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Z's remain dormant in Bills offense; Flanker receivers have just two TDs

The Z receiver position has been mostly a snooze for the Buffalo Bills' offense this season.

The position -- known as the flanker -- has been victimized by injuries and a revolving cast of players. The result is Buffalo has received far too few big plays from the wideout spot opposite Stevie Johnson on the offensive formation.

Buffalo's flanker position has produced 47 catches for 459 yards and two touchdowns.

The catch total isn't bad. But the Bills' yards-per-catch total -- 9.7 -- is the lowest in the league from the Z position.

Donald Jones started the first five games as the Z receiver. Then C.J. Spiller started two games, Jones came back for two and Spiller started one. Then Brad Smith started five games while rotating with newcomer Derek Hagan.

"It needs to be a vital part of our offense," coach Chan Gailey acknowledged after Thursday's practice. "We started with Donald and we ended up with Brad. It's been kind of a revolving door over there."

"It makes it tough on Fitz," Gailey said of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "It makes it tough on everybody."

Jones had 23 catches for 231 yards in seven starts before being lost to an ankle injury. He had five catches for 101 yards in the win over New England. The jury is out on whether he can develop into a big threat at Z.

The Bills moved Spiller there simply as a way to get him on the field.

But he's not a full-time wideout. Furthermore, you'd like the Z receiver to be a pretty good blocker, because offenses like to run to the right -- the flanker's side.

Smith has been very ordinary at receiver, with 23 catches for 240 yards. But he spent the first half of the season in quarterback meetings. Smith only averaged three touches a game, and the Bills only used him as a Wildcat quarterback for 17 plays.

Gailey acknowledges that the Bills need to find the right niche -- or niches -- for Smith.

"The great thing is he gives us a lot of versatility, that's the big thing," Gailey said. "That's why we wanted him here in the first place. He can play Wildcat, he can play quarterback, he can play receiver, he can play special teams. He can do a lot of things for you.

"We didn't get a chance to look at him early in the year as much as you'd like, not having an offseason and everything. So it's been a work in progress to figure out what all he can do. He's gotten better at everything he's worked at doing."

Smith says it takes time to get in complete synch with the quarterback in the Bills' offense.

"It could be the same exact look from the defense, but depending on a slight shade of the DB (inside or outside), your release is totally different," Smith said. "Or you have more time or less time on this play. You need to give him a head nod. You need to do this or that, and that's where he's going to put the ball. That stuff you just don't know about by studying the playbook. You can have the plays down. But it's about going out and doing it with the quarterback in the system.

"The more you work together, as a quarterback, you get a feel for when they're going to come out of their breaks and how they like to do things," Smith added.

The Bills, who rank 14th in yards gained, have made their offense work this year with their other weapons. Johnson, the split end or X receiver, is the top target, with 72 catches. David Nelson, the slot man or Y receiver, has 59 catches. Tight end Scott Chandler has 35.

"The thing that happens with us is we play so much three and four wide receiver sets that we spread the ball around a lot," Gailey said. "We've taken the pressure off that position to be the other main position [in the passing game]."

However, if the Bills could stretch the field and get some big plays from the Z, it would make the offense more explosive.

Top Z receivers in the league include Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, who has 59 catches for an 18.7-yard average and Atlanta's Julio Jones, with 50 catches for a 17.7-yard average. The Jets' Z receiver, Plaxico Burress, has only 41 catches, but he has eight touchdowns. New Orleans' Devery Henderson has only 30, but he's averaging 15.2 a catch.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com