Dismissing the Buffalo Bills' horrendous run production against the Carolina Panthers as merely an off day for the NFL's best rushing attack the past two seasons is probably being too cavalier, if not a bit naïve.
LeSean McCoy's nine yards on 12 carries, the ugliest stain left by the Bills' 69 yards on the ground, were symptomatic of a bigger issue that just might not disappear any time in the near future.
It's easy and perhaps more comforting to conclude that a week after dominating the New York Jets' defensive front to the tune of 190 yards on the ground (110 by McCoy), the Bills' offensive line simply was overmatched by more talented defensive linemen and linebackers. Coach Sean McDermott chose to go that route Wednesday when he told reporters, "I think, really, when you look a week ago against the Jets, how we controlled the line of scrimmage ... this is one game. That’s life sometimes in the NFL."
What isn't quite as easy to overlook is the fact the Bills are in the midst of a learning curve, thanks to their new wide-zone blocking scheme that's significantly different from what any of their linemen previously played. The strategy is a staple of the playbook of new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who learned it through coaching affiliations with Mike Shanahan and former renowned NFL offensive line coach Alex Gibbs.
From 11th-year veteran guard Richie Incognito, the most senior member of the unit, to rookie tackle Dion Dawkins, there's plenty that still must be absorbed in the meeting room and perfected on the practice field.
"It's completely different from what we've been doing the last two years, so we're learning, we're growing," Incognito said.
That growth can't happen fast enough.
The Bills face another excellent front Sunday when they take on the Denver Broncos at New Era Field. In case you haven't heard, the Broncos held Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL's rushing leader as a rookie last season, to a scant eight yards in a 42-17 victory against the Dallas Cowboys.
If the Bills are to avoid another embarrassment for McCoy, their best player, they must figure out how to: a.) win the majority of one-on-one battles at the line; b.) get all of the synchronization involved with run plays that call for linemen to move laterally and create a wide variety of entry points for cutbacks.
The second part could very well be more challenging, because trying to master a new scheme is harder, in part because the rules of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players limit offseason non-contact practice and meeting time, as well as contact during training camp. There haven't been nearly enough repetitions to develop the necessary continuity the linemen must have with each other and with McCoy and the other running backs.
Toss in the fact left tackle Cordy Glenn spent most of the offseason and preseason dealing with ankle and foot problems that continue to bother him, and you have the perfect conditions for the kind of disaster that happened last Sunday.
"In the wide-zone scheme, you can have 30 different wide zones," Incognito said. "But there's going to be varying factors where the hole, that puncture, is going to be. It's pretty much a three-pronged approach. The running back opens up, he's stretching, stretching, stretching, and depending on (whether he has) he has a lead fullback, whether he has a tight end, and what the defensive alignment is, where is he going to put his foot in the ground and cut back?
"It's incredibly difficult. ... We all need more reps in this offense, because we're coming from a system that (zone-based running) was featured very little in. We had a lot of front-size double-teams, pulling guards, kick-outs, quarterback-driven stuff to hold the backside end. Now, (with) wide zone, it's basically double-teams, one-on-one blocks, and the running back having the feel for where this thing's going to pop open."
That's why what the Bills are doing at this stage isn't what Incognito, who is doing far less pulling than he did the past two seasons, would describe as fine-tuning.
"It's still learning," he said. "We're still learning the system, we're still learning the (run) fits, we're still learning the feel of the back, we're still learning where (McCoy) wants us, and you kind of continue learning throughout the entire season. And the better you get at things, and the things that you can do really well, then you start building in things that complement that stuff really well.
"And that's when you really keep defenses off-balance."
Doing so against one as strong as the Panthers' arguably would have been tough no matter how well-versed the Bills' linemen were with wide-zone blocking. They have big, powerful linemen and exceptionally quick linebackers. From front to back, they have superb tacklers, which enhances their overall effectiveness against the run.
For McCoy, the conversation pretty much begins and ends there.
"They made plays last week and we didn’t, simple as that," he said. "(The Bills have) a different scheme, but I do not think it makes that big a difference. We have been doing this since camp and we know what to do, what not to do ... we know the offense. It is about going out there and executing, putting ourselves in better positions."
Nevertheless, it's reasonable to think the Panthers provided some level of an instructional video on how to stop the Bills' wide-zone scheme to all of the remaining teams on Buffalo's schedule.
Reasonable, that is, unless you're quarterback Tyrod Taylor. When he watched video of the game, he saw less of a blueprint for opponents than a quality control report for the Bills' offense.
"There were still some things we could’ve done better to block certain looks, whether that’s just getting beat (in) one-on-ones up front," Taylor said. "Some things happen in the running game that you can’t control. There were still some looks that we could’ve blocked, so I don’t think that they set the blueprint.
"We have a very strong running game and it’s been proven over the years, and even this year within the first game. So we just have to continue to keep doing what we do well, and we’ll do that."
What else can be done against a Broncos defense that seems to have achieved its primary goal of improving the NFL's 28th-ranked run defense last year? There could be some schematic adjustments, which might include incorporating some of the elements that were in their previous scheme, such as making opponents account more for designed runs by Taylor and return to having McCoy aligned next to him when the quarterback is in shotgun formation to create greater pre-snap mystery.
Without offering specifics, Taylor acknowledged that he and McCoy, along with the linemen and coaches, have met to "talk about what we feel comfortable with running."
Incognito pointed to something more basic.
"It's one of those things where you've just got to keep hitting them, keep hitting them, keep hitting them, and hopefully those two-, four-yard runs start turning into eight-, nine-, 10-yard runs," he said. "It's a whole thing. The pass game has to complement the run game, the run game has to complement the pass game.
"And we're really not firing on all cylinders yet."