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Jerry Sullivan: Bills run game facing identity crisis

Jerry Sullivan

They insist that nothing essential has changed. The offense is not a victim of identity theft. Running the football remains their weapon of choice, their preferred method of imposing their will on defenses.

"The running game is most definitely our identity," left guard Richie Incognito said on Friday. "Running game, play-action pass, quarterback-driven runs. That's what we do."

The commitment is still there. The Bills are fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts per game. They were second in 2015 and '16. But the production has been maddeningly inconsistent, with the Bills breaking far fewer long runs and often getting stuffed for minimal yardage on early downs.

The running game was a ghost in the loss at the Jets two Thursdays ago. They gained 63 yards on 22 carries. LeSean McCoy had 15 tries for 25 yards. The offensive line got embarrassed, renewing concerns about their ability to sustain a run game against the league's better defenses.

Last season, the Bills led the NFL with 5.3 yards per rush. They had 27 runs of 20 yards or more. Halfway through this season, they have only six such "big runs." After the Jets debacle, they're down to 3.7 yards a carry, which ranks 24th in the league.

So while they're resolute about the mission, the results are alarming. In the three losses (at Carolina, at Bengals, at Jets), McCoy has 33 runs for just 97 yards, without a rush longer than 14. If they don't have a good day against the Saints at New Era on Sunday, it'll be a bad sign.

"Oh, you're looking for signs already?" Incognito said. "It's Week 8, man."

Actually, it's Week 9, I reminded him. If you have another bad game, people will start to wonder if you deserve your reputation as a great running team.

"Is there a question in there?" Incognito said.

"Are you concerned?"

"I'm not concerned," he said.

Well, here's a cause for concern, if you're into the minutiae. The Bills are currently averaging 1.6 yards per rush less than a year ago. At that pace, they would become only the fourth team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to suffer a one-year decline of 1.5 yards a carry in their running game over a full season.

The other three were the 1991 Eagles, who dipped to 3.1 yards a rush from 4.7 the year before; the 2006 Falcons, who slipped to 3.9 from 5.5 in '05; and the 2016 Vikings, who fell to 3.2 per carry from 4.7 in 2015.

There were extraordinary circumstances in each of those cases:

Randall Cunningham had 942 rushing yards in 1990, the third-most ever by a quarterback; he tore his ACL in the first game of the next season. Michael Vick had a QB-record 1,039 yards rushing in 2006, but was suspended for dogfighting in '07. Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing in 2015, but was suspended for domestic abuse the next season.

So we're looking at a fairly unprecedented drop. There are a confluence of factors: The lack of a downfield passing game has allowed teams to stack the box; the switch to more of a wide zone blocking scheme under new coordinator Rick Dennison; the loss of Mike Gillislee to free agency; injuries on the offensive line.

LeSean McCoy has 149 carries for 546 yards, a 3.7 average. Last season, when he averaged 5.4 a carry, he had 804 yards after 149 runs. Tyrod Taylor's average per rush is also similarly down from last season, from 6.1 to 4.2.

The Bills ran effectively in recent home wins over the Bucs and Raiders. But the Jets game was a major step back. The offensive line has not played well overall this season, especially in pass protection. That's why it's so vital that the Bills maintain their running identity.

Cordy Glenn, the highest-paid O-lineman in team history, has been hampered by injury all season. Jordan Mills has struggled at right tackle. Incognito, who is second among NFL linemen in holding penalties, appears to be hitting a wall at 34. Wood has been average.

"We all need to play better," said coach Sean McDermott. "I need to coach better. That's part of growing as a team, building into what we're trying to become as a football team. We're not where we need to be. We've had our moments, just like the offensive line has had moments."

The Bills are in good shape for a playoff run, but they need to get better play from their O-line and re-establish themselves as a formidable running team. They're not going to win many shootouts, even after the trade for wideout Kelvin Benjamin.  There have been too many extremes through the first eight games.

"Yeah, for sure," Wood said. "We're still growing as an offense. We took a couple of steps forward against Oakland and Tampa Bay, a step backward against the Jets. But we're looking to continue to prove it throughout the season.

"Our goal all along has been to be balanced," Wood said. "We've won games without running the ball well this year. Tyrod's in his third year. He's made some strides in the passing game. The play-action game in this offense has suited him especially well."

Incognito said Dennison has been featuring more of the running plays that worked so well the past two years, and with which the line is more comfortable. In particular, they're using more play-action runs and plays in which Taylor uses his legs to attack the defense.

The Saints have a good pass defense. Like the Bills, their best qualities are taking the ball away and preventing points. But their run defense is allowing 4.7 a crack, which is 29th in the league.

"We took a lot of pride in being the No. 1 rushing team," Wood said, "but it didn't take us any further at the end of the day. So whatever needs to happen to get that done, I'll all for. I just want to make the playoffs in any way possible."

They should be able to run on the Saints. In the past, when the Bills sensed weakness in an opponent, they dug in and asserted their run-first identity. If they're a true contender, they'll show it today. Yes, Richie, we're looking for signs.

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