Last off-season, this Buffalo Bills offense was reconstructed with pick-up basketball randomness.
A LeSean McCoy trade from the yacht. The team made Charles Clay the third-richest tight end in the league. A three-way quarterback competition. Richie Incognito! Percy Harvin? Aaron Kromer allegedly punched a minor over a beach chair and was suspended, not fired.
Beloved Fred Jackson was shown the door. The Bills, quite literally, started from scratch.
And while they would’ve loved for this new unit to resemble a Dream Team, to click from Day 1, it didn't. Far from it. As written here, the ground and pound resembled mush and slush.
Now, into December, Buffalo's offensive identity is as clear as J.J. Watt is dumbfounded. This human wrecking ball of a defensive end held court in the visitor’s locker room after Buffalo's 30-21 win without answers.
“I think they did a good job executing what they were trying to do,” Watt said. “They had a few different things they were putting out there and trying a few different things."
The double teams were nothing new. Watt faces those every week. No, the Bills’ run scheme was what threw Houston for a loop. McCoy's lateral quickness was a different challenge.
In blasting the Texans for 187 total rushing yards on 36 attempts — running the ball 62 percent of the time — offensive coordinator Greg Roman used a dose of everything. He called, easily, his best game of the season and the Bills are now 6-0 when Tyrod Taylor throws the ball less than 30 times.
The Bills will run. Run often. And run in just about every type of way.
“It was great,” coach Rex Ryan said on Monday. “We opened up our playbook quite a bit.”
For starters, the Bills dusted off the Wildcat. Taking a direct snap from center gives McCoy a broader windshield to pick ‘n choose his hole. On a third and 1 during the Bills’ second touchdown drive — and, remember, Buffalo's been dreadful on third down — McCoy took the snap, faked the reverse to Marcus Thigpen and gained five yards behind Clay and fullback Jerome Felton.
Thigpen was engulfed by Watt, taking one for the team. McCoy hit the hole. And there's Incognito policing the scene with a shove of Jadeveon Clowney after the play.
“So we have our traditional runs as well but we’re also able to — because of the guy we have at quarterback — you can do different things,” Ryan said. “And I think we really utilized that. We ran a quarterback trap play to success to get a third down run. Ran a sweep on a third down. So we did a lot of things that way. And we’re tough to defend.
“If you want to play all pass defense, pass coverage, we can run the ball on you.”
The Bills ran McCoy to the middle or left side of the line 80 percent of the time. Incognito and tackle Cordy Glenn mauled their defenders most of the game. Ryan believes Incognito is playing "better than any guard" in the NFL.
So missing both starters on the right side was never a factor. Roman played to his strength — Incognito and Glenn and constant blocking creativity — without being too predictable. Buffalo’s formations in the backfield constantly give Tyrod Taylor and McCoy room to use their athleticism. The Bills are sticking with the shotgun, with the pistol, with anything that lets these two break down a tackler one on one.
Replay Taylor’s eight-yard touchdown. Roman overloaded the right side of the line with three linemen — flipping the left tackle Glenn to the eight.
Clay, the de facto left tackle, got to Brian Cushing at the second level. Felton chipped a pair of defenders. And the Bills will take Taylor one on one with a linebacker all day.
And into the fourth quarter, Roman needed a spark. Thigpen's electric 42-yard punt return in a tied game was called back because of a penalty, draining the life out of Ralph Wilson Stadium. So he set up a McCoy cutback. The back started right, cut back left into open field and used a vicious stalk block by Sammy Watkins to gain 20 yards. Buffalo’s No. 1 receiver cruelly bench-pressed Johnathan Joseph to the turf.
That’s the most promising sign for Buffalo: Everybody’s been chipping in. The team's finally taking on the "ground and pound" mentality Ryan wants.
And it sure doesn’t hurt that LeSean McCoy is in a zone. He’s now set to face his former team at the top of his game.
One major reason? He’s lighter. Running backs coach Anthony Lynn sat down McCoy before the season began to stress how much it'd help to play at a lighter weight. Lynn pointed out that such a decision helped prolong the careers of Curtis Martin, Jamal Lewis and Fred Taylor.
So now they're seeing the results. Dieting and extra conditioning, Lynn said, has helped McCoy “maintain his quickness” into Year 7. At an age backs might start plateauing, dipping, McCoy is still dangerous.
Lynn said McCoy has lost “at least” 10 pounds. At one point, he was even down to 202 pounds. He’s around 206 now.
“It enhances your quickness and skill-set,” Lynn said. “You can’t cheat Father Time. At that age, it naturally slows down and with that wear and tear on his body. So you have to do something to combat that.”
To illustrate his point, Lynn had McCoy strap on a 10-pound vest on in the weight room and made him walk around in it for 10-15 minutes. Once McCoy removed the vest he could feel the benefits of playing lighter.
This approach helped Martin lead the NFL in rushing at age 31 in 2004. And it's helping McCoy now.
Said Lynn, “He was quick as ever. If you do that and maintain your dieting and strength patterns in the weight room, you have a chance.”
In addition to this, Lynn wants McCoy “attacking” more. While Lynn knows McCoy has been a “jitterbug” his entire career — creating holes only he sees — he also wants the back getting vertical a tad quicker.
“Go get all the yards in front of you,” Lynn said. “Don’t always look to bounce for the big one. Go attack safeties and get used to running through some things. You become more of a slasher. The older you get as a back, you have to get more north and south and then create when you have to.
“Not create from the beginning but only when you have to. We’re tweaking that a little bit with him.”
So the Bills have been winning this blockbuster trade. McCoy has 792 yards on 173 carries with three touchdowns, leaving a nagging hamstring injury in his rearview mirror.
As a team, Buffalo’s 15 runs of 20-plus yards rank No. 1 in the NFL. The 13 touchdowns and 363 total attempts are both third. The 4.7 yards per carry? Fourth. Since the bye week — a soul-searching juncture — the Bills have averaged 192 rushing yards per game.
McCoy might downplay this return to Philadelphia when he speaks this week. Lynn absolutely knows it’ll mean something extra to him.
The Eagles didn’t want him. Chip Kelly didn't want him. Lynn said McCoy was “caught off guard” by the trade and when the two met initially he could sense the chip on McCoy’s shoulder.
“Ain’t no question,” Lynn said. “Since Pop Warner, he’s never been cut. He’s been a star all his life. You’re traded and you don’t know anything about it. Once he got here in Buffalo, in this organization, this community, he doesn’t bring Philly up at all. He’s all in.
"But I think when you go back to Philly, some of that may come out.”