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Analysis: A deep dive into the Buffalo Bills blocking woes

There is no easy answer to this question.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Five weeks into the season, the Buffalo Bills have a better record than many expected, gutting out a 3-2 start to the season thanks to some outstanding team defense. The offense still hasn’t found its footing yet. The team ranks 31st in total offensive yardage and 26th in scoring. Fortunately, they’ve continued their trend of limiting turnovers, and that safe brand of ball control has helped the team in each of its three victories. With top receivers Jordan Matthews and Charles Clay out for extended absences as they recover from surgery, the pressure is even higher for the remaining players on offense to deliver. The biggest weakness that needs to be corrected right now is their blocking.

In the bye week, the blocking has been the trendy topic to cover (aside from the usual discussion of whether or not the Bills should switch starting quarterbacks). If you have a subscription to The Buffalo News, you could get former Buffalo Rumblings editor Chris Trapasso’s take on where things have gone wrong. Another great breakdown came from the Grandstand Sports Network, where Erik Turner at Cover 1 took a dive into the playcalling and blocking trends so far this season. When you’ve gotten through those, here’s my take.

An unsettled offensive line

The Bills are still figuring out their preferred starting five, with nearly a third of the season complete. Cordy Glenn lost a lot of time to injury rehab, and when he finally returned to action on Sunday, the Bills were content to keep playing Dion Dawkins as the starting left tackle, and they used Glenn as a backup swing tackle. A healthy Glenn was a top ten left tackle in the NFL; will the Bills coaching staff agree, or try him at another position?

Jordan Mills has been one of the worst starting linemen for years in Buffalo, but the team hasn’t had better options to supplant him. Dawkins was discussed, but the rookie played left tackle in college, and Glenn’s injury issue kept Dawkins locked to that side through the season. Seantrel Henderson is set to come back from suspension next week, but there’s no guarantee that the team keeps him around; they cut Walter Powell after activating him from the suspended list last week.

John Miller has had a poor start to the season, and while he managed to fend off Vladimir Ducasse in the preseason, the coaching staff went back to Ducasse against the Cincinnati Bengals, deactivating Miller in the process. Upon re-watch, Ducasse was better than the absolute tire fire we saw in the preseason, and probably better than Miller’s four game audition. But the position still carries major question marks.

At left guard and center, the Bills have solidly-entrenched veterans in Eric Wood and Richie Incognito. Both are the best players on the line (especially while Glenn is out), but have also taken a step back from their exceptional levels of play in 2015 and 2016.

The last question is what to do about Ryan Groy? The interior offensive lineman was re-signed by the team in the offseason, and he looked better than either of Buffalo’s right guard options during the preseason. My guess is that, if he hasn’t been brought into the mix yet, the Bills think he’s only suited to be a center for this team.

It’s extremely important to give offensive linemen time to gel next to their linemates. The longer Buffalo continues to shuffle their options, the harder this will be.

The playcalling has adjusted, but the blocking technique has not

When the Bills hired Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator, we discussed at length the new west coast offense and zone blocking philosophy he brought to the team. Early in the season, the Bills relied heavily on establishing the outside zone run, because those stretch runs are what allow the team to run effective play action passes, where Tyrod Taylor can thrive.

Unfortunately, the outside zone runs weren’t a great fit for Buffalo’s offensive linemen. To Dennison’s credit, though, he’s adjusted his tactics and called fewer outside zone plays each week. With credit to Erik Turner, who originally compiled the week-by-week data, I’ve illustrated the trends in a chart for you. (The light blue are outside zone rushes, the dark blue inside zone, and the red is man gap types of runs.)

Over the first three weeks of the season, the Bills relied heavily on zone running, especially outside zone. But they’ve adjusted, and added more and more man blocking concepts to the playsheet - the plays that worked so well for Buffalo last year.

There’s another tactic that the Bills changed this season, and they’ve stuck with it through five games. We can chalk this one up to Juan Castillo, the team’s offensive line coach. The Bills are asking their offensive tackles to use a vertical pass set instead of the angled kick slide that they’ve used in previous seasons. Watch the feet of Buffalo’s offensive tackles in this play against the Seattle Seahawks last season:

And now look at their feet from last week against the Cincinnati Bengals:

It looks unnatural, but that’s partly because it’s a new technique that isn’t ingrained into muscle memory yet. The benefit of a vertical pass set is that it gets tackles to a better depth for watching for blitzers, and it puts them at a better depth for deep five- and seven-step drops. The downside is that it puts players off balance, and against fast defenders, could affect their ability to anchor. Jordan Mills, Dion Dawkins, and Cordy Glenn will be working on this all season long.

They’ve played great teams - and the schedule will get easier

The Bills have faced a veritable gauntlet of defensive lines and talented team defenses to start the season. This isn’t just a case of benefiting by playing a bad Bills offense, either. I examined the teams’ yards per carry, sack rate, and net yards per attempt given up, including and excluding their games against the Bills, and calculated their league ranks in both scenarios.

