The Bills’ Offensive Disconnect

21 Oct

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The current Buffalo Bills roster is a mighty talented one. Stacking it up against the other 31 teams in the NFL leaves you feeling pretty good about the Bills’ shot to contend for a playoff berth. The loss of CJ Spiller for the season damages that analysis, but in general he (as well as many other parts of this talented offense) has not paid off in 2014. Aside from one big kickoff return for touchdown against Miami and a couple of big runs (the 53-yarder Sunday resulted in his broken clavicle), he has struggled to shine.

The question on most peoples’ minds is, “Why???”

Add to this some other ugly realities from the first 7 games of 2014:

  • Opening day starter EJ Manuel, lauded out of college for his mobility, rarely was given (or took) the opportunity to run the ball.
  • The rushing game in general has devolved from a middle-of-the-pack yards/rushing attempt team to one of the bottom teams. You especially see this when you take away Spiller’s 53-yard run from the statistical average, the Y/RA drops to 3.8, which would leave them 24th in the league.
  • The team that has wanted to show a commitment to the run ranks 7th in passing attempts, showing that they are often playing from behind.
  • Using the convoluted “Expected Points From All Offense” sabermetric provided at Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Bills are 30th in the NFL in points expected from situational play calling and performance. The only two teams worse are Jacksonville and last Sunday’s opponent, Minnesota.

So we can see that this offense is running ugly right now. It has it’s moments, for instance, the overtime drive against the Bears and the final drive against the Vikes. Why?

My theory has to do with a fundamental disconnect between the construction of this roster, and its Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

Hackett and Marrone, at Syracuse

Hackett and Marrone, at Syracuse

The season began with Manuel as the quarterback, a green QB who clearly struggled when asked to take the game on his shoulders. They did bring in Sammy Watkins through the draft to help Manuel. But when you couple Manuel’s immaturity as a professional QB and a couple of proven running backs in Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, it’s easy to see why Hackett (and ostensibly Doug Marrone) developed his playbook around the running game to set up the pass.

Now, we could pick on the offensive line at this point, but that’s not fair in my book.

Instead, let’s go back to the 2012 season under Chan Gailey. We see an offense that shows more spread looks, but also an offense that ended up 4th in the league in Y/RA, and with an “Expected Point” total much closer to middle of the pack. We also see 4 of the 5 starters on that offensive line STILL on this roster (Glenn-LeVitre-WoodUrbikHairston).

So what’s changed? The philosophy. The spread worked with these guys because it forced teams to respect the width of the wide receivers. Outside linebackers were sacrificed for nickel and dime backs, players who could be driven off the ball by these linemen.

Instead, you now have a set of formations which do not challenge defenses to cover large parts of the field. A 3 tight end set invites a base 4-3 or 3-4 set and the strong safety into the box.

There are teams that are successful with this kind of offensive philosophy, but they are built around their offensive line’s power. That seems to be the reason why Urbik & Hairston have been benched in favor of others.

Of course, this being the 2nd year of the Marrone Era, these issues should have been worked out by now. Two offseasons should have given the Scouting Department ample time to locate players who could supersede those who fell short. Thus far, those pickups have underwhelmed.

There is little recourse at this point, as a playbook is learned from before Training Camp. Perhaps Hackett has more exotic formations and play designs crammed into his playbook, and has been saving them for a situation where Plan A has failed. That time is now, especially given the loss of Spiller and the 4-week absence of Fred Jackson.

Even with those two being completely healthy, something must change. Either the offensive line must improve through personnel switch, better coaching, enhanced formational diversity, or a change in tactical usage.

To me, the last is probably the best case scenario. Tactical usage would involve giving Kyle Orton more opportunities to throw on 1st down out of heavy sets. The play design would be to exploit a defense’s tendency to crowd the area between the tackles. This would give Sammy Watkins a chance to prove his worth to the team, by singling him up on a corner. This can be done vertically (for instance, deeper routes against 1 Deep coverage) or horizontally (bubble screen designs that pull a tight end and/or offensive lineman to the flat area to help spring Watkins).

This again speaks to something the Pegulas should ultimately worry about most, which is a fundamental lack of long-term vision within the organization. For too long the Bills have reacted to fan sentiment or knee-jerk flavor-of-the-day reaction, instead of developing an ethic and identity which defines the team. There are many teams in this league who have succeeded on that kind of structure – New England, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Green Bay, to name a few.

It is disconcerting to see a good offensive line be decimated by a new coaching regime – not forgetting that this Head Coach should be an expert in offensive line play. There are 9 games left for Hackett (and perhaps Marrone) to figure it out. I’m less worried about the Head Coach as I am the man responsible for the design of this offense. If there is a weak link, it is Nathaniel Hackett.

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