Many Bills fans are criticizing Gailey for leaning to heavily on the passing game. They have been calling for a more balanced attack as we have two excellent RB's and merely an average QB. The Bills averaged 4.9 yards/rush last season (T-4th in league), yet they averaged 120 yds/game (13th in league). Based off those numbers it's no surprise that Buffalo ranked 27th in the league in rushing attempts, while finishing 10th in passing attempts. The numbers are a bit misleading due to the fact we played quite a few games from behind, but none the less they do carry some meaning- so I looked at the play-by-play for each game to try to figure out what to make of it.
I recorded the distance for each run by our running backs. I ignored runs by Fitz since they were designed passing plays and runs that occurred when Fitz was pulled since they indicated the it was in garbage time. I also chose to exclude Brad Smith's wildcat runs. Here is the breakdown:
Bills RB's averaged 5.1 yds/carry
<3 yards: 158 carries
4-8 yards: 94 carries
9-14 yards: 27 carries
15+ yards: 25 carries
Totals Rushes: 304
Percent of Rushes 9+ yards: 17%
Percent of Rushes <3 yards: 52%
The only difference between the first 7 games and the last 9 games were the carries per game. We averaged 21.4 rush/game in the first 7 games compared to 17.1 in the last 9 games. I would say that this is more indicative of the fact that we played entire games from a large deficit than a change in philosophy. The breakdown of yards gained by each run were very similar (First 7/Last 9: <3 yds 80/78, 4-8 yds 42/52, 9-14 yds 15/12, 15+ yards 13/12).
What caught my eye was how many rushes the Bills had of 15+ yards, so I recorded the yardage for each run. The 25 rushes of 15+ yards totaled to 672 yards. The Bills RB's ran for 1565 yards this season. This means that 43% of the rushing yards we gained on the ground came on big plays, which only accounted for 8% of our rushing attempts.
That means that on the remaining 279 rushes, the Bills averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. For reference, the Giants rank last in the league with 3.5 yards/attempt. Granted, this doesn't discount their long runs, but it does indicate that the Bill's were ineffective the majority of the time they ran the ball.
On Fitzpatrick's 569 passing attempts he completed the ball 353 times (62%) for 3832 yards. That's an average of 6.7 yards/attempt.
So while I agree that the Bills were a little too pass happy at times, I think it's exaggerated a bit. We spent a pretty large amount of time playing from behind, which definitely contributes to the numbers. On top of that, in some ways we moved the ball better through the air, at least at times. There was a lot of situations where the Bills limited their ability to run by throwing incomplete passes on 1st and 2nd down, but just as often ineffective runs on those downs forced us to have to throw the ball. The Bills offense was unique this year in that when it was most efficient (first 7 games), it relied on the running game to supply the big plays while using the short pass more to move the ball down the field. There are obviously more risks to throwing the ball (INT's and Sacks), but when the offense was its most efficient and Fitz wasn't getting sacked or throwing picks.
It's also worth noting that just because we passed the ball 60% of the time if doesn't mean we weren't getting our RB's involved. Spiller, Jackon, and Choice combined for 85 receptions this year (38/38/7), accounting for nearly 1/4 of Fitz's completions. Some off these catches, especially for Spiller, came from the WR position, but the screen pass was also a huge part of our offense early in the season.
A few weeks back Brian wrote an article about how Gailey has been unable to use both Spiller and Jackson effectively. I was trying to think of ways that the Bills could feature both backs effectively in our system and I came to a few conclusions.
Firstly, when both Spiller and Jackson were healthy Gailey didn't have as much confidence in Spiller as he does now. Through the first 7 games, Spiller rushed the ball only 13 times compared to Jackson's 137 carries. Most people, myself included, argued that Jackson was simply playing too good to warrant putting Spiller in the game. But when I looked over the running plays I noticed something interesting. Of the 13 carries Spiller had in the first 7 weeks, only 4 resulted in <3 yards. So 9/13 (69%) of his runs were successful (4+ yards). Of Jackson's 137 carries in those games, 77 resulting in <3 yards- entailing that only 60/137 (44%) of his runs were successful. Additionally, Spiller ran for 9+ yards on 5/13 (38%) of those carries, compared to Jackson's 23/137 (16%). This leads me to believe that Spiller wasn't performing at a lower level than Jackson, but rather Jackson's big plays, high yardage totals, and pass blocking ability kept Spiller from being able to show that he could perform at a similar level.
Secondly, our ability to run a balanced offense is limited by Fitzpatrick's limitations as a QB. The offense is designed to take advantage of what Fitz does well while hiding his weaknesses as much as possible. One of these limitations is his arm strength, which we compensated for by using a short-intermediate passing attack based on principles of a horizontal timing offense. The less commonly considered weakness in Fitz's game is his height and footwork. His height limits his ability to see down the field when he is close to the line, and his often sloppy footwork makes it more difficult for him to make drop backs from under center. In my opinion, these are the reasons we featured so many plays out the the shotgun/pistol and ran so many 4 WR sets. This issue with this formation is that it limits the RB's effectiveness as they can't scan and get a running start when before getting the ball.
