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Is Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison predictable on first down?

Buffalo was actually pretty good on first down...

NFL: Buffalo Bills-Training Camp Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

In the game thread for the Buffalo Bills game against the Cincinnati Bengals, a number of comments indicated that the individuals posting them felt that offensive coordinator Rick Dennison was killing Buffalo’s offense by being far too predictable. That raised the question of whether or not it was an accurate assessment of Dennison’s ability to call a game.

Against the Carolina Panthers, the Bills ran nine times on first down and Taylor scrambled twice. The Bills threw the ball four times at or near the line of scrimmage, didn’t use play action, and looked downfield four times. Discounting the scrambles, the Bills ran nine times and attempted to throw eight more. That’s about a 50-50 balance. However, four of the passes were at or near the line of scrimmage, which means the Bills weren’t trying to push the ball downfield on first downs (13 plays at or near the line, only 4 beyond). Even when the Bills did pass the ball on first downs in Carolina the attempts were in the 10-yard range. The Panthers’ excellent defense, currently third in the league, clamped down and the Bills went nowhere.

Against the Broncos, who currently lead the league in defense, the Bills ran 12 times on first downs and Taylor scrambled three times. There were three short pass attempts (screen, smoke, swing, check down), four pass attempts more than a couple of yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and a total of eight play-action passes. Twelve runs on first downs against fifteen pass attempts (scrambles included in the pass attempts) probably wasn’t what the Broncos were expecting even when three of the passes were effectively long handoffs. That puts the mark at 15 plays at the line of scrimmage and 12 five or more yards beyond it on 1st downs. Denver undoubtedly looked at the Carolina tape and Dennison took advantage by adding in a large number of play-action passes.

Against the Atlanta Falcons, Dennison called a dozen runs on first downs. Taylor didn’t scramble on any of the 11 pass attempts, of which only one was at the line of scrimmage. He did include a heavy dose of play-action passes (8-of-11). Thirteen of 23 first down plays were at or near the line of scrimmage, bringing the ratio closer to 50-50. The result was that the Falcons, number 10 in defensive rankings currently, weren’t able to predict what Buffalo was going to do on first downs.

Against the Bengals, the Bills ran the ball on fourteen first downs and Taylor again didn’t scramble. The Bills had two long handoff attempts, including a drop by Zay Jones on a smoke route. The Bills dialed back the play-action attempts to five and threw the ball on seven more first downs.

What does it all mean?

First, it’s no fun playing four of the league’s top 10 defenses in a month. (It does beg the question of whether it’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue: Did Buffalo struggle because they are good defenses or are they ranked highly because they got to play the Bills? Or are they good defenses made better by playing Buffalo?) Happily, the Bills don’t face a unit that is currently ranked in the top 10 defensively until the home game against Miami.

Second, Dennison seems to have made adjustments. After the Panthers loaded the box all game and crushed the offense, Dennison made heavy use of play action on first downs. He was giving the defense what it expected - a first down run or pass at the line of scrimmage - and then attempting to get the ball downfield. It worked against Denver and again against the Falcons. It didn’t succeed against the Bengals, an underrated team. Cincinnati had two weeks of film and Dennison did try to vary things with fewer play-action passes.

Third, Dennison is hamstrung by the limitations of the players he has to work with. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor hasn’t taken full advantage of the downfield targets made possible by the play-action passes. When Taylor has thrown the ball downfield in those situations, he hasn’t had much help from a pitiful receiver unit. Meanwhile, pass blocking from the offensive line has been less than stellar due in part to starting guys like Jordan Mills and occasionally scrubs like Vlad Ducasse for... reasons.

Finally, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers line up to face the Bills they can be fairly certain that Buffalo will either run or pretend to run most of the time (68%) on first downs. Guessing run will allow whoever it is the Bills are fielding at wide receiver in two weeks plenty of opportunity to get separation as the linebackers are drawn up to the line of scrimmage. When that happens, will Taylor let the ball go quickly? Will it be caught on those plays that he does? The answers to those questions look like they will have more bearing on the outcome of the game than Dennison’s first down play selection.