We have very little idea of what the Buffalo Bills new offense will look like heading into their Week 1 contest with the New England Patriots this Sunday. No matter which way you slice it, there will be a rookie quarterback in the lineup; EJ Manuel has yet to play live football on the same field as Stevie Johnson, and Jeff Tuel only has minimal exposure to the first-team receivers. There are still a lot of moving parts due to injury circumstances this summer, and aside from a faster tempo and much more C.J. Spiller, it's tough to know exactly what to expect.
If Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett are looking to the past for clues as to how to move the football on the Patriots, they could do much worse than simply looking at Chan Gailey's Bills offense. Say what you will about Gailey, but his teams moved the ball with a high degree of efficiency against the Bill Belichick defense; in six Gailey-led games against New England, the Bills averaged 418 yards of offense and 22 points per game.
Sure, they also turned the ball over an unbelievably maddening 24 times in those six games; that's obviously not something Marrone and Hackett will look to replicate. The rest of it? Yeah, they'd probably take 400-plus yards of offense, a figure the Bills have surpassed in each of their last four games against the Patriots.
How did the Bills move the ball so efficiently against the Patriots under Gailey? There were plenty of reasons, but the one that caught my eye the most was an emphasis on attacking the middle of the field and the seams of the defense.
The Bills were a pretty good screen game offense under Gailey, and this was a good example of using the screen to attack the middle of the field. You'll note three receivers, including tight end Scott Chandler - who gave the Patriots fits last year, to be certain - lined up to the left side of the formation. Fred Jackson is in the backfield, and a receiver is split out wide right.
The right side of the line releases to the right as Jackson flares out into the flat, and the Patriots react to defend a screen pass towards the sideline. Note the amount of space in the middle of the field - it's wide open. Jackson plants his foot and slants toward the hashmarks, while the left guard releases as his lead blocker.
That's money in the bank right there. It's good play design and execution against a favorable defensive look.
Chandler was a big reason for the Bills' success in the middle of the field, but he didn't have to be on the field for the philosophy to bear fruit. Lee Smith is in on this play, and serves as an extra blocker. Two receivers line up to the left and one to the right in a very basic formation.
The flanker (receiver at the top of the screen) runs a vertical route, while the slot receiver runs a post up the middle of the field, taking a trailing corner and a safety with him. The running back flares out into the left flat, taking Jerod Mayo with him and keeping him out of the second level. On the right side of the formation, Donald Jones runs a simple crossing route across the middle of the field into space vacated by Pats defenders. He's wide open, and it's an easy first down.
The running game got into the act, too. Buffalo had plenty of success running the ball against New England, racking up 117 yards per game in Gailey's tenure (including 162 in the game we're reviewing, a 37-31 Week 10 loss last season), but the passing game was the focal point of the attack. In this still, New England's linebackers are off the line and in perfect position to be blocked at the second level by Chandler and right guard Kraig Urbik.
That's a beautiful sight.
Note here that the Bills again have three receivers (including Chandler) to one side of the formation. Spiller is in the backfield to that same side of the formation, and don't think the Patriots aren't keenly aware of where No. 28 is at all times.
New England is bringing pressure off the left side of Buffalo's line, and Spiller's job is to move across the formation and pick up the free rusher on the outside. Because he's Spiller, Mayo - a player that Gailey routinely moved with scheme to open up the middle of the field - follows him. The end result is an easy one-on-one matchup for Chandler against then-rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
It doesn't take Chandler long to beat the linebacker. He breaks inside to the hashes, the ball comes out in rhythm and it's an easy first down. Again: look at how much real estate they're working with right there.
This is another example of how the Bills moved Mayo out of the middle of the field with a running back. Jackson's in the backfield, and as he flares out to the right, Mayo follows. That again leaves Chandler one-on-one in the middle of the field, this time against defensive back Tavon Wilson (6'0" to Chandler's 6'7").
Say what you want about Chandler's limited athleticism, but he eats single coverage for breakfast. This is, again, an easy pitch-and-catch for a first down.
New England's defense gave up more yardage per game last year than Buffalo's did. They were perhaps not as disastrous on the whole as Buffalo's unit was, but this Patriots defense is vulnerable in several different ways. It is multiple - they show a lot of different looks, which makes them more difficult to prepare for - and there are good players on that side of the ball.
Still, this is a defense that the Bills should be expected to move the ball on - even with a rookie head coach, a rookie play caller and a rookie quarterback. Expect them to target the middle of the field.