After starting the season with two strong performances in New England and Tampa Bay, the offense of the Buffalo Bills has stunk in consecutive losses to New Orleans and Miami. Outscored 65-17 in those two losses, Buffalo's offense has generated a meager 10 points and many more mistakes in playing the Bills out of two winnable games.
If there's one team that could cure some of Buffalo's ills offensively (if only for one game), it's the Cleveland Browns. Buffalo's Week 5 opponent currently possess the dubious honor of being the NFL's worst defense, surrendering 403 yards per game in their 0-4 start. Granted, their opponents are a sparkling 14-2 early this season (they've played Minnesota, Denver, Baltimore and Cincinnati), but bad is bad no matter which way you look at it.
How can Buffalo take advantage of a poor opponent and get back into rhythm offensively? It's pretty simple: get back to basics. Run the ball early and often. Run to set up the pass. The Bills have employed the opposite theory early in games, and it's putting too much pressure on Trent Edwards and Buffalo's offensive line.
First, some history and current perspective
It wasn't that long ago that Buffalo played Cleveland; most of you remember the second of three gut-wrenching Monday Night Football losses, this one a 29-27 decision in Week 11 of 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Buffalo came out firing in that game. Edwards threw passes on four of his team's first five offensive snaps, with two of those throws intercepted. He'd add another later on in the first quarter to put Buffalo in a big early hole.
Once that was out of the way, Buffalo's offense settled in nicely - because they mercifully decided to start exploiting a weak Browns run defense by getting the ball to Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. (Rocket science, right?) Lynch and Jackson had huge games, combining for 179 rushing yards on 35 carries (5.1 yards per carry). Lynch added 10 receptions (this was the night "Captain Checkdown" was born, if you recall) for 58 yards and a touchdown.
In short, Buffalo's offense had a respectable evening because, too little too late, they decided to exploit Cleveland's poor defense the way any team that employed a coordinator with two eyes would have: run the ball and set up the pass that way - not vice versa. Edwards had a poor night, but he played well enough to win once the offensive philosophy was adjusted.
Cleveland is no different this season. They've got the No. 31-ranked run defense in the NFL, surrendering 177 rushing yards per game on the season. For perspective, Buffalo's much-maligned run defense is giving up roughly 25 fewer yards per game. It should not be a secret where Cleveland is weak this time around - and Buffalo is well-equipped to attack their weakness.
Bills still passing to run despite the evidence
Buffalo currently has the No. 14-ranked rush offense in the league, gaining 111 yards per game on the ground. The more important stat, however, might be their No. 7 ranking in yards per rush; Buffalo is averaging a well-above-respectable 4.8 yards per carry this season.
The fact, therefore, that the Bills continue to throw the football early in football games is baffling - even if that strategy has likely aided in such strong statistical output from the run game.
In four games this season, Buffalo reached the ten-run plateau within each game just once before hitting the same milestone in passes. In New England, Edwards dropped back to pass 17 times before Jackson logged his tenth rush. He threw it 21 times before Jackson's tenth run against New Orleans - clearly their biggest abandonment of the run this season. 11 more passes were thrown before a Bills RB carried ten times in Miami. Only against Tampa Bay did they hit ten runs before they hit ten passes (they'd thrown it seven times when Jackson logged his tenth carry).
Add that up. That's 56 passes to 40 runs early in football games. Perhaps the absence of Lynch to suspension was partially behind letting Edwards throw early, but that certainly wasn't the case when Edwards came out firing against Cleveland on MNF. Passing to set up the run is not characteristic of Buffalo Bills football - and despite the fact that Buffalo's young O-Line is far superior at opening up running lanes than they are at forming a pocket for Edwards, the Bills continue to throw early. That needs to change.
Get back to basics vs. Cleveland
Offensive coordinators exist to identify, game plan for and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents. That's the best way to score points, is it not? (I'm boring myself stating the obvious here, so I apologize if you, too, are letting your thoughts wander.)
Cleveland's run defense is not good. In order to effectively stop the run - particularly a running game as proficient as Buffalo's - they'll need to commit extra defenders, because their front seven has been well below average. The Bills clearly have the weapons to make plays in the deep passing game if extra defenders are in the box. But those defenders won't be in the short area if Buffalo continues its bizarre tendency to throw early and often in football games.
Run the ball early - you've got two backs to wear down opponents now. Get the defense to commit, then beat them over the top. Buffalo is extremely capable of doing that on any given week, but particularly this week - even with an inconsistent-at-best offensive line. Get back to basics, and this offense can go places. All it'll take is a smart game plan. If Buffalo can't find ways to gain yards and score points against this defense, then the problem is far more serious than probably many of us imagined.