Last year, the Buffalo Bills led the NFL in rushing. This year, under a new scheme with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, they are middle-of-the-pack at 16th. The passing game hasn't improved much, either. Last year, the Bills were 30th in passing; this year, they are 29th. Although they have only played nine games, the predictable and questionable play calling is enough to at least discuss moving on from Dennison.
Despite being the nominal offensive coordinator under head coach Gary Kubiak, Dennison has never called plays before in his long NFL career. Sure, Dennison has brought back some staples from last season’s offense, such as pulling guards to trap defenders. However, the zone blocking scheme Dennison prefers has not worked well with Buffalo’s offensive linemen, who have taken a huge step backward. Under former coordinators Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn, the offensive line ran a man-on-man, power-based blocking scheme. This season, they have struggled mightily with executing what Dennison is asking, and it is showing in players’ numbers.
LeSean McCoy had 1,267 yards last year on 237 carries, which averaged out to 5.4 yards per carry. This year, he is on pace for just over 1,000 yards on 279 carries, which averages out to 3.8 yards per carry. McCoy has only scored three times thus far, which is a far cry from his 13 touchdowns last year.
The predictability of the plays are obvious. You and I can probably sit there and have a good idea of what the Bills are going to do before the ball is snapped. Through the first eight games, Buffalo ran play-action five times on the first play from scrimmage. The New York Jets knew that during the game last Thursday, and they read the play like a children’s book. Play-action can be useful and effective if the run game is working. Since teams aren't as afraid of the run as they were in the last couple of years, play-action passes haven't been as effective.
Dennison's play calling has been questionable at best. For example, on the first drive against the New Orleans Saints, their scripted opening drive jump started the run game with counters and a toss for a big gain. After that drive, Dennison never really revisited what worked in that first drive. While he involved Kelvin Benjamin early, Buffalo’s newest acquisition didn't see another target from Tyrod Taylor the rest of the day. When you have a player of that caliber and size, you find a way to give him chances to come down with big catches.
The Bills saw plenty of third and long situations, and while no one has too many plays for third and 14, the plays on first and second down are what cause teams to fall behind the sticks. When they were in third and manageable distances, both the execution and play calling weren't good enough.
Late in the game, with Nathan Peterman in, the Bills found themselves in a fouth-and-1 situation. While this play had no influence on the outcome of the game, it was atrocious nonetheless. Peterman lined up in the shotgun with fullback Patrick Dimarco to his right. Dennison called a quick pitch play to Dimarco to the outside, and to the surprise of no one except maybe Dennison himself, the Bills were stopped on 4th down.
It is unfair to pin 100% of the blame on Dennison because there are times when not all of the offensive players do their job. But good coaches adapt to their players, not the other way around. The Bills are running a 20th-century offense at the moment, and it’s not going to lead to their first playoff birth of the 21st century unless changes are made.