This article is the fourth and last in a series examining Chan Gailey's Buffalo Bills offense. Part One took a look at Gailey's traditional offensive roots. Part Two examined Gailey's use of horizontal timing. Part Three outlined how Gailey uses various screens to get the ball to his playmakers in space.
Buffalo is not a running team. Surprised? As effective as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are, Chan Gailey ran the ball only 40 percent of the time in 2011. Buffalo threw the ball 578 times, the tenth-highest total in the league and more than even the Green Bay Packers, a team characterized as a pass-first team. Those same Packers, with Ryan Grant and James Starks at running back, ran the ball four more times than Buffalo did (395 to 391 rushing attempts) last season. A quick trend check shows that Buffalo ran the ball 43 percent of the time in 2010. They are a passing team.
With that in mind, Buffalo is an extremely effective running team. When Buffalo does run, they are among the best at doing so. In 2011, Buffalo was the 5th best team in the league in yards per rushing attempt, gaining 4.9 yards per carry and a total of 120.1 yards per game, 13th best in the league. It was no fluke, as a poor Buffalo team was 13th best in 2010 in the same category, gaining 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. So how does it work?
As we've seen in the previous three stories, Gailey likes to use the spread formation to create space. It works for the passing game and the running game alike. With fewer defenders at the line of scrimmage, the run game is often wide open for Buffalo. Buffalo's yard-per-carry statistic for 2011 is deceptive. When Jackson and Spiller ran, they gained 5.5 and 5.2 yards per carry, respectively. Defenses are given the choice of spreading out to cover receivers, or stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run. When defenses spread out, Gailey gashes them with a mix of standard runs and misdirection-type runs, the latter designed to deceive the defense.
Gailey combines two standard run types, the dive and the zone read, with misdirections runs, such as the draws and traps. Buffalo is also very creative, using trap-like movement to set up standards runs, like isolation runs. We'll look at the dive, the zone-read, the trap, a pulling isolation featuring the tight end, and the draw. The diagrams depict the offense with a tight end and one running back working against a defensive six-man front and a strong safety. The format is the same as the screen game, using a frame-by-frame time-lapse design. The diagrams exclude the receivers and defensive secondary so we can zoom in the the run game movement that often happens so fast in such a confined space that we, the fans, miss its intricacies.
We won't spend much time on this run. Most fans are familiar with it. The linemen block the defenders in front of them, and the running back aims his run to a hole. In this case, it's between the center and the right guard. The dive is mostly a contest of strength to see if the offensive line can drive the defense off the ball.
The Zone Read
The zone read is the run design that Mike Shanahan-coached teams made famous. The zone read is designed to create favorable blocking angles for the offensive line, as well as take advantage of offensive linemen that can move. Additionally, the basic concept is pretty simple: everyone blocks in one directions, and blocks the first defender they see. Here, the line is moving right. The running back does not have a particular "hole" to run through. As the blocks develop, the running back needs "vision" to see the seam as it emerges, then cut and get through it.
Here we see that most of the defenders are flowing to the offensive right, the same direction that the blockers are moving. A linebacker has gone unaccounted for between the right guard and right tackle. That's alright though. The running back needs to see that, and also see the cutback lane emerging behind the center. Another linebacker is unaccounted for on the left side of the offense. That linebacker has contain responsibilities, and the running back can negate him by avoiding cutting back to the outside left.
The left guard engages the defensive tackle not to drive him off the ball, but to shift his hips and feet from left to right. As the defensive tackle pushes, the left guard lets him go generally in the direction he wants, choosing to move around him rather than fight him. The linebacker between the right guard and right tackle is getting "washed out" or "lost in the trash." He's not being blocked, but his reaction to the play has put him in between the right guard and the defensive tackle, with no straight line to the running back. The right tackle is blocking on the "second level," meaning that he is downfield blocking. The center can also get to the second level, or seal off the washed out linebacker.
The center moves around the right guard and defensive tackle, turning out to seal off the linebacker. The left guard shifted in front of the defensive tackle. The lane emerges, the runner sees it, and bursts through. The zone read is Fred Jackson's best run, allowing him to use his superior vision to pick and choose which way he wants to go. The zone read also takes patience. The runner needs to start out at less than full speed in order to read the blocks, then burst through the hole once he sees it. Spiller's rookie issues in the run game came, in part, because he pressed the line of scrimmage too fast on zone read runs and didn't give himself enough time to see the developing blocks.
The trap is designed to create a running lane by deceiving a playside defender. That defender is left unblocked and is allowed to aggressively attack the football. A blocker from the opposite side of the formation "pulls" across the formation to make the block by using a good blocking angle. In our trap, all but one of the blockers are moving in one direction, like the zone read. One blocker, the left guard, is pulling across the formation from left to right. The running back and quarterback open to the left side to get the defenders moving in that direction, creating good blocking angles. The runner cuts back right, gets the football, and runs in the lane created by the line down-blocking and the left guard's seal block.
The offensive line is blocking left, and the defenders initially move to the offense's left because of the backfield counter action. The playside outside linebacker is unblocked, and begins to crash in on the runner. So far, this doesn't look that great for the offense.
Boom! The running back cuts right off the counter movement, and all the blocks are set. Everyone is accounted for, and each blocker is in-between the defender and the runner. The left guard has moved to the right side of the formation and is about to seal off the outside linebacker.
