The Buffalo Bills led the NFL in rushing attempts per game in the 2013 regular season, with their 34.1 carries per contest ranking as the seventh-highest per-game average that the league has seen in the last decade. The only other non-playoff team that even approached Buffalo's commitment to running the ball was the New York Jets, who, like the Bills, started a rookie quarterback last season.
Buffalo also finished second in the league in average rushing yards per game, with their 144.2 mark trailing only the Philadelphia Eagles. Run game efficiency, however, was more problematic: the Bills' average of 4.2 yards per rush ranked them tied for No. 14 in the league. The Bills were committed to the run last year, without a doubt, but they were average in executing it.
Heading into the 2014 season, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett wants to run even more plays per game, which by extension means that the Bills might end up running even more this season. Doug Marrone has re-tooled his offensive line, gaining mobility and power with his athletes up front to help diversify the way the Bills can block for their backs. Add in a developing quarterback and a work-in-progress passing attack, and the Bills aren't likely to be any less devoted to the running game than they were a year ago. They just need to be better at it.
The bulk of discussions about the Bills' running game start with a deep stable of running backs that might all prove themselves worthy of playing time. We'll get to them in a minute. Let's start first by examining the players blocking for those backs.
Buffalo only used a fullback on 21 percent of snaps last season, with the vast majority of those going to Frank Summers. As a zone running team, Summers was not necessarily the traditional lead blocker that most fans conceive of when discussing fullbacks; he did lead runners into the hole, of course, but spent a good chunk of time sealing off gaps as the scheme allowed runners to pick a gap to exploit. He made his share of mistakes and whiffs, but in general was solid enough for such a small role. Summers also acquitted himself well with the ball in his hands; he turned 19 total touches into 125 yards and two touchdowns.
Reserve tight end Lee Smith is the preferred designated blocker on offense; his role was nearly double Summers' at 36.9 percent of total snaps. His role was also significantly more one-dimensional than Summers'; he's a perimeter blocker whether it's a pass play or a run play, acting as a third offensive tackle for all intents and purposes. In such a run-oriented attack, there is still plenty of room for Smith to maintain that key role - particularly since tight ends are six times as prevalent in Buffalo's offense as fullbacks to begin with.
Those are the blocking roles - and they serve as complementary notes to the types of blocking changes we theorized in yesterday's offensive line article. We'll talk on Friday about how those might mutate in 2014 based on this spring's personnel changes.
While we're talking about play time percentages, here's an interesting fact that we've previously discussed: if you add up every rep that any Bills running back (excluding Summers, a fullback) played last season, you come away with 1,161 - the exact number of offensive plays the Bills ran. That means that, within the construct of Hackett's offense, there was nearly always only room for one running back on the field at a time.
That may need to change - and not just because the team needs to find more playing time for a unique talent like C.J. Spiller. The team has three more backs beyond him - Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon - that merit, to varying degrees, playing time consideration. Jackson, of course, is guaranteed his fair share of touches, and will likely play the most of any Bills back thanks to his utility as a blocker.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that Hackett doesn't go out of his way to expand the role of the running back in the offense. The Bills are now effectively splitting one position up between not just Jackson and Spiller, but potentially another two players, as well. That is an exceptionally difficult task to accomplish, to the point where we should begin to wonder if we're not all overvaluing exactly what Brown and Dixon will contribute to the offense in 2014. There may not be much room for them to contribute if everyone is healthy - with the possible exception of a Spiller role expansion opening the door for a bit more work spelling Jackson in the backfield.
We'll talk more about how the Bills will split up five skill position roles to construct their offense on Friday, after we have discussed the passing attack tomorrow. For now, let's leave the running game discussion at this: between runners and blockers (we're counting tight ends as blockers), the Bills averaged 2.4 players out of five per snap last season, leaving 2.6 players per snap for wide receivers. In essence, their offensive personnel packages still leaned favorably in the direction of passing personnel, but not by much. As Buffalo's offense diversifies, however, that may change - and if it does, one would hope it changes more in favor of the passing attack, where Buffalo's upside is excellent. The Bills are going to run the ball a lot in 2014, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we should expect gaudy statistical gains in most areas - except, in an ideal world, for their per-carry efficiency.