When informed that the Buffalo Bills had officially named Tyrod Taylor their starting quarterback, Karlos Dansby broke into laughter on the other end of the phone.
Dansby, a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, wasn’t showing Taylor any disrespect. Quite the opposite. The news took him back to 2013, when he was with the Arizona Cardinals and Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman was in his third season in the same capacity with NFC West rival San Francisco. Dansby remembers all too well the headaches Roman’s offense caused him and the rest of the Cardinals’ defense with Colin Kaepernick’s tremendous mobility at quarterback, Frank Gore’s explosiveness at running back, and Vernon Davis’ dynamic skills at tight end.
“What he’s done is come to Buffalo and really re-create the same situation,” Dansby said. “You have Tyrod Taylor, you have Shady McCoy, and then you’ve got Charles Clay at the tight end position that can get down the field. It’s going to be successful. He’s going to turn a lot of heads and put some points on the board.”
For now, the Bills’ identity is rooted in defense. That’s where they have the majority of their elite talent. That’s also the calling card of their coach and most identifiable face, Rex Ryan.
If all goes as planned, the defense will dominate and the offense will complement. The Bills would have no problem if the offense dominates as well, of course. McCoy is one of the NFL’s best at his position, Sammy Watkins is a rising star, and who knows? Taylor could emerge from nowhere to become a franchise-changing force.
But the great unknown with a first-time starting quarterback makes it more realistic to expect the Bills’ best offensive accomplishments will come from an effective running game on the assumption that McCoy, who missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury, is fully healthy and Bryce Brown proves that he’s worth the roster spot he took from fan mega-favorite Fred Jackson.
And that’s where Roman’s scheming comes in.
During his four seasons at the helm of the 49ers’ offense, Roman established a reputation for creativity in the design of the running game. Through a wide variety of formations, shifts, motions, how linemen make their blocks and how backs make their reads, he does a good job of keeping the defense guessing.
“I would equate his running game to what we do defensively, moving guys around and trying to find mismatches or being creative on how to get yards,” Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said.
Like Dansby, Williams got to experience a Niner nightmare of his own, courtesy of Roman’s offense, when the Bills traveled to San Francisco in 2012. The 49ers won, 45-3, as Gore ran for 103 yards and a touchdown, Kendall Hunter added 81 rushing yards, then-starting quarterback Alex Smith threw for three scores, and Kaepernick chipped in with another rushing TD.
Now, Williams is thrilled that the scheme he has to face only in practice is working on the Bills’ behalf.
“He’ll have staples of what they’re going to run in a game – power, zone – and you’re going to block those the same way no matter what,” Williams said. “But his game plan runs are what are really hard to contend with and prepare for. He’ll game plan against good players or what you do well. And they’ll run and they’ll block things differently than a lot of other teams will, depending on the game plan, depending on what kind of fronts they play, who’s their best player up front or linebacker. So there’s a lot of different things that he does to put them in position to be successful.
“It’s very unique. He can run the same play and block it a few different ways, depending on what the defense does.”
Banking on confusion
James Laurinaitis, a linebacker for the St. Louis Rams since 2009, has seen plenty of Roman’s X-and-O handiwork with the 49ers in twice-per-year encounters with San Francisco the past four seasons.
He still shakes his head at the thought of seeing a fullback lined up at wide receiver, before motioning into the backfield … and a tight end lined up at fullback … and a fullback lined up at tight end. They’re classic Roman formation twists devised from his thorough film study of decades-old strategy of late 49ers coaching legend Bill Walsh, after Roman arrived in San Francisco from Stanford University.
“They like to blend a lot of their stuff,” Laurinaitis said. “In San Francisco, they would do a lot of 22 personnel,” two backs and two tight ends, “then they’d go 13 personnel,” one back and three tight ends, “and then 12,” one back and two tight ends, “using multiple tight ends, multiple backs. They’re formations that really aren’t used a whole bunch anymore” in the NFL, “minus the short-yardage stuff. It just really forced the communication to be great amongst the defensive players because when guys move or special formations do come up, you have to communicate well.
“And” Roman “was kind of banking on, ‘If we can get a couple of plays here and there where the defense miscommunicates, and somebody’s either uncovered or aligned wrong, we have the upper hand on that play.’ ”
Roman thrives on putting mental, as well as physical, stress on opponents. Before each snap, he wants linebackers and safeties struggling to determine who it is they’re supposed to cover in the passing game because backs and tight ends aren’t in their conventional spots.