All the blocks are made. The blockers don't need to pancake the defender, just get in the way. The back has a lane to run through, with only the strong safety to beat. The runner gains five yards before needing to make a move. Getting Jackson or Spiller into space one-on-one with a safety is a match-up Gailey takes all game.
The Isolation (with a pulling blocker)
Gailey runs a neat isolation play. Normally, an isolation means the runner follows a fullback into the hole. The line blocking essentially turns the play into an isolation between the fullback and a linebacker. The runner cuts off the block of the fullback. Buffalo does not use a fullback much, but Gailey still runs the play, pulling a tight end (or sometimes a receiver) across the formation to make the isolation block. In our isolation, the hole is designed to open in between the left tackle and the left guard. The tight end pulls across the formation at the snap and becomes the "iso" blocker. The runner and quarterback maintain the backfield counter action from the trap. The big difference in our isolation play is the center. The center is making a "combo" block. He blocks two players. Initially, he double teams the defensive tackle over the right guard. Once the defensive tackle is pushed in front of the right guard, the center peels off to block the linebacker.
The center and right guard execute their double team block on the defensive tackle. The tight end is running across the formation. The quarterback and running back open to the right, getting the defense to move that way, which sets up the blocking angles. The inside linebacker across from the left guard is left unblocked for the moment; he is the target of the isolation block.
All the blocks are set. The inside linebacker over the right guard is again washed out by the right guard and defensive tackle. The center has pushed the defensive tackle to the right enough to set the blocking angle for the right guard. The center moves off the block to seal off the linebacker. The runner makes his cut and is now right behind the tight end moving at the inside linebacker. The isolation is set.
The hole is left with the tight end one-on-one with the linebacker. The block does not need to be of the destructive pancake variety. Getting in the way works just as well. Whichever way the linebacker goes, and the tight end gets in the way, the runner goes the other way. The isolation play takes patience; a runner going too fast in the backfield can outrun the pulling isolation blocker. Spiller was guilty of this during his rookie year.
Bill Walsh called the draw Thurman Thomas' "favorite play, his best play" in the AFC Championship Game versus the Los Angeles Raiders. His comment might extend to Jackson and Spiller. Getting a running back moving forward against a spread out defense is very effective. The defense is spread out in the same manner as the screen play: get the defense thinking it is playing the pass, and then do something different. In our draw, the line is pass blocking, the running back looks like he's blocking from the backfield, and the tight end runs toward the middle, looking like he is running a pass pattern.
The defensive line makes progress against the offensive line, and the secondary is run off into coverage. The linebackers step forward to check for run, then drop into their short zones, creating space between them and the line. The quarterback executes a standard-looking pass drop.
The center slides left, creating the seam for the runner to go through. The tight end is in great position to block against a linebacker, who does not know that the play is a run yet. A slight of hand by the quarterback, and the runner has the ball.
The runner bursts into open space, reading the block of the tight end to an extent. Much like the screen, the play turns into playground football, with the running back moving to daylight. Buffalo has the advantage with Jackson or Spiller in this type of space.
Buffalo gets a lot of bang for the buck for each running attempt. They don't emphasize the run like other teams, but they get similar, or better results. San Francisco ran 47 times more than they passed in 2011, and called 107 more runs that Buffalo over the course of the season. Yet, for their big, power line and dedication to the run, they averaged about seven more rushing yards per game more than Buffalo. Through the spread scheme Gailey designed, he gets fantastic production.
Buffalo's running game should improve in 2012. Offensive line play is all about working as a unit, as you can see above. Andy Levitre, Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, and Erik Pears have been working together for over a year; Levitre and Wood are three year starters. Add in talented left tackle Cordy Glenn, and Buffalo has a massive and talented front line used to working together. Chad Rinehart, Chris Hairston, and Colin Brown are reserves with starting experience (a novel concept). Combine talent, experience, chemistry, and scheme, and you get the makings for a top ten rushing attack.
Hopefully we've done a good job walking everyone through how Buffalo attacks defenses. Brian set the conceptual basis. Buffalo's offense works through spacing, deception, and niche players. Gailey creates spacing through formation, by using older Erhardt-Perkins pass plays, through horizontal timing, screens, and misdirection running. The 53-man roster is full of players that work in the scheme: Brad Smith, Donald Jones, C.J. Spiller, Scott Chandler, etc. And deception is woven through the whole scheme, through various types of screens, draws, and traps.
The scheme itself is creates space to deceive by spreading the defense through formation only to blow through them with the run. The scheme is unique, not so difficult to understand, but not that easy to stop. The Achilles' Heal of the entire scheme remains the requirement to stretch the defense vertically. The majority of plays designed to get their playmakers the ball in space do so inside of ten yards from the line of scrimmage. Without a vertical threat, the defense can walk up safeties and crowd the line of scrimmage, frustrating draws and screens with numbers, and clogging the short passing windows. After Buffalo lost their deep threats to injury in 2011, we saw what that looks like. It's not pretty.
If the offense stays reasonably healthy, Ryan Fitzpatrick avoids slumps, and the team executes well, the Bills offense should be in the top ten league-wide. They were 14th overall in scoring and yards in 2011, so top ten in both categories is not that big of a stretch. For Buffalo to end the longest current playoff drought in the NFL, they'll need to not only be in the top ten in offense, but remain consistent throughout the season.