Finding a cure for what ails the Buffalo Bills’ running game no doubt will consume a large chunk of what coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett think about during this week’s bye.
The search will take them in various directions, from offensive linemen who miss blocks to running backs who miss holes to a scheme that has changed to accommodate a quarterback switch.
These aren’t new issues. They’ve been part of what has been mostly season-long rushing woes that only got worse when the Bills lost their top two backs – Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller – in the first half of their Oct. 19 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Bills are built to have a physical, run-first offense, yet they rank 23rd in the NFL with an average of 98.9 rushing yards per game. That’s quite a fall for a team that was No. 2 in the league last season by averaging 144.2 yards per game on the ground.
A strong defense and solid quarterbacking by Kyle Orton have allowed the Bills to overcome their shortcomings running the ball well enough to keep them in the playoff hunt with a 5-3 record.
But the Bills fully realize that if they’re going to remain there, they need to be able to run effectively, especially as the weather becomes less conducive to having consistent success through the air.
“We play in Buffalo, so obviously at some point the weather’s going to come and we’re going to have to be able to grind out a win running the football, no doubt about that,” Orton said. “I think the one area that we’re not getting a huge amount of production is in our play-action pass game, so I think obviously the more we can run the ball and have efficient runs that’s going to get you in third and 2, which we’re pretty good at. That’s going to allow us to hit some big chunks in the play-action pass game.”
In last Sunday’s win against the New York Jets, the Bills received minimal production from their replacement backfield duo of Anthony Dixon, who gained 44 yards and averaged 2.0 yards per carry, and Bryce Brown, who produced a mere 15 yards and averaged 2.1 yards per rush.
The drop-off in talent from Jackson and Spiller was expected, but that didn’t explain all of last Sunday’s running problems. Some of the issues were the same as those that surfaced through most of the previous seven games.
“I think that’s something that we’re really taking a look at,” Hackett said of trying to fix the running game. “We want to put ourselves in a better position to be able to run the ball. I want to be able to run the ball and that’s something I push towards them because I think it creates a toughness with our guys.”
Marrone was happy with the protection the Bills’ offensive line provided to allow Orton to throw four touchdown passes against the Jets. “But I think that we still have to make an improvement” with the line “in the run game,” Marrone said. “Too many times it’s one person. Like I said, it was one person here or one person there, so that has to improve.”
He didn’t identify who those persons were, but a review of the all-22 coaches video of Bills games this season shows that it has often been a guard who has missed a block or been dominated by a defensive lineman.
After replacing injured Chris Williams at left guard, rookie Cyril Richardson struggled badly in both pass protection and run-blocking. Veteran Kraig Urbik took over for Richardson against the Jets, but the improvement was far from dramatic. Right guard Erik Pears has had more than his share of struggles as well.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the line – center Eric Wood and tackles Cordy Glenn and Seantrel Henderson – has been perfect. Far from it. They, too, have contributed to the issues the Bills have had running the ball, with Wood having an especially poor performance against the Jets.
But even when the line has done its job, there have been many instances when the backs have not hit the proper hole or have reached it too late. That became particularly noticeable with Dixon and Brown handling the rushing load against the Jets.
“It was just a learning experience, and I’m going to be better for it the next time,” Dixon said.
Although Jackson is sidelined with a groin injury, he remains “involved as much as possible” with the running game.
“I’m talking to the guys, letting them know what I see when I’m standing on the sidelines,” he said. “Nate’s asking me what I think our favorite runs are and things like that. I’m not on the field playing with those guys, but to still be here and give input to the guys that are on the field is the best thing that I can do.
“It’s not just one person. I think it’s all of us as a unit, whether it’s somebody missing a hole, a running back missing a read, an offensive lineman not quite coming off on a block like we need him to. All of those things are going to contribute, and the best thing we can do is get all that fixed, because we’re going to need that running game.”
Some of the execution problems are due to the Bills’ shift from the no-huddle attack they ran last season and the read-option offense they utilized through the first four games this year – when EJ Manuel was their starting quarterback – to the current, more conventional scheme that suits the less mobile and more pocket-oriented Orton.
The running game varies with each approach. And the quarterback change brought about by Manuel’s struggles as a passer resulted in the biggest adjustment of all.
“I think we’ve had to make some transitions with Kyle being in there as a quarterback,” Hackett said. “Kind of your whole philosophy and things kind of have to change a little bit. We just have to look at some of those things that” Orton “can bring to the table from that standpoint of checking in and out things or keeping some more two-back runs to two-tight-end runs. I think we’re kind of looking at what has been the most successful and those are the things that we’ve got to try to really focus on.”
It seems like a whole lot of work needs to be done without a whole lot of time to do it. Training camp is for July and August, not October and November. When the Bills return from their bye, their focus will be on preparing for their Nov. 9 game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Technical aspects of the running game will be addressed in meetings and practice, but not at the expense of working on specific plays for the Chiefs and all of the remaining opponents on the schedule.
So how will the Bills get better at running the ball?
“Confidence is the number one thing,” Marrone said. “How you create confidence is done through your preparation. Then, going out there and actually executing as a unit. You need everyone there, but it’s confidence, preparation, putting them in situations where they have to understand that this is where it should excel, with certain looks, fronts, coverages and things of that nature.
“And how do you respond to the pressure of it? We’ve talked about it for a couple of weeks now, so all of those things factor into it as we move forward.”