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Injuries cause running backs to fall short of expectations

Depth at running back was thought to be one of the Buffalo Bills’ biggest strengths heading into the 2015 season.

Almost from the moment that training camp began, however, that depth never really materialized because of a baffling rash of injuries.

At one point this summer, the Bills were without their top five – count ’em, five – running backs. That left the likes of Bronson Hill, Ricky Seale and Cierre Wood to handle the load.

All of a sudden, that strength started to look like a glaring weakness.

Injuries aren’t the only reason for that, though. The team’s decision to part ways with a pair of veterans at the position also played a part.

First, it was team captain Fred Jackson who was surprisingly sent on his way during the first wave of roster cuts in the summer. Jackson had suffered a hamstring injury early in August, but returned in time to play well in the third preseason game. Nevertheless, and despite what Jackson has said he was led to believe by General Manager Doug Whaley, he was cut, in essence handing the No. 2 job behind starter LeSean McCoy to rookie fifth-round draft pick Karlos Williams.

Still, with Boobie Dixon as a third-string back and primary special-teams contributor and veteran Bryce Brown still hanging around, the Bills looked to be in good shape at the start of the 2015 season.

Except the injury bug never flew away, Brown was sent packing just a week into the regular season and players like Cierre Wood and Boom Herron have actually been called on to contribute.

With the team having reached its bye week, The Buffalo News is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the roster. Running backs and fullbacks are up:

McCoy: A hamstring injury suffered during a joint practice with the Cleveland Browns in training camp left his availability for the season opener in doubt. McCoy ended up playing against the Colts last month, but averaged just 2.4 yards per carry on 17 attempts and said after the game he wasn’t close to 100 percent. He appeared to be getting there with a strong game in Week Two against New England, when he had 116 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches, but he re-injured his hamstring leading up to the Week Three game against Miami.

“That Thursday I kind of hurt it again and that’s where it went wrong,” he said. “I tried to really push it. I guess I messed something up.”

McCoy tried to play through the injury against the Dolphins, but clearly wasn’t himself, managing just 16 yards on 11 carries.

The Bills announced the following week they were shutting him down until he was 100 percent.

That lasted for two games, with McCoy returning in Week Six against Cincinnati. He has looked better since returning to the lineup, showing the elusiveness and lightning-quick cuts that have made him one of the best running backs in the NFL over the past few seasons.

But McCoy’s overall numbers are still falling short of the player the Bills thought they were getting – and are paying $16 million to this season – when they traded linebacker Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia in the offseason. His current average of 3.9 yards per carry is the lowest of his career.

Analytics website Football Outsiders ranks running backs according to defense-adjusted yards above replacement, a statistic that gives a value to the performance of a player compared to a replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and translated into yardage. McCoy ranks 24th in that statistic, as well as in the website’s defense-adjusted value over average rankings, which represents the value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations.

Football Outsiders also keeps a statistic called effective yards, which translates DVOA into a yards-per-attempt figure. McCoy has 304 rushing yards on the season, but only 284 effective yards. That means he has played worse than traditional stats would indicate, according to the website. Football Outsiders has also calculated 45 percent of McCoy’s runs to be “successful,” which it defines based on down and distance, a figure that also ranks 24th in the league.

What does all of that mean? At least to this point, McCoy has not been the elite running back the Bills hoped he would be. Perhaps with the bye week to get healthy, he can more resemble that player in the second half of the schedule. Grade: C.

Williams: An early candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Williams was making even the hardiest of Jackson supporters understand his release by scoring a touchdown in the first four games of the season – the only player in the NFL to do so. Williams’ hard-charging style simply looked like a better fit in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s power rushing attack. Williams’ average of 5.4 yards per rush would rank sixth in the NFL if he had enough attempts to qualify among the league leaders.

His physical play came with a price, though, when he suffered a concussion in the Week Four loss to the New York Giants. The injury has kept him out of the lineup ever since. Coach Rex Ryan has provided very few updates about his condition, saying only that he remains in the league’s concussion protocol.

Williams has shown he can be the ideal yang to McCoy’s yin, but he had to get back on the field for that to happen. Grade: B-.

Dixon: A calf injury at the very start of training camp kept Dixon on the sidelines for almost the entire preseason. While he’s been able to take part in every game that counts, Dixon’s contributions have been minimal. His 15 carries have produced just 19 yards. Ryan called into question Dixon’s conditioning earlier in the season, saying it wasn’t where the team would like it to be after his injury in training camp. That would make more sense a week or two into the season – not a month. Dixon is tied for the team lead with five special-teams tackles and continues to be a key contributor in that phase, but has not shown an ability to be a feature back when injuries have given him that chance. Grade: C.

Herron: Signed in the wake of Williams’ concussion, he’s gained 37 yards on 11 carries in three games, an average of 3.4 yards per rush. He’s also caught three passes for 20 yards and returned three kicks for 70 yards, a team-leading average of 23.3 yards per return. While none of those numbers are eye-popping, they’re about what could be expected of a player signed off the street. Grade: C.

Wood: Signed during the rash of training-camp injuries, Wood didn’t make the final roster, but was signed to the team’s practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster Oct. 2, but appeared in just two games before tearing his ACL in a Week Five win against Tennessee. Grade: Incomplete.

Jerome Felton: One of the Bills’ bigger additions via free agency, Felton has played just a bit part in the team’s offense through seven games. He has appeared in just 24 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. That number is surprisingly low given that Roman used multiple backs 57.5 percent of the time last year with the San Francisco 49ers, second most in the league behind the St. Louis Rams, according to Football Outsiders. It’s important to remember, though, that McCoy isn’t used to running with a fullback, as the Eagles used multiple backs on less than 1 percent of plays a season ago. For whatever reason, the chemistry between McCoy and Felton just hasn’t been there. Felton is also playing just 16 percent of the team’s special-teams snaps. Grade: D.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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