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Devin Singletary is the Buffalo Bills’ starting RB, just not the way you think

The only running back preferences here are situational

Six games into their 2021 season, the Buffalo Bills have reached a stable equilibrium with their running back room. In 2020, their running backs were a weakness; Devin Singletary was missing the quick decision-making and explosive cuts from his rookie year, and Zack Moss struggled to adjust to the pro game while dealing with injuries. But this year, both players are healthy and both have had key roles in the Bills’ offense.

One talking point has lingered through all three years of Singletary’s career: the idea that he’ll never be the starting running back for the Bills. This year, there’s a notion that Moss is on his way to claiming the “RB1” title from Singletary. I’m here to tell you that’s bunk.

If I were to break down Buffalo’s running back usage for you, I’d start by describing it as a timeshare by design. The Bills don’t have a bell cow running back, and they don’t plan as if they have one. So Moss will never take that type of role for this team. But the situation is even simpler than that: Buffalo has specific roles in which they will use each player, based on his perceived strengths, and that’s what matters.

Let’s start with an overall look at each player, as he’s played this season:

  • Devin Singletary: 60 carries, 311 yards (5.2 YPA), 1 TD, 18 targets, 13 catches, 38 yards (2.9 YPC), 4 fumbles
  • Zack Moss: 54 carries, 208 yards (3.9 YPA), 3 TDs, 14 targets, 10 catches, 109 yards (10.9 YPC), 1 TD, 2 fumbles

Remarkably even, right? Singletary has played one more game while Moss was inactive in Week 1, responsible for 11 carries and 72 yards. This is as close to a 50-50 split as you can get. Singletary is the more explosive runner, and Moss a more dynamic pass-catching target, at least at a glance. Moss has also had better results as a scorer.

However, if we dig into their situational stats, their usage patterns are much clearer. Let’s start with Singletary. He’s Buffalo’s starting running back; that is to say, he starts their drives. 45 out of 73 of his touches have come in Buffalo territory, and he even out touches Moss when the Bills are backed up to their own end zone—a place you’d often expect to use a downhill runner. As the Bills move down the field, though, they make a switch. Thirty-six of Zack Moss’s 64 touches take place in opponent territory. Singletary is the starter, and Moss is the finisher. That’s especially true in the red zone, where Moss out-touches Singletary 19-11, and the goal line, where it’s 11-4. No wonder Moss has four times as many touchdowns as Singletary; Moss vultures up all the opportunities near the end zone, while Singletary only scored with a breakaway 46-yard carry against the Miami Dolphins.

To sum that up, Moss isn’t verging on claiming Singletary’s job, because they have two different roles. The Bills use this split to keep their backs fresh, to set each player up for his strengths (Singletary works well with plenty of room on the field, Moss is the short-yardage specialist), and to establish a tendency that they can then break to catch the opponent by surprise.

One more interesting usage note here is on third down, where the concept of a “third-down back” doesn’t exist. It’s Josh Allen; he’s the third down back and has been his whole career. Singletary and Moss may play on that down, but their only roles are to block or act as decoys. In their careers, 8.2 percent of Singletary’s touches and 10.5 percent of Moss’s touches have come on third or fourth down. That’s 57 total times they’ve received the ball on a critical down. In comparison, Allen has 79 carries on third or fourth down since 2019, and that doesn’t even count the hundreds of passes he attempted in that timespan. This year, Singletary and Moss have combined for five carries and three catches on third or fourth down, with Allen carrying the ball 16 times and throwing it 58 times.