In two out of the Buffalo Bills' first three games this season, C.J. Spiller has been bottled up by the New England Patriots and New York Jets, respectively. Almost universally, Bills fans are pointing to so-called "vanilla" play-calling from offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as the reason for his issues. This, of course, is not exactly accurate.
Hackett is changing the way the Bills run the football by using a lot of their snaps - particularly when Spiller is on the field - for the read-option. Conceptually, this makes sense: trying to defend both Spiller and mobile quarterback EJ Manuel can, as you might imagine, prove problematic. The team is doing some creative things with these looks that haven't produced much yet because of other factors, chiefly poor blocking and missed opportunities.
Five plays from the Jets game alone illustrate some of the team's running game problems at the moment. You can flip through the diagrams above as usual (hover over the pictures for play descriptions), but in short, these are the common themes:
Poor blocking. Especially when Spiller is on the field, the Bills are getting dominated at the point of attack. Teams are gearing up to shut down Spiller, and knowing that the Bills are running out of the read-option, they're blowing up Bills blockers on the line of scrimmage left and right. They're aided in doing so by the fact that Manuel has missed some golden opportunities to make big plays with his legs on these play calls.
Missed reads. See Play 2 and Play 4 above for just a couple of the plays on which Manuel could have held the ball and gained more than Spiller's meager runs. Hackett is folding these play designs into his read option running game to try to free up lanes for Spiller over the long haul, but teams won't defend these secondary options unless the Bills execute them well. They haven't done so consistently yet, so expect teams to continue keying on Spiller - though Manuel did start picking up some nice yardage on these calls against the Jets. It's easy to imagine Hackett imploring Manuel to run the ball when the two chatted between drives early in Sunday's loss.
Spiller's hesitancy. Spiller looked very good against Carolina - he was decisive in his cuts and looked explosive getting to the edge. Against New England and New York, he looked largely uncomfortable, forced to change directions on the fly and consistently bounced plays to the outside, which is exactly what the Jets wanted him to do. Spiller does not yet look completely at home in this offense, but we know enough about Spiller to know that when he does get comfortable, he'll light defenses up.
Pointing solely at the play-calling as the reason for Spiller's lack of success to this point is highly simplistic, and largely stems from in-game observations focused exclusively on play results. Hackett's play-calling is okay; it might behoove him to pull back on his reliance on the read option, particularly with Spiller in the lineup, but he's folding a lot of different sub-options into these calls that have big-play ability when executed correctly. Until Buffalo's young quarterback and skill players are fully assimilated to the offense, we should expect missed opportunities like this, and only stretches of the offense "clicking" as a result.
But therein lies the rub: fans want Hackett to abandon the up-tempo approach and spread concepts in the name of trying something different that might work. This is his offense, Bills fans. This is their identity. Give it time. This offense is far more elegant than what public perception says it is, and over the long haul, they have the skill personnel in place to be a tremendously difficult matchup for any defense. For now, they need to see the field better, block better and, in some cases, play with a bit more conviction.