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Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is predictable and conservative

The Bills’ first-year play caller has been a popular topic of conversation.

Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has been a popular whipping boy around Buffalo Rumblings. After nearly every game, there have been calls for his termination. While specifics were sometimes offered, the upshot was that the Bills dropped from seventh in the league in scoring (before EJ Manuel and Cardale Jones dropped the team to tenth in that final debacle of 2016 in New Jersey) down to 22nd in 2017. How bad is that? Well, the only other team to make the playoffs in the bottom half of the league in scoring is the Tennessee Titans (19th). Scoring equals wins, and wins equals playoffs, so frustrations with Buffalo’s scoring output are certainly understandable.

Dennison has taken a well-deserved hit for attempting to foist a zone blocking scheme on an offensive line group that had proven that it was built for power football. After all, the Bills led the league in rushing both in 2015 and 2016. While the Bills finished the 2017 season a very respectable sixth in rushing, the team dropped from 4.8 (2015) and 5.3 (2016) yards per carry down to 4.1 per rushing attempt in 2017. Dennison certainly earned criticism for breaking something that had been working really, really well. That said, he is also due some credit for going to the line and asking them for their thoughts—and then incorporating their input into his game planning.

Many have chastised Dennison for being too conservative and also for being too predictable. It may not be fair to ding him for being too conservative, as he is merely reflecting head coach Sean McDermott in that regard. McDermott wanted an offensive coordinator who would run the ball (fourth-most attempts, second-highest percentage of run plays) and play things close to the vest - another way of saying “not to lose” - once a lead had been established.

Is Dennison predictable? It was something I looked at after the Tampa Bay game. Excluding the first Miami game and the second New England game, I’ve noted the first down play selection of the Bills in an overly-long comment in the Rumblings game recap post. With the regular season over, it seems like a good time to go back and look at whether Dennison’s first down play selections have been predictable. I combined runs and long handoffs (short passes) into the first percentage, and passes beyond 5 yards and scrambles (in theory meant to be longer than 5-yard passes) into the second percentage.

Rick Dennison’s first-down play calling

Opponent Run/Short Pass % Scramble/ Long Pass %
Opponent Run/Short Pass % Scramble/ Long Pass %
Carolina 68% 32%
Denver 68% 32%
Atlanta 57% 43%
Cincinnati 70% 30%
Tampa Bay 67% 33%
New York Jets* 70% 30%
New Orleans* 92% 8%
Los Angeles Chargers* 67% 33%
Kansas City 70% 30%
New England (1) 60% 40%
Indianapolis 96% 4%
Miami (2) 76% 24%
*Official “garbage-time” statistics not included

Put it all together, and you’re looking at 72% of Dennison’s first down plays are either runs or very short passes. Drop out the crazy Indianapolis Colts game and the percentage falls to 69%. On average, a defensive coordinator can expect Dennison to call something close to the line of scrimmage about 70% of the time on first downs. The temptation is to bring a safety into the box either for run support or to take down the receiver quickly, limiting him to a short gain. It didn’t work out so well for Atlanta, however. Dennison, in that game, mixed in fewer first down short plays (56%). Since then, he has gone against type only with the Patriots (60%), but Buffalo was trailing most of the game and threw more often in a sad attempt at playing catch-up.

So, yes, Dennison is predictable on first down. Will Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive coordinator Todd Walsh attempt to take advantage by bringing a safety down into the box on first downs? He should, as it would put the game squarely on the shoulders of Tyrod Taylor. With a doomed run or short pass called in the huddle, Taylor would have to come to the line, realize the play wasn’t going to work, and audible to some kind of 10+ yard pass. Reading defenses, changing the play, taking shots downfield… stop me when I hit on something that sounds like it is in Taylor’s wheelhouse.

Walsh might not load the box on first downs, though, for a couple of reasons. First, he has a lot of very talented players at all three levels of the defense – including a former defensive lineman drafted third overall who Bills’ fans may remember. Walsh’s front seven may be able to snuff out short plays without the extra man. Second, Walsh reports to a “play not to lose” head coach in Doug Marrone. Marrone may prefer to limit Buffalo’s ability to hit big plays, such as that ability is, and let the Bills try to dink and dunk all the way down the field.