I would love to go back and watch the film (I'm just going off memory), but too me it seemed like our play calls were way to predictable based off our formation. When Fitz was under center, it seemed like we were most likely going to run. This allowed the defense to stack the line more heavily to stuff the play at the line. When we ran the shotgun/single back formation, it seemed like we really only had one running play (see link below for picture).
This allowed the defense to focus their attention to stopping a side of the line while keeping extra guys in coverage on the backside. I think that, at least in some capacity, the predictability in our play calling based on the formation was a reason for the RB's inconsistencies at finding yards. We were able to pick up yards in chunks when the blocking was there, but too often the defense could identify what was coming and prevent it.
Thirdly, Gailey didn't show an effective way to get both of the field as RB's at the same time. When Spiller checked in it was to play WR or give Jackson a rest. Spiller and Jackson are rivaled only by Stevie Johnson as the best two players on our offense. They need to both be on the field as often as possible. Gailey needs to use more 2 RB sets, whether that be an offset I, as splitbacks, in a single wing, or 2RB shotgun sets. Both have the ability to line up at RB or WR, and Gailey needs to take advantage of their versatility to confuse defenses and play to the offenses strengths.
In my opinion, the Bills should do the following things over the off-season to make the offense more efficient next season:
1) Improve Fitzpatrick's footwork from under center and give him the majority of reps from this position. Using mainly shotgun limits the effectiveness of the RB's. Running more plays from under center (especially passing plays) will allow us for more flexibility in our personal and formations. This make the offense less predictable and allows our backs better holes, making runs more efficient.
2) Gailey needs to hit the drawing boards and figure out more creative ways to get our best players on the field at the same time.
3) Improve at the TE position. Chandler was a pleasant surprise this season, but he doesn't exactly strike fear into the defense. In the beginning of the year he Gailey showed how a TE can be a real weapon in the red zone in this offense. In the middle of the season he showed that the TE can also be used as a weapon in this offense at any point on the field. In the 5 game span following his 2 TD display against Washington and until getting injured against the Titans, Chandler caught 20 passes for 227 yds for an average of 4 catches and 46 yds/game. If Chandler can do that in a limited role, imagine what a featured TE could bring to the offense. Brian recently wrote an article stating that Chandler could cost anywhere from 4-5 million a year to resign.
I say give Fred Davis a contract that resembles the 5 year/34 million dollar deal that the Seahawks gave Zach Miller. A good TE would be a much better investment that a guy like Robert Meachem in my mind. TE's can be a weapon in the passing game while also improving the production of your RB's. Of the top 12 TE's in the league this year, 6 of their teams made the playoffs: GB, NO, NE, DET, ATL, and SF. Of those 6 teams, only SF doesn't feature a spread offense similar to what the Bills tried to run last year. I would even see if Buffalo can't ink Chandler to an inexpensive deal and try to adapt a 2 TE system that balances than the pass savy Patriots and the run heavy 49er's offenses.
4) Give Fitzpatrick more freedom in the offense. One of Fitz's best qualities is his intelligence. He is a rhythmic QB who played his best football last season in an uptempo, fast paced offense. When things were clicking early in the year, Fitz was at his best from behind. When we got the lead and tried to slow things down, his play often times declined (CIN, WASH, NYG, PHI). Gailey should set Fitz loose at times and let him run a no huddle offense. This will allow him to get to the line, observe the defense, and adjust the play accordingly. It may also bring some more balance to the run game. Gailey tended to get pass happy when the Bills had success throwing the ball early in the drives. Many QB's tend to be balanced and take what the defense is giving them when they call their own plays at the line. If we signed a TE like Davis and put Spiller and Jackson on the field with 2 WR the offense would be extremely versatile and able to be run out of almost any formation, causing match-up nightmares for the defense.
5) Possibly add an offensive lineman. I would support the Bills to resign Bell, but I wouldn't be opposed to adding another big man up front. Depending on FA and who is available at #10 I wouldn't be opposed to Buffalo grabbing a top OL talent like Reiley or Decastro. This O-line is solid, but if we want to ever be able to rely on the run game to consistently be productive we need get better. We ranked highly last season, but largely in part to quick drops and some big plays in the running game. The addition of one lineman and a TE could make this a very difficult offense to stop.
I believe the Bills offense was unbalanced last season because, in a lot of ways, it was forced to be. The running game could not consistently pick up yardage and therefore created a need to pass the ball more than one would want Fitzpatrick to have to do. If the Bills want to take the ball out of Fitz's hand and lean on both Spiller and Jackson in the run game they need to be more efficient with their rushing attempts, especially on 1st down. Failed runs on 53% of your attempts when you have an average QB leads to longing 2nd and 3rd downs, more passing, and shorter drives. It's the reason that there simply wasn't enough carries to make both Jackson and Spiller effective. These changes will help improve the run game and make it more consistent. This means longer drives, which leads to more attempts, which creates more touches for both Spiller and Jackson. It also keeps the defense off the field. Everyone wins.