of that is a function of his defensive-driven mentality, but some of it also is because he never had a franchise quarterback. He didn’t during his six seasons of coaching the New York Jets and, with Taylor having only 14 career starts, he can’t be certain if he has one with the Bills yet.

Still, Ryan remains a big believer in having a strong running game.

“A physical brand of football still wins in this league, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” the coach says. “Now, New England’s one of the rare exceptions, because that guy” Tom Brady “can throw it all day long. But I truly believe that you’ve got to be able to run the football, especially when the snow flies, and I think you’ve got to be able to stop the run. And I think those are the things that, from a fundamental standpoint, I don’t think it ever changes.”

Something else doesn’t change. Offensive linemen love to block for the run. It puts them in the position of being proactive and aggressive rather than reactive and retreating when protecting the passer.

“We would rather be going at the defense than them teeing off on us,” Wood says. “That allows us to impose our will. It’s hard to impose your will in pass protection. You can do a very good job of keeping your guy at the line, but he’s still coming at you and you’ve got to basically diagnose the defense and then get your guy. When you’re going at him, you kind of dictate. We like running the football. We don’t like getting teed off on.

“The rules have set it up to make it a little easier to pass the ball – the rules in the secondary, they’re protecting quarterbacks with the rules a little bit now, too – but I think there still is a place in the NFL for a successful run game. We showed that last year that we can put up points running the ball a lot. I like playing in our offense. It’s friendly for O-linemen when the defense doesn’t know what’s coming at you each play as opposed to a team that throws it a vast majority of the time.”

Although it didn’t prove to be true last season, Ryan is convinced the Bills’ passing game will thrive if the rushing attack remains strong – or gets even stronger.

“I truly believe it’ll open up our passing game even more,” Ryan says. “We know we have the talent at the quarterback position. I think we’re as explosive as anybody, but to have more success throwing the ball, and especially in the middle of the field a little bit, where we’re going to start to get more Cover Two and some double zones than we did last year. Because if you play us in Cover One, we’ll throw it over your head.”

Opponents aren’t likely to have to do much guessing about the offensive style the Bills will use most of the time.

“We obviously want to lead the league in rushing again,” Wood says. “But we’d rather have a better record.”

It’s not much of a stretch to say the Bills might, in fact, find improving on their 8-8 finish easier than having their run game remain No. 1 in the NFL.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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