The News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.
Through the new ownership, a new head coach and more reshuffling at quarterback, the Buffalo Bills quietly re-hauled a major sore spot on offense.
Last season, the team was soft in the middle and the run game suffered substantially. After averaging 144.2 rushing yards per game in 2014 (second in the NFL), the Bills mustered only 92.6 in 2015. New boss Rex Ryan will provide a culture shock — he was a run-first, ground-and-pound coach in New York.
But he’ll need the horses up front. In veteran Richie Incognito and rookie John Miller, the Bills will need much better guard play.
“He was still pretty good when he got into trouble down in Miami,” one NFL personnel executive said of Incognito. “Miller’s good. Those guys are better than what they had last year.”
Miller impressed the coaching staff before he was even drafted. On his pre-draft visit, the Louisville guard blew coaches away on the white board with his intellect and ability to absorb offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s complex blocking scheme quickly. Then, into spring practices, he applied it to the field.
The pads are not on, of course. Buffalo will get a much better gauge of Miller’s readiness when he’s bashing into Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in 1-on-1 drills at training camp.
Yet in an offense that will use a healthy blend of both zone- and man-blocking schemes, Miller is off to a promising start.
“I just came in with the right mind-set, came in like a sponge and tried to learn as much as I can from the veterans,” Miller said earlier this month. “I took advantage of the 1-on-1 time I got to spend with Coach (Aaron) Kromer in the rookie minicamp sessions. And then from there, I took it to OTA’s. Just studied the playbook and tried to adjust to coaching — take coaching and do the right things and try to go out there and get better each and every day.”
Since those comments, Kromer was arrested on a battery charge of punching a minor. The Bills may be on the verge of promoting Kurt Anderson before camp begins.
Whoever takes over, this is still Roman’s offense. Miller called it very “unique,” adding there “are so many different ways to do things.”
“With Greg Roman there’s so much multiplicity to it with the different things we do,” Miller said. “From the zone read to two backs, one back, power. There are so many different things that we do which is good for us up front.
“It’s a complete offense. There’s plenty of schemes in there.”
During Roman's run as offensive coordinator, the 49ers' run game ranked eighth (127.8 ypg), fourth (155.7), third (137.6) and fourth (136.0) with three postseason appearances and one NFC Championship. A big part of that, of course, was mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Bills don’t know who’ll start yet.
But the guards were asked to do a lot, as will this pair of projected starters. San Francisco's opponents often pointed to the confusion Roman creates up front. It can be difficult to tell who's coming from where.
This will be a murderer’s row of defensive tackles for Miller and Incognito: Ndamukong Suh (twice), Geno Atkins, Vince Wilfork, Dontari Poe, the New York Jets’ front four are all on the schedule.
Ryan won’t be able to "build a bully" if his guards are getting shoved backward the way last year’s group was. Four different players started at guard through last year.
Erik Pears, the right tackle turned right guard, was ranked Pro Football Focus’ third-worst guard. And fifth-rounder Cyril Richardson struggled in pass protection, eventually benched for Kraig Urbik.
The 6-foot-3, 319-pound Incognito is a former Pro Bowler, brings 102 games of starting experience and will have every reason to be motivated. He has done everything right so far with his second chance, attending all mandatory and voluntary workouts. Still, he hasn't played a game since Oct. 31, 2013.
This offensive line, Miller says, “can be as good as we want to be.”
“We have a veteran center in Eric Wood,” Miller said. “We have Cordy Glenn going on another season. We have a veteran in Richie Incognito. And you have the right side if I’m in there. It’s still a battle between Seantrel Henderson and Cyrus Kouandjio. I feel like we have a great group of guys up front.
“As an offense, we can be as good as we want to be with Shady McCoy, Percy Harvin, Sammy Watkins getting back healthy. EJ, Tyrod, Matt, they’re all good quarterbacks. We could have a very outstanding offense with our speed on the edge, our speed at receiver, our good backs. I think we could be great on offense.”
And backing up Ryan’s rhetoric starts first with the two new guards.