The Buffalo Bills pulled out a hard-fought win on Sunday, defeating Washington 24-9 in a game where it never felt like Buffalo was going to lose, but it never felt like they were running away with it, either. Fans have expressed concern over the play-calling on offense, criticizing offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for a variety of reasons.
Part of the issue involved the usage of veteran running back Frank Gore. On five different occasions, the Bills handed the ball to Gore when all they needed was one yard either to score or to make a first down. On all five occasions, Gore was stonewalled. Given Gore’s success in consistently gaining positive yardage throughout his career, his failure to do so on Sunday was frustrating. What was more frustrating, however, was the repetition of a play call that did not work.
How was Washington able to stuff Buffalo so easily on those plays? Perhaps part of it comes from a simple analysis of Buffalo’s offensive tendencies. When one looks at Gore’s usage throughout the 2019 season, it paints a damning picture of predictability. Coming into Sunday, Gore had appeared on 225 offensive snaps. On 103 of those snaps, Gore either carried the football or was the target of a pass, meaning that Gore was the focal point of the offense on 46% of the snaps he had taken.
On Sunday, Gore played on just 21 offensive snaps. He carried the football 11 times, and on a twelfth play, Daboll called a swing pass for Gore off of a play-action fake inside Washington's five-yard line. The play was snuffed out easily, and quarterback Josh Allen scrambled and took a sack rather than throwing the ball away. So, of Gore’s 21 snaps on Sunday, he was the focal point of the offensive play on 12 of them, a 57% usage rate.
When adding Sunday’s figures to his yearly totals, Gore has been the focal point of the offensive play on 115 of his 246 snaps, or 47% of his snaps. What this essentially tells a defense is that the play is going to Gore if he’s on the field. Even though he “only” touches the ball on his snaps just under half of the time, that means that the other four skill players are only the focal point of the play on 53% of Gore’s snaps combined. If we doled those snaps out equally, that means that the other skill players each see the ball approximately 13% of the time when Gore is on the field.
What this usage rate does is make Buffalo’s offense considerably more predictable when Gore is on the field. Consider the same analysis with running back Devin Singletary. Bills fans clamored for the rookie to receive more touches, and Daboll obliged us on Sunday. Coming into Sunday’s game, Singletary had played on 131 offensive snaps. He either ran the ball or was the target of a pass on 32 of those snaps, a 24% usage rate.
With Gore in the backfield, it’s essentially a 50/50 proposition—either he will touch the ball, or he won’t. With Singletary in the backfield, Buffalo was far less predictable. On Sunday, Buffalo went against the tendency, as Singletary combined for 24 carries and targets on 41 snaps, a 59% usage rate. That brought his season total to 56 plays as the focal point on 172 snaps, a 33% usage rate.
It’s easy to say that the Bills needed to play Singletary more, as Gore has a little over twice the usage that Singletary has, but the rookie has actually out-snapped the veteran in every game where both players were active. Singletary missed Buffalo’s games against the Cincinnati Bengals, the New England Patriots, and the Tennessee Titans. When removing those three games, Gore’s snap count drops from 246 to 131, which is 41 fewer snaps than Singletary has played this year.
So, if the Bills really want to maximize what they have in Gore, perhaps they should start doing what they did with Singletary prior to Sunday’s victory over Washington. Rather than giving defenses a distinct tell about what the play is, they should utilize Gore more as the ancillary piece that he is rather than a focal point. Singletary was used much more than usual on Sunday, which could explain why he was so dynamic.
Along the same lines, the Bills should be wary of overusing Singletary to the point that it becomes obvious how he’s going to touch the ball when he’s in the game. Finding creative ways to put the ball in the hands of your playmakers is the most important piece of an offensive coordinator’s job. Merely turning around and handing Singletary the ball over and over won’t cut it, so continuing to use him in the passing game, on pitches, after jet-motions, etc., will only help the dynamic rookie to make plays.
While this is somewhat anecdotal, tight end Lee Smith’s usage tends to go hand-in-hand with Gore’s. Over the last two weeks, especially, as both Singletary and tight end Tyler Kroft have eased their way back in to the offense, Smith has played on essentially the same number of snaps as Gore. Gore played 18 snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles and then 21 on Sunday. In those same games, Smith played 20 snaps and 19 snaps, respectively.
If defenses can look at the players who are on the field and determine with reasonable certainty what the play is going to be, it makes their job much easier. Varying play calls with particular personnel groups is essential to keeping defenses guessing in the NFL, and right now, Buffalo isn’t doing enough of it.
All data courtesy of proftooballreference.