Predictable play calling leads to slow starts for Buffalo


Edwards taking hits early, offense snuffed out (Associated Press)

One of the Buffalo Bills' most common problems they have endured - and in most cases, overcome - during the 2008 season is the team's inability to start a game quickly.  The slow starts have forced the Bills into three fourth-quarter comeback victories this season; in fact, the Bills have faced a fourth quarter deficit in all but two of their games this season - home wins against Seattle and San Diego.

What's the cause for the slow starts?  There's more than one reason, but I may have stumbled across the biggest culprit while breaking down film from this weekend's loss to Miami.  Buffalo's play-calling was horridly predictable in the first half, and Miami took advantage of it.

Predictable Play-Calling
The Bills took a 9-7 lead into the break in Miami, but let's face it - they shouldn't have.  The Bills were able to drive twice for field goals largely on the contributions of Dolphins penalties; otherwise, Miami handled Buffalo's offense pretty well.  Why?  They knew what was coming.

Including plays which were penalized either way, Buffalo dialed up 23 passes in the first half.  A whopping 19 of them (83%) came out of the shotgun formation.  Turk Schonert also dialed up 15 runs in the first half - and of those, 14 of them came with Trent Edwards lining up under center (93%).  That means that of the 37 called plays in the first half, the Dolphins likely had more than an educated guess of what was coming close to 90 percent of the time.  That's ridiculous - and it was compounded by the fact that Schonert didn't even toss in a play-action pass.

Without going back to look at film from the Bills' other six games on the season, I can assume that this type of telegraphy is occurring in the majority of Buffalo's games.  Luckily, the Bills caught it at the half here - and when they changed it up, the Bills scored a touchdown on their first possession of the second half.

Second Half Adjustment
On the Bills' lone touchdown drive of the game, Schonert dialed up two play-action passes.  Edwards completed one to Lee Evans for a first down, and on the other one, he was forced to scramble for a short gain.  The Bills ran 5 times on the drive (notice the run orientation leading to success), all from under center.  Two of Edwards' three passing plays on the drive came from under center.  Touchdown.

Overall - even while throwing in numbers while the Bills were throwing while down more than one score - Buffalo did better in the second half.  All five of the play-action passes Schonert called came in the third and fourth quarters.  14 of the 20 passing plays were out of the shotgun (70%), again including the passes Edwards attempted late in the game.  8 of the 10 second-half runs were from under center, but the Bills abandoned the run earlier than they should have - and we've already been over that.  The Bills moved the ball in the second half.  Turnovers killed them, obviously, but the ball was moving.

As for the formational breakdown: 19 of 20 shotgun plays in the first half were passes (95%), while 14 of 18 under center plays were runs (78%).  14 of 16 shotgun plays in the second half were passes (88%), while 8 of 14 under center plays were runs (57%).  The play-calling got better - but improved balance must be a priority, especially in formation.

Something needs to change
Look - I don't do this football thing professionally.  I'm just a fan that spends way too much time doing what I do.  When I know what the Bills are about to do offensively 90 percent of the time, there's a problem - because NFL coaches and defenders are smarter than me.  It's great to see that the Bills caught it at the half, but this can't become a trend.

The quick fix?  Stick to the run, and use it to complement the pass.  Mix up formations.  I understand the need to get Edwards into the shotgun, as it makes it easier on him to read defenses, but it's likely the reason that he's taking so many hits, as well - defenders can tee off on him.  This seems like an easy fix to me.  If it doesn't get adjusted, Buffalo will continue to have to dig themselves out of holes early.  Dick Jauron didn't build this team to do that too often.

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