Nathaniel Hackett has no qualms about calling the same play (same personnel, formation, assignment) on back-to-back downs or multiple times throughout a game, obviously atypical for today's complex NFL and at least one of the reasons for the offense's lack of production (see here). It's something he did a few times in Week 1 versus New England, and it gave us a chance to see a subtle difference in the running of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
- Personnel: 11
- Formation: Gun Right Weak Y Off
- Defensive Look: Cover 1 (Man Free)
The personnel and formation for both of the back-to-back plays is the same with the exception that on the first play, Jackson is the back and on the second play, Spiller is the back. The defense is the same for both plays as well.
It's important to note that every time the Buffalo Bills lined up with this personnel grouping in either Gun Right Weak or Gun Right Weak Y Off, with the run strength being to the boundary, the Bills ran the ball (seven runs, zero passes by my count). Also, when running from the gun, the backs almost always run across the formation (weak to strong or strong to weak). They did it on 26 of 29 runs from the gun on the day.
So the defense is almost certainly guessing the Bills will run to the boundary, and one of the strengths of Cover 1, or Man Free, is the run support to the SS.
It's an inside zone run, with tight end Scott Chandler going across the formation (from right to left) as the cutoff block on the backside end. Inside zone runs are designed to cut back until the back finds daylight, but they should only make one cut - no more. The white squares highlight the play side combo blocks based on alignment (C and RG on DL and LB).
The running back makes a pre-snap read to find the bubble, or area along the line where there is no down lineman. In both cases, the bubbles are over the center and tackle. In that case, the back will make their aiming point the outside hip of the covered guard at the snap (60, Kraig Urbik). It's marked by an "X" in both pictures, and is a spot aligned with Urbik's outside hip at the snap.
The aiming point is a fixed point; it doesn't move. As the linemen move during the play, the point where the backs have been aiming changes from being in the B gap, where the guard is covered, to the A gap, where there is a bubble in the defense. That's the reasoning behind the initial aiming point.
The first read the backs make is the first down lineman outside the center. If he goes inside, cut outside him into the B gap. If he goes outside, cut inside and burst into the first daylight.
Jackson: Jackson's first read starts out in a 1-tech (sometimes called 2i-tech) covering the inside shoulder of Urbik. At this point, he must be thinking he can hit the B gap cleanly, because Urbik should be able to maintain outside leverage on him.
Spiller: Spiller's first read is a 3-tech covering the outside shoulder of Urbik. At this point, he must be thinking there's a very low chance that the 3-tech will go inside, or that Urbik will get outside leverage on him, so he must be assuming he'll have to cut this back. He also has a linebacker to move, or force outside, and a back accomplishes that by hitting their aiming point before cutting back. It makes the O-Line look great when you do that.
Both backs are arriving at their aiming points and are making their second read, because in both cases, their first read has outside leverage (72 Joe Vellano). Both backs hit their aiming points (it won't exactly be seen by the pictures), though Spiller gets choppy before hitting his; he doesn't press the line of scrimmage with conviction.
Jackson: In Jackson's case, it looks like the Pats had a game going, slanting the 1-tech outside with the linebacker filling inside. Center Eric Wood has done a nice job picking it up, coming off the combo block to get the 'backer. As Jackson is reading the next down lineman, who is facing a double team, it looks like he might run this into the weak-side A gap, to the left of Wood.
Spiller: As expected, the 3-tech has outside leverage on Urbik. In fact, the linebacker and Spiller's second read also have outside leverage. Should be an easy read and cutback to the weak-side B gap.
Jackson: Jackson's second read does a great job squeezing the weak-side A gap shut against the double team by Cordy Glenn and Colin Brown, so Jackson will finish by cutting behind them and trying to make a move on the the weak-side linebacker. It's textbook.
Spiller: Even though Spiller doesn't hit his aiming point with conviction, he's still in position for a nice pickup. Seeing outside leverage by his first and second reads as well as the play-side linebacker, he should cut this back into the weak-side B gap and make a move off of Glenn's block, but he inexplicably cuts this outside into the defense and the run-supporting strong safety (remember, that's a strength of Cover 1).
Spiller is a superior athlete to Jackson, and almost every other back in the league, but while Jackson executes this perfectly, Spiller fails to make a basic read. The Bills had a big drop off in their rushing success this year. Here's hoping they can get it back on track next year.