Opposing defenses have challenged the Bills until now, but it’s about to get much easier.

The stats bear out; with only a couple of exceptions, Buffalo’s opponents ranked almost identically with or without playing against Buffalo. All five opponents would rank in the top ten for net yards per attempt (which calculates passing yards per attempt, but includes sacks as pass attempts and sack yards as negative passing yardage) even if you ignored their Buffalo game. Carolina, Atlanta, and Cincinnati rate as top ten sack squads regardless of their performances against the Bills. The Broncos are still the best rushing defense in the league, even if you took out Buffalo’s 33-75-0 rush line.

At least part of the blame for Buffalo’s individual defeats can be chalked up to playing these excellent defenses. The remainder of the season looks much more encouraging. Buffalo gets five games against teams that have bottom-five defenses for both sacks and net yards per attempt, and they will play against the 24th, 26th, 27th, 29th (twice), and 30th ranked teams in yards per carry. A healthy Bills squad should find easier going for the rest of the season.

When multiple tight ends can backfire

The Bills don’t have much in the way of receiving talent. The chief contributors to the passing game have been running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay. Top wide receiver Jordan Matthews is out for a few more weeks with a broken thumb, and Clay is going under the knife for an MCL injury and a partial meniscus tear.

Through five games, tight ends Clay, Nick O’Leary, and Logan Thomas have combined for 458 snaps out of 326 offensive plays. The team averages 1.4 tight ends on the field each play. Some of that is to accommodate the lack of receiving talent, but it’s also part of Buffalo’s offensive identity to bring in those extra tight ends.

With Clay, it makes sense. He’s a good blocker and a dynamic receiver, able to stretch the seam and adjust for difficult sideline catches. O’Leary is also an underrated target who can reliably come down with a catch.

The issue is with O’Leary’s (and Thomas’s) blocking. It’s not effective.

The Bills want to use Clay as a primary receiver. To get him a favorable matchup, they’ll often split him into the slot. If they’re using 12 personnel, O’Leary is usually the other tight end, and he stays inline or in the backfield. But he struggles to get good positioning against pass rushers, doesn’t have good rapport with Dion Dawkins, and has been a liability as a pass blocker.

Thomas, who played nearly 30 percent of snaps against Cincinnati, is even worse. A converted quarterback, he’s still adjusting to blocking technique this year.

Suddenly, O’Leary is Buffalo’s best receiving option for the next two or three games (unless Zay Jones conquers his catching slump). Will the Bills start using him in the slot? Who will be blocking? Their best move may be to rely more on spreading the field and trying out quick passes for the time being.

The Bills need to design more runs for Tyrod Taylor

The 2015 and 2016 Bills had outstanding rushing attacks, and Taylor’s legs were the X-factor. He carried the ball 199 times for 1148 yards and ten touchdowns in that span, an outstanding 5.77 yards per carry. 21 (10.5 percent) of those carries were QB kneels that lost 24 yards, giving him a true rushing line of 178 carries for 1172 yards.

This year, we aren’t seeing the same success, and we aren’t seeing the same volume. Taylor has 32 rushing attempts, but seven (21.9 percent) were QB kneels. He doesn’t have a touchdown this season. The Bills are eager to roll him out of the pocket, but the zone read and other designed runs aren’t on the Sunday playsheet.

Letting Taylor call his own number will bring more speed to this weak offensive group. It’ll force defenders to account for an eleventh defender. It’ll open up more underneath routes on the play action passing game. This is the quickest fix that could alleviate some of the punting pain. The Bills coaching staff has been amenable to shifting their strategy through the season. This is one choice they could make to bring a positive impact.

There’s no silver bullet

Bills fans want a clear answer when the team doesn’t play well. Who’s the scapegoat that needs to be benched? Which coach should be fired? What play needs to be burned from the playbook?

The 2017 Buffalo Bills are a 53-man team. They play defense with eleven players on the field, and every player rallies to the ball to contribute to the success of the play. The eleven men on offense run out and execute the plays being called. This team doesn’t rely on star power to win - it asks for a unified effort. The issue is that, if a link breaks in the chain, it gets harder to emerge with a positive result.

If each of your eleven starters played well 95 percent of the time, how many successful plays would you have? If every starter failed on the same play, you’d succeed on 95 percent of plays. When they start splitting their failed plays, the success rate drops rapidly. A number of factors all come together to explain Buffalo’s weaker performance this season. The nice news is that the Bills have a plan of action that can get them better:

  • Design more runs for Tyrod Taylor
  • Settle on an offensive line combination and stick with it
  • Mitigate the blocking weaknesses from the remaining tight ends
  • Keep adjusting the playcalls to fit the personnel
  • Get healthy
  • Appreciate that your gauntlet of defense is over