“Then, they give you a lot of misdirection, whether it be a trap or wham – stuff that is pretty unique. And you’ll get a bunch of counters,” Laurinaitis said. “You have to really lock it in and have great vision playing them because if you don’t, and you get behind any of the pullers and misdirection stuff, it’s going to be a long day.”
“And with his ability to put the ball in his playmakers’ hands, his ability to do that on every snap, he could pick his spots on how he wanted to attack you as a defense,” Dansby said. “He could see where you were weak and he was definitely going to try to exploit it.”
Last season, on the way to ranking 25th in the league in rushing, the majority of what the Bills did (or tried to do) on the ground under coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was based on an inside run game.
“At this point, it appears to me, we’re basing it off of a lot of different schemes,” center Eric Wood said. “And from week to week, within a game, we’ll be attacking from many different angles.”
That means more thinking for the Bills’ offensive linemen, who are working with a significantly thicker playbook than last year or in many seasons, for that matter. A single play in Roman’s offense can be run four or five different ways depending on what the defense is showing and blocking assignments, such as who will be pulling and in what direction.
Wood, in particular, has a greater challenge to keep everything in order with line calls and adjustments.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “But I feel like, if it does put any more pressure on me, it puts that much more pressure on the defense. And that’s all positive for me. I’m excited about all the diversity within our offense and coming out and attacking the defense from all angles.”
“I think the biggest challenge is just sticking in the huddle and listening to the whole play call,” guard Richie Incognito said. “Usually, we’re listening for maybe two or three words, but in this system, you really have to key in because there might be two or three plays called in the huddle with a check.” Normally, “you may have an audible at the line of scrimmage, but nothing as extensive as we have here.”
Incognito has no problem with the additional mental burden Roman’s scheme presents, because he’s expecting the results to be favorable. Although he has been out of football for more than a year as part of the fallout from his involvement in a bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins in 2013, Incognito has been in the league long enough to know the frustration that comes with poor offensive schemes.
As a ninth-year veteran, he has been part of his share.
“I’ve been in a lot of systems where you’re just out there running plays,” Incognito said. “You’re just running plays into a safety” near the line of scrimmage “look, you’re running plays into blitzes, you’re running plays into a lot of things you really shouldn’t be running plays into. And it’s frustrating. You’re just out there running plays and they’re tackle for loss, tackle for loss, tackle for loss.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re looking to put the offense in favorable situations. We’re looking for certain things that defenses do and we’re trying to exploit weaknesses. We have a lot of different things to kind of dictate what they do and Greg uses all of them. He uses every trick in the book.”
A Kaepernick clone?
The comparisons are natural. Roman had one of the NFL’s most dangerous running quarterbacks with Kaepernick in San Francisco. Now he has Taylor, whom Ryan has dubbed the fastest quarterback in the league.
During the 49ers’ 2012 Super Bowl run and NFC Championship Game appearance the following season, Kaepernick’s running took the league by storm and brought a dimension to Roman’s offense that most opposing defenses couldn’t handle. Roman would consistently find ways to get his fleet-footed quarterback matched up with a defensive end on the outside.
“And if he got around the corner,” Dansby said, “it could be lights out.”
In 2012, when he replaced Smith at quarterback, Kaepernick ran for 415 yards and five touchdowns while starting in seven of the 13 regular-season games in which he appeared. In the 49ers’ 45-31 divisional-round playoff victory against Green Bay, he ran for 181 yards, including touchdown runs of 56 and 20 yards. The following year, while starting in all 16 games, Kaepernick ran for 524 yards and four TDs, and he had a career-high 639 rushing yards and one score last season.
“When they first got Kap, they were running him the whole time,” Laurinaitis said. “It puts a lot of stress on the defense when you do that. I would assume the Bills will do the same thing with Tyrod Taylor, because you have to account for the wheels. When you do that, the main thing is a lot of those counters and pulls and stuff are going to be carried out with a zone-read look from the quarterback. You’ll have guys following those pullers, but you’ve also got to make sure you have a guy that’s athletic enough to play backside if the quarterback does pull the ball and run. So it really leaves you shorthanded defensively.
“I think, with a guy like Tyrod Taylor, he can do a lot of those same things where you put him one-on-one with a lot of defensive ends or guys in a lot of space, like Russell Wilson gets out in space. No matter how athletic those D-ends are, it’s a really tough tackle.
“Roman definitely knows how to utilize that.”