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Jerry Sullivan: More trouble ahead for Bills running game

As always, LeSean McCoy refused to make any excuses. He said it's not a matter of blocking schemes, or teams taking advantage of the Bills' marginal wide receivers. McCoy has seen eight-man fronts before. The running game wasn't good enough last week in Carolina, and they all need to be better.

"The problem with this league is a lot of players don't take accountability," McCoy said Wednesday at One Bills Drive. "I do. There were some plays I could have made. I'll get it right this week. One thing about watching tape is it's never as bad as you thought, but it's never as good as you thought either."

It's hard to imagine the running game looking any worse than it did in Sunday's 9-3 loss to the Panthers. They had 69 yards rushing, but Tyrod Taylor accounted for 55 of that total. The running backs had 14 yards on 15 carries.

McCoy ran 12 times for 9 yards. Mike Tolbert had 5 yards on 3 rushes. That's 15 carries for 14 yards by the tailbacks. It was the third-worst performance by Bills running backs in a game since the start of the playoff drought in 2000. The running backs had 7 yards in a 35-7 loss to the Patriots in 2005, and 13 yards in a loss at Oakland that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2014.

Granted, it's risky to draw conclusions off one bad game. You could dismiss it as a one-week anomaly. After all, the Bills led the NFL in rushing yards and average per rush in both 2015 and '16. They're eighth after two weeks (14th in yards per carry). But I see troubles ahead for the rushing game. I think the days of the Bills leading the league are over.

"That's our goal every year," said left guard Richie Incognito, who has been the Bills' best offensive lineman the last two years. "We set the bar that high, and that's what we're reaching towards. It's an elusive goal, because it's very tough, when teams know you're going to run the ball like that and they do a lot of things to scheme it up and take it away."

It's true. The Bills have established a standard that would be difficult to meet in any event. But several factors are conspiring against them approaching their running numbers of 2015-16, when they ran for 5,062 yards (158 per game) on 1,001 carries, a hefty 5.1 yards a rushing attempt.

They ran for 190 yards in the opener against a bad Jets team. But the Panthers dominated them at the line of scrimmage and held McCoy to his worst rushing performance since his rookie year with the Eagles in 2009, when he was still a backup.

The Panthers stuffed the wide stretch schemes of new coordinator Rick Dennison. The Bills are still adapting to the scheme. If their running game doesn't produce at its typically high level, critics will be drawing parallels to the defense's regression after Jim Schwartz left town.

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Another problem is the lack of a true backup tailback. When the Bills got rid of Jonathan Williams, they handed those duties to Mike Tolbert, who has been a fullback for most of his NFL career and averaged 3.4 yards a carry in his five years with the Panthers.

The Bills aren't likely to get nearly the production they did out of Karlos Williams in 2015 and Mike Gillislee in 2016. Both rushed for more than 500 yards as McCoy's backup and averaged more than 5.5 yards a carry.

But the biggest issue with the running game is the pedestrian wide receivers. As long as they can't stretch the field with their receivers, the Bills will face a siege of defenses that put eight men in the defensive box to stop McCoy and dare Tyrod Taylor to beat them down the field.

McCoy, who had incentives built into this contract this year, isn't buying. He said the Bills know the schemes. It's simply a matter of executing them. Shady said it didn't matter who the wide receivers were last season (and there's some truth to that). The run game hummed regardless.

"Last year, we were in the top two as far as seeing the most eight-man boxes," McCoy said. "So we're going to get a lot of attention on the running game. It didn't matter who was on the outside. We ran the ball well the last couple of years. I think we have enough guys on the outside to make plays. They can get it done. It's a matter of doing it."

There are other issues. Left tackle Cordy Glenn, the highest-paid offensive lineman in team history, has another foot injury. If Glenn is out or compromised, it's tougher for the Bills to run effectively to the left side, where they were dominant at times the last two seasons.

The right side is still a work in progress. We heard that phrase a couple of times this week. Dennison's schemes are still a work in progress. So is Taylor's ability to call audibles at the line, and his chemistry with receivers who are new to the Bills – Zay Jones and Jordan Matthews.

Sean McDermott conceded that his receivers need to be better at separating from defenders. McDermott was quick to include the running backs and tight ends, so it wouldn't appear that he was singling out the wide receivers. But there's no denying that the departure of the top three wideouts (Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin) created a huge hole.

McDermott said his receivers are fast enough. Taylor agreed. "We have players on this team, like Kaelin Clay or Brandon Tate, some of the quicker guys who can run the field as well as Zay (Jones) and Andre (Holmes). Those guys can stretch the field."

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Sorry, but Kaelin Clay and Brandon Tate won't strike fear in the hearts of the Broncos, who are third in the NFL against the run after two weeks. Last week, they shut down Ezekiel Elliott and outplayed a Dallas offensive line that's widely regarded as the best in the league.

The Bills' offensive line was similarly dominated last week in Carolina. The question is whether Sunday was simply an off week or the start of the trend. When you can't back off a defense with a vertical passing game, the running game will suffer, and the O linemen will look bad.

"As an offensive lineman, it's on us to block," Incognito said. "It's on us to block longer, however long it takes to give Tyrod time, to give plays time to develop in the pass game. It's on us to block as long as possible."

Incognito stopped, as if pausing to elaborate. But he had nothing more to say. It was like waiting around for the Bills receivers to get open.

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