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Chan Gailey's Buffalo Bills Offense, Part 2: Horizontal Timing

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This article is the second in a four-part series examining Chan Gailey's Buffalo Bills offense. Part one took a look at Gailey's traditional offensive roots. Part three examines the screen game that Gailey loves to use.Part four examines the Bills' running game.

Modern offenses in the NFL tend to mix proven plays and concepts. If a vertical timing play works, a West Coast team uses it to throw deep. Power running teams run horizontal timing plays. The NFL is a results business, and team generally do what works. Coaches innovate. Teams take power running ball-possession concepts, apply them to multiple receiver offenses, and go to work. In Gailey's case, he's essentially mixed a traditional ball-control passing game with west coast timing concepts.

He mixed for a couple reasons. First, horizontal timing concepts allow the quarterback to make quick reads. As Gailey went with the spread, his quarterbacks have become more vulnerable, due to fewer available big-bodied blockers in pass protection. Horizontal timing concepts allow Buffalo quarterbacks to get rid of the ball very quickly, a plus for the quarterback and the offensive line.

Second, Gailey likes to allow his playmakers a lot of freedom to win one-on-one matchups with defenders. Horizontal timing requires quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw to a spot on the field. The receiver's job is to be there at a specific time. How he gets there is up to the receiver. Gailey preaches "beat the man." Part of that is beating the defender in coverage to the spot.

Brief Definition of Terms: Horizontal Timing

The horizontal timing offense, commonly and inaccurately called the west coast offense, originated in Cincinnati in the late 1960s into the early 1970s. Bill Walsh served as Paul Brown's offensive coordinator, with the daunting task of designing an offense capable of moving the football on the Steel Curtain defense. Walsh took an old Sid Gilman concept of throwing to spots on the field, re-designed the idea, and ran it with great effect.

There are two reasons to throw to spots in the short passing game. The first we've already talked about. If your quarterback is only dropping three or five steps, the defense has a smaller chance to get pressure. Secondly, throwing to spots gives the receiver a better chance of getting open. Take a play that is designed for a receiver to run five yards, and then break in toward the middle of the field. If the defensive back can jam the receiver or bump him off the route, the play's timing can be disrupted. If the receiver does not have a specific route to run, and just has to get to a spot, he can get jammed and bumped, adjust his route in stride, and still get to the spot on time.

Basic Route Tree

For reference (and brevity's sake), let's use a basic route tree to reference passing routes. Many readers remember their football days, where they may very well have used a tree numbered differently. This tree is only an example, and is used for reference throughout the article. Note that the west coast offense normally does not refer to route numbers in their play calls. We are using it for descriptive purposes only.

Horizontal Timing Passing

Here is how a horizontal timing offensive play could look in execution. As with the last story, the model play is simple in design purposefully; any high school team could run this. The tight end is running a 3 route, the Z runs a 9 route, and the X runs a backside 2 route. The slot receiver is also running a 2 underneath the tight end. The running back runs to the left flat as the outlet receiver.

Conceptually, though, that's not how the play is designed. In a horizontal timing offense, the play might look that that in a playbook, but shown below is how the play is supposed to be thought through by the players. The receivers think of the routes conceptually in terms of getting to spots, not specific routes. If you read the terminology for a west coast offense, the numbers do not correlate to the example route tree.

Below is how the play looks conceptually. Each receiver has to get to their spots at a certain time. The X and the S may need to be at their spots by the quarterback's third step. The Y and the Z may need to be at their spots by the quarterback's fifth step. How they get there is up to them. The running back still runs to the flat as an outlet. Notice the spacing. The X and S are relatively close, but only to create a hi-lo read. The Y, Z, and running back are all well away from the hi-lo read, and each other, adding stress to the defense. We'll test this play, and how it naturally changes, against man, zone, and press coverage defenses.

In the below model, the defense plays man with the safeties in two-deep coverage. The tight end knows that he's probably going to get jammed by the outside linebacker, and then covered by the inside linebacker. In anticipation, and knowing that he has five steps to get to his spot, he runs an inside release, avoiding the outside linebacker, and then rounds off his route a bit in order to get back outside on time. The S sees that the nickel corner is playing him head up, so he runs a straight line to his spot. The X runs at the corner, then breaks to his spot, a normal-looking route. The Z runs at his cornerback, getting very tight to make it harder for the defender to change directions, and then fades to his spot, getting there at the fifth step. The running back runs to the flat, taking the other inside linebacker with him.

As the play unfolds, the quarterback could read from the slot receiver (the low read) to the X receiver (the high read), then progress to the tight end or Z receiver. At the end, he can always dump it off the the running back. When analysts talk about progressions, they are describing the order in which the quarterback reads the play. In this play, the quarterback reads the S short to X intermediate over the middle of the field, then looks to the right side for the Y and Z, and finishes with the running back in the left flat.

In the play shown below, the defense is playing a three-deep zone with the strong safety, nickel back, and inside linebackers in shorter zones. Pre-snap, the quarterback and receivers should read three-deep zone. The X goes directly for his spot, then gears down in the seam in the zone. The slot receiver runs the same route. The tight end runs his route a little more precisely, getting to his spot, where he squares his shoulders and makes himself a bigger target in front of the cornerback. The Z still runs deep, and the running back still runs to the flat. The progression is the same: S/X to Y/Z to the checkdown in the flat.

In the play shown below, the cornerbacks are playing press coverage against the receivers, the strong safety is coving the tight end, and the free safety is playing a Cover 1, or one-deep-zone. The Jets play this defense fairly regularly against the Bills. Buffalo receivers need to "beat the man" on this play. The X, S, and Z must beat the press coverage. For all three, the play is all about beating the press, then running to their spot. The X and S run similar routes, taking direct paths to their routes. The Z beats the press and then initiates a foot race to his spot. The Y takes an inside release, then tries to beat the strong safety to his spot.

The progression is the same as the previous plays. The difference here is that this play is more of a test of talent, and less a test of scheme. Beat the man.

Horizontal Timing Applied to Erhardt-Perkins Concepts

Brian described disguise as a theme to Gailey's offense. One of the ways Gailey can disguise plays is to run one type of play using another type of concept. The play below is the Erhardt-Perkins play we used in the last article. Gailey can use this play as either an E-P concept, as depicted below, or...

... in a horizontal timing fashion, using the same formation with the same intentions, just changing definitive routes into spots. The play looks the same to the defense, and starts out the same. Gailey can call the play with timing concepts, and still attack the defense in the same way while allowing the receivers the flexibility to adjust their routes to beat the defense.


Gailey's offense relies heavily on timing. Some of the plays are west coast plays by design, and some are Erhardt-Perkins plays with timing applied. Timing gives the receivers the freedom to adjust, both pre-snap and post-snap, to negate or minimize what the defense is trying to accomplish. Gailey preaches "beat the man" to his players. In his timing plays, it means "outthink and outrun the defender to the spot."