Not only did the Buffalo Bills utilize three- and four-receiver personnel packages frequently in 2011, they did it significantly more often than every other team in the league. This according to a study from Pro Football Focus, coming to us via Rotoworld.
Per the gang at PFF, the Bills used personnel packages containing three receivers on a whopping 77 percent of their offensive plays last season - and they came in 14 percent higher than the Indianapolis Colts, who were terrible, threw a lot as a result, and wound up with the first pick in the draft. Mike Clay also reports that the Bills used packages with four receivers on 32 percent of their plays - doubling the next-highest team, the Chicago Bears.
Think about that for a second: on nearly one-third of their offensive snaps last season, the Bills had room for just one player amidst their running backs and tight ends to be on the field alongside four receivers. That's not a trend that's likely to continue into the 2012 season.
There are two main reasons that those numbers should drop: the need to implement two running backs into the rotation, and the increasing relevance of tight end Scott Chandler as a passing target.
At no point in Chan Gailey's two years as Buffalo's head coach and offensive architect have the Bills consistently run an offense designed to use two running backs frequently. Part of that was circumstantial: C.J. Spiller struggled as a rookie, and didn't show enough to simply be handed a role. Then there was Fred Jackson setting the league on fire at the start of last season, limiting the need to get Spiller involved.
Today, Gailey has two backs that have proven that they can produce like No. 1 runners. It's completely fair to argue that Jackson and Spiller are the team's two most talented players the team employs on the offensive side of the ball. We've only seen the two on the field together sporadically over the past two years; that should change in 2012.
Chandler will likely see more playing time this season than he did a year ago, as well. When Buffalo's passing attack was clicking in 2011, Chandler was the guy that turned the attack from clicking to borderline unstoppable. Now, based on commentary earlier this off-season from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the team seems to be infatuated with the idea of pairing Chandler with slot receiver David Nelson more often - a particularly intriguing idea based on the length of the two players and the ability to disguise the true 'Y' receiver on a given play.
Make no mistake about it: the Bills are still going to use three receivers quite a bit. If I had to guess today - and as the Bills are still three weeks away from the start of camp, all we can do is guess - I'd imagine that the percentage of time the Bills spend with four receivers on the field will drop dramatically as two-back packages and Chandler are incorporated more often, and the percentage of three-receiver sets will dip, but not nearly as much. It would not be remotely surprising if the Bills led the league in three-receiver set percentage again.
Buffalo will still be a spread-and-space team as long as Gailey is the head coach and Fitzpatrick is his quarterback. The next step in the evolution of the offense, however, is to be able to accomplish that philosophy without relying so heavily on a highly unproven group of wide receivers.