Much has been made recently about the incredibly inconsistent play of the offensive unit of the Buffalo Bills throughout their first nine games of the season. Here's a fun fact for you: the Bills have scored 143 points in 9 games, or an anemic average of 15.9 points per game. Only five NFL teams have scored fewer points - San Francisco (104), Atlanta (135), Kansas City (135), St. Louis (136), and Baltimore (138). Oh, and don't forget that four of Buffalo's touchdowns (28 points) have come by the way of their defense and special teams. Simply put, Buffalo's offense is too close to the bottom of the league for the team's 5-4 record to make much sense.
The Bills, in 2007, have scored 10 offensive touchdowns. 7 of those have directly involved the legs (or right arm) of RB Marshawn Lynch. No other Bill has scored more than twice (WR Lee Evans). Bills passers have tossed just four touchdowns in nine games - and again, one of them was thrown by Lynch. Playmaking has been minimal. Outside of Lynch, every single offensive Bill is, at the very best, highly inconsistent. The biggest questions facing this team right now: can Buffalo's offense turn it around before teams finally solve the defense? Better yet, is there a way to fix this unit before season's end?
What's the Biggest Problem?
In Buffalo's five wins this season, the Bills have kicked 12 field goals and scored 8 touchdowns. That means in four losses, the Bills have scored 6 touchdowns and kicked just three field goals. Strange, right? Four of those touchdowns in losses were scored by the defense or special teams. That means in four losses, the Bills' offense has scored a whopping 23 points. Let's average wins versus losses:
Offense in wins: 18.4 points per game
Offense in losses: 5.8 points per game
Seriously... six points per game in losses. That means in victory, the Bills' offense is doing just enough, while in losses, they can't come close to making a game of it. So, again, what's the cause of these struggles? It's not Lynch - in victory or defeat, he's never rushed for fewer than 61 yards in a game at this level. It's not the quarterbacks - they've flip-flopped, but in general, they've been so-so in victory and so-so in defeat (3 TD vs. 5 INT in victory; 0 TD vs. 3 INT in defeat). That leaves one player that has to be the cause:
This offense goes as Lee Evans goes.
Opponents Keying in on Lee
What's been the fastest, most efficient way to shut down Buffalo's offense this season? Eliminate Lee Evans from the passing game. It doesn't matter how it's done - if it happens, the Bills flounder. Just take a look at the eye-popping numbers:
Evans in 5 Victories: 29 receptions, 538 yards, 2 TD
Evans in 4 Losses: 6 catches, 41 yards, 0 TD
There's not much more convincing to do than that - at least for me. You can blame the QB carousel, you can blame the play-calling, and you can blame the lack of options outside of Lynch and Evans. The stats prove it: teams are most effective against the Bills when they turn Evans into a non-factor. Do I really need to convince you that Bill Belichick is fully aware of this?
How Can Buffalo Side-Step This?
Outside of Lynch and Evans, Buffalo's talent at the receiving skill positions is, at best, specialized. Josh Reed - starting at receiver in place of the injured Peerless Price - isn't quick or big enough to gain separation on the outside, and is better suited to a slot role. Roscoe Parrish is too small to use his separation skills anywhere but in the slot, as well. Sam Aiken and Justin Jenkins round out the wideout depth, but neither has been a factor in the passing game. Meanwhile, the Bills do not have a tight end who can stretch the defense vertically down the middle of the field. Robert Royal and Michael Gaines have been effective catching passes in the flat and on screens, but they simply are ineffective outside of 10 yards.
So how do you loosen up coverage on Evans? Lighten the rushing load of Marshawn Lynch. Yes, lighten his rushing load. Notice I didn't say touches - if the Bills want to keep defenses from focusing on Evans solely in the passing attack, they need to utilize Lynch as a receiver out of the backfield. It makes too much sense not to - if you can't throw the ball to your best offensive weapon, why not throw it to your second best? It's inexplicable and infuriating that it hasn't happened nearly as often as it should be to this point.
For a back that entered the NFL highly touted as a receiver, Lynch's receiving numbers are unimpressive. The sad truth: with just 15 catches in 9 games, Lynch is still the fourth-leading receiver on this squad. Best-case scenario: rather than giving Lynch 25 carries in a game, why not give him 20, Dwayne Wright 5-8 and throw to Lynch 4-6 times per game? Lynch needs the ball, whether by ground or air, and throwing to him gives the rookie a little more space to use the wiggle he displayed in college. It's win-win: we're getting the ball in the hands of our playmakers, while relaxing coverage on Lee Evans. Lynch is effective, Evans is effective, and the Bills are far less predictable on offense. Or am I missing something here?
Memo to Steve Fairchild-Mularkey
This may seem like an easy solution, SF-M. And it is. But until you, you know, call plays in which our quarterback throws to our running back, you're going to see the same problems crop up week in and week out. I know you like wide receiver screens, tight end screens, and plays in which you max protect and send two guys deep. I get that. But it doesn't work. This will.