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A close examination of the Bills' run game after Week Five

After leading the league in many rushing categories in 2015 and 2016, the Bills are currently averaging 3.4 yards per carry, the fourth-lowest figure in the NFL.

So what's going on? Is it the move to the zone-blocking scheme? The offensive line? LeSean McCoy and Mike Tolbert?

To answer these questions, I rewatched and tracked every rush by a running back through five games, and I have come to some conclusions regarding Buffalo's issues on the ground.

First things first, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison deserves credit for putting his ego aside and not strictly utilizing his patented zone-blocking run plays. He's featured many of the same plays that were extremely effective for the Bills over the past two seasons, which are categorically different from the run-game philosophy he was brought up in as a coach in the NFL under Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak.

Through five games, here's how I tracked the type of blocking the Bills have used on their rushing attempts by McCoy, Tolbert, or Patrick DiMarco.

(There's some subjective interpretation here. I'm certainly not 100 percent positive each play featured the type of blocking I labeled.)

Man / Power Blocking

  • 53 carries, 181 yards (3.41 YPC)

Zone Blocking

  • 69 carries, 227 yards (3.27 YPC)

Clearly, there hasn't been much difference in the effectiveness of each blocking style. What is interesting though ... against the Bengals, here's Buffalo's run-game breakdown:

Man / Power Blocking

  • 16 carries, 70 yards (4.37 YPC)

Zone Blocking

  • 6 carries, 10 yards (1.66 YPC)

To have more man-blocking plays than zone-blocking plays for a Dennison-coordinated offense is really something.

Now, let's run through both the bad and the good of the Bills' run game heading into the bye week.

The Bad

On this zone play against the Bengals, keep on eye on No. 62 Vlad Ducasse, the veteran guard Buffalo signed in the offseason who replaced benched starter John Miller in Week Five.

He's blocking former All-Pro Geno Atkins on the frontside of this stretch run.

Ducasse wasn't able to maintain his grip on the defensive tackle to drive him diagonally toward the sideline.

Instead, Atkins essentially set the edge and forced McCoy to cutback early. Also, Richie Incognito was late on his backside block, meaning the cutback lane was clogged.

A split-second after this, Atkins continued his penetration, engulfed McCoy, and brought him to the turf.

The frontside guard is vital to the success of stretch plays. He doesn't necessarily need to dominate the defensive lineman he's blocking, but he cannot allow quick penetration. Ducasse did on this play.

Another issue Buffalo's had pertains to center Eric Wood.

In a zone-blocking scheme, the center is often tasked with difficult "reach" blocks in which the offensive lineman has to "reach" down to a defensive lineman and turn him away from the flow of the play.

Against the Falcons, notice how Dontari Poe is aligned on Wood's left shoulder on this run play designed to go to the left side of the field.

Wood has to get all the way to Poe's outside shoulder and stop the mammoth defender from flowing into the middle of this run.

Here's what happened at the outset of this Tolbert rush.

Wood almost got to the outside shoulder of Poe but without the leverage he needed, the Bills center wasn't able to stop him from flowing to the frontside of this run play.

Also notice how far Poe was into the backfield when this screenshot was taken. It disabled Tolbert from cutting back, which is a staple of the zone-blocking scheme.

On this play, Poe continued to move laterally and stopped the run near the line of scrimmage.

While watching the Bills zone-blocking plays through five games, I noticed many plays in which Wood wasn't able to execute a proper reach block which damaged the play from the beginning.

The Good

Not all Buffalo's run plays have gone awry. Check this run against Carolina. It's a play I believe the Bills need to utilize more frequently for the remainder of the season.

To help Wood with the difficult reach block, Miller doubled the defensive tackle for a split second to slow him, stop his momentum, and give Buffalo's center an extra moment to get to the outside shoulder of the man he was assigned to block.

Miller then quickly moved to the second level.

His target was former All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis, who he found and blocked with a great deal of force.

Look at those textbook frontside blocks. Note the positioning of Wood. He got leverage on the defensive lineman because he was on his outside shoulder. Miller pushed Davis back, clearing a big lane for McCoy.

Unsurprisingly, this was a positive play for Buffalo's offense.

Most of the plays in which Wood was helped by a quick chip from his left or right guard netted respectable gains.

Other takeaways

In general, the outside zone runs weren't very effective, as the opposition's outside linebackers were simply running well to the outside to set the edge and leaky interior reach/down blocks prevented either McCoy or Tolbert from cutting back.

Inside zone plays were much more successful and seemed to have about an even split of plays in which the Bills runner stayed playside and hit the cutback lane.

Mixing in man/power plays is smart because it keeps the defense on its heels and stops linebackers from simply flying downhill. If they are expecting a stretch play and try to flow diagonally at the snap, the man-to-man blocks and pulling offensive linemen – usually a guard, mainly Incognito – lead to huge plays. Those linebackers can even run themselves right out of the play.

Through five games, I tracked gains of 10, 11, 14, and 23 yards on man/power plays for the Bills' offense.

Against the Jets predominantly three-man front -– that's also not as talented as the Broncos, Bengals, Falcons, or Panthers defensive line – zone-blocking was most effective, mostly due to the numbers game. Buffalo's offensive linemen didn't need to block as many defensive linemen, so they were more free to get to the second level to find and block linebackers.

In that game, the Bills had gains of 10, 14, 16, 20, and 27 yards on zone-blocking plays but haven't had a 10-plus yard gain while utilizing that blocking style since.

Oh, also... McCoy doesn't seem to be slower or less agile than he was in his first two years with the Bills.

I'm looking forward to seeing the adjustments Buffalo makes with its run game coming out of the bye week. I'd suggest fewer outside zone runs, giving help to Wood inside, and the continued usage of the power run game, because it exploits many of today's defenses that boast faster but smaller defenders.

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