After four games, the Buffalo Bills have the 16th-ranked rushing attack in the NFL.
That wasn't the expectation for a team that has one of the best running backs in the game and led the league in rushing the past two seasons.
It also doesn't figure to be something that can continue if the Bills have any hope of their 3-1 start leading to the end of their 17-year playoff drought.
"Yeah, it needs to get better, just like a lot of areas on our team," coach Sean McDermott said Friday, acknowledging there's a shortcoming but not wanting to single it out.
The Bills have another chance Sunday, when they face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, to prove their dominance on the ground in the season-opening victory against the New York Jets wasn't an aberration.
After LeSean McCoy went virtually nowhere as a runner in back-to-back games against the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, he looked on the verge of returning to the form that resulted in a 110-yard day against the Jets in last Sunday's victory at Atlanta.
"We were really close last week, and we weren't as close against Carolina and Denver," center Eric Wood said. "Last week, we had a couple of penalties that called back big runs, one of which was my hold. And then there were four or five other plays that we might have got eight or so on that were like inches away from either the safety barely trips up Shady, we barely miss a backside block. It allowed it to be a nice gain, but the home runs that caused us to be No. 1 in the league the last couple of years, we're getting closer to those."
"Well, we’re getting there," McCoy said. "We've played a lot better, I think, running the ball, but still not to the way we run the ball (over) the last two years. We’ll stay at it, I’ll getting going even more and we’ll see. We’ll see this weekend."
Even on 29-year-old legs, McCoy looks every bit as quick, explosive and elusive as ever. At times, he has missed some cutback lanes and holes, as has No. 2 back Mike Tolbert, but they generally have held up their end. On the other hand, the offensive line, which did a solid job of opening holes the past two years and in the Sept. 10 season-opener, hasn't been as consistently effective.
So what's the problem?
It isn't one thing. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has missed the past two games because of his chronic ankle and foot issues. Dion Dawkins did a decent job in his place, but he's a rookie and his lack of experience has worked against him at times. Glenn is listed as questionable for Sunday, and is expected to return to his starting spot against the Bengals.
Another challenge for the linemen has been learning the wide-zone blocking scheme that offensive coordinator Rick Dennison implemented. Asking the blockers to move laterally and force the defensive front to move in kind and create cutback lanes for the backs on stretch plays is far different than what was done the past two years. It's fair to say that even veterans such as Wood and Richie Incognito are still adjusting to it, along with the rest of the line.
Still, Wood believes that what has been preventing the Bills from having the running success they once enjoyed is hardly insurmountable.
"It's just been little things that have held us back," the center said. "Little techniques. Not major missed assignments, just little technique understandings that have kind of held us back a little bit. Like, 'Hey, we want to cut-block in this situation ... We want to stay up in this situation because now that guy's in the way.' It's, 'Hey, we want you to actually out-leverage him here as opposed to maybe just drive him flat down the line, which we want on other plays.' Just those little nuances that come with playing different defenses, different guys, different schemes that we're learning, but I was encouraged by how close we were last week to a really big breakout game in the run game."
"Give Shady maybe two seconds, at most, and he's going to get free," right tackle Jordan Mills said. "One guy can't tackle him. He's like a mini Barry Sanders. That's the only person you can compare him to, because no matter what, you've got to have multiple guys to tackle him. He's just one run play away from just breaking it. It's a long season. We're at Game Five. We've got a long way to go and a lot more season to play."
Besides making the necessary corrections up front, there is another factor that could enhance the Bills' efforts to move the ball on the ground Sunday: The Bengals' run defense ranks 17th in the NFL.
That would seem to give the Bills a decent opportunity to get their ground game in gear before their bye. Whether they're ready to take advantage of it remains to be seen.
"Well, I do believe in a learning curve, I think that’s true of anything," McDermott said of the linemen and backs grasping the wide-zone blocking approach. "No different defense, or special teams, as it is with the offense, and sometimes things take time. Like everything, sometimes when you work hard, you (still) don’t get the result right away you might be looking for. That said, I think we’ve had some moments with the running game that we have been looking for.
"We just have to continue to stay after it and adjust to our surroundings, adjust to some new techniques. I’m confident. I know that the results maybe haven’t been as consistent as we would have liked, but I’m confident in the group, I’m confident in (offensive line) Coach (Juan) Castillo and Rick Dennison. I know that our leaders among that offensive line take great ownership and pride in that."