If you were watching the Buffalo Bills take on the New England Patriots last weekend (and you were, weren’t you?) you noticed some throwback football. Both teams (the Patriots due to their depleted quarterback situation, and the Bills because they love the running game) were making calls straight out of the Air Force playbook (or Navy, as Bill Belichick would have it). The Bills sprinkled some triple option and some single-wing into their playbook last week, and the Patriots did likewise (with less success).
That said, the direct-snapping package the Bills ran on six plays for 38 yards was not a true “Wildcat” formation - and quarterbacks coach David Lee, the so-called “Godfather” of the package, would know. Buffalo’s direct snap package features two of the three elements of the Wildcat. There’s a direct snap to the running back, and an unbalanced line with two tackles side by side. But none of Buffalo’s plays featured the pre-snap fly sweep action that helps the Wildcat put stress on a defense. There was no trickery here: This was power running, Buffalo Bills style.
In the last two games, the Bills have run seven plays from their direct snap package. Here’s what you need to know:
- All seven saw Tyrod Taylor on the field, split out wide.
- Three were during garbage time, with the Bills running out the last two minutes of clock.
- The Bills have two formations they run these plays out of, and they will flip/mirror the formation sometimes.
- All of Buffalo’s direct snaps used one TE, two WR, one FB, one RB, one QB, and five OL.
- The team will sometimes use pre-snap motion after breaking the huddle to disguise the formation. Coming out against 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE) personnel, defenses prepare for a conventional pro-style play, only to suddenly face the unbalanced line and shifted quarterback.
- More than anything else, these plays seem to be about getting a numbers advantage and power running, not misdirection. Taylor appears to have no role on these plays, and each one is structured like a typical power run.
Let’s look into each of the four different playcalls Buffalo has used so far this year:
In this formation, the Bills have Taylor isolated to one end of the field while stacking up blockers to the weak side of the formation. This is essentially the direct snap version of “Power” - a guard and fullback pull across the formation, lead blocking for the running back.
The backside is protected by kick-out blocking from Charles Clay. Cordy Glenn and Jordan Mills double team to seal the left C gap, and John Miller and Jerome Felton lead block for LeSean McCoy (or Mike Gillislee).
The receivers block downfield, and Tyrod Taylor does a halfhearted bubble screen pattern. Since he’s not playside, the Bills are mainly using him to drag a defender away from the box.
This play is straightforward downhill blocking. Felton comes across the formation to hit any edge defenders, and the running back dives up the middle looking for a gap to press.
Another variation on the “pulling guard” run play. This time, Felton starts out on the weak (no-tight-end) side of the play, which becomes the strong side after the formation shift. He is essentially sealing the edge on that side. Glenn and Mills double-team again, and instead of coming to their left, Miller comes up behind them looking for someone in the second level to pop. The runner follows behind him.
This is the second formation that the Bills showed, and it’s slightly different from the first. One difference is that I couldn’t see any pre-snap motion during the All-22 film, so I can’t tell if the Bills tried to disguise this look like they do with the other formation.
Taylor is wide to the left, and this time he has a slot receiver near him. Again, he doesn’t run downfield at the snap, stepping back into a bubble screen look.
The linemen all “down block,” essentially heading down field at an angle, each one latching onto the defender who crosses his face. The two receivers block downfield, the slot receiver taking the same route that a deep crossing route would have. Felton lead blocks off the right edge, and the running back follows behind him. This play allows for a cutback if the running back identifies an open gap. His job is to run with his blockers, “press” an opening (appear to commit to it so that defenders converge on that area), then change direction from right to left and take advantage of the opening he just created by shifting the defense.
The first notable situation to see the direct snap come out was against Arizona, after Taylor took a hard hit on a running play. The announcers speculated that calling a direct snap was a way for the team to give Taylor a breather before he needed to handle the ball again, and that’s a great point! For a team that is trying to press advantages using tempo, having a play they can run even if the quarterback is a little unsteady is a great move.
The other clear strength of this formation is how it fits into the bread-and-butter of Buffalo’s run offense. The team has two great pulling guards available and running backs who can read blocks and follow behind them. There’s a numbers advantage, with the defense having to take out a safety or cornerback to watch Taylor, and it’s good for a few yards every time, as long as the blockers are doing their job.
The Bills have several options available to them with this formation, even as defenses get accustomed to it. It wouldn’t surprise me to see at least a few of these come up later in the season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we never see this formation again (that’s how these gadget plays tend to go).
The clearest way toward devastating defenses is for the Bills to run a counter play out of this formation. McCoy has outstanding agility, and Gillislee has top-notch acceleration. Fake a run to one side, then cut back and run the full counter trey behind a pulling blocker, and you’ll see a 50 yard gain. The Bills have two weeks on tape without a counter run; this could be the ideal time to break one out.
You might think that this formation will eventually be “figured out” because there’s no passing threat. I’m not convinced that’s the case. This formation is less about misdirection than about smashmouth football. With the way their receivers block, I don’t think the Bills need to set up a passing threat.
The best option for Buffalo is probably to use Taylor for this situation. By the end of the Patriots game, defenders were starting to cheat about five yards away from Taylor. If the formation’s at the opposite hash, and his defender is far enough away, it would be simple for the team to take a pass option that has him run a fly route while they throw the ball up for him.
Another would be to do a double pass play, throwing backwards to Taylor at the sideline and having him toss deep to one of the receivers.
But those feel more like gimmicks than true playcalls. I haven’t seen anything from the team telegraphing the possibility of a pass play this season.
As mentioned above, the Bills aren’t incorporating a fly/jet sweep into their formation yet.
Aside: I have yet to find a consistent definition of the difference between fly and jet. Any coaches out there want to weigh in? I’ve heard suggestions about the depth of the players, the direction of the motion man, the direction of the run, etc. For what it’s worth (and I’m sure I’m incorrect), I’ve been referring to “fly” sweeps as motions across a shotgun formation, and “jet” sweeps as motions across a formation under center. The fly runner could receive the snap directly or get it on a shovel pass, while the jet would have to receive it as a handoff or a shovel pass directed backwards.
They could use this motion to help reveal a man or zone defense, get a runner with speed to have the ball right away, or add a misdirection element to the play. Imagine the damage that Marquise Goodwin or Mike Gillislee could do running across this formation towards Taylor.
A fun playbook
This is an exciting package to see on the field, and I enjoy each new gadget the Bills bring out onto the field. Whether it’s the direct snaps to the running back, the two-QB “Third-and-Manuel” package, or the running option plays for Taylor, it excites me to see variety in Buffalo’s playbook (and I appreciate it more when the team executes on the plays). As someone who suffered through some awfully moribund playbooks during the Steve Fairchild days, I’m glad that Buffalo’s more recent offensive coordinators are willing to add some fun and get creative on gameday. I can’t wait to see what they bring out next.