As is our weekly custom, we have updated our 2014 snap counts page, which tracks every snap played by the Buffalo Bills throughout the current season. Let's dive a bit deeper into the numbers to point out some recent trends and how they may apply to the 4-3 Bills moving forward.
Running back splits
How might the Bills split reps between Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller out of the lineup?
With the usual suspects playing, there have been two distinct roles at the position: Jackson has been the passing-down back, with Spiller working in on earlier downs and in specialized situations. Without categorizing Dixon and Brown as precisely similar runners as Jackson and Spiller, respectively, it seems more likely than not that Dixon will be the pass-down back for pass protection purposes, with Brown assuming most of what Spiller was doing as the more explosive runner of the two. There may be some muddling of the traditional roles - time will tell - but that's a good starting point.
Between Weeks 3-5, when both Spiller and Jackson were healthy and the Bills were transitioning to their current pass-happy ways, Jackson was on the field for 61.6 percent of snaps, with Spiller taking up the remaining 38.4 percent. Don't be surprised if we see a similar 60-40 split between Dixon and Brown.
Special teams roles
Speaking of Dixon: he currently leads the Bills, comfortably, with 138 special teams snaps played (66 percent of total) through seven games. Now that he's going to have an exponentially expanded role on offense, we should expect his role to be reduced on teams; against Minnesota, he was taken off of all coverage teams save for one.
Another special teams name worth keeping an eye on: Chris Hogan. Now firmly entrenched as the No. 3 offense after two solid weeks in the offense, it's possible that Hogan - who currently ranks fifth on the team with 115 special teams snaps played (55 percent of total) - will see his teams role reduced, as well. This is less likely than Dixon's workload decreasing, but it's something to keep an eye on, especially when the Bills are a bit healthier on the special teams side.
Should these changes come to pass, it will be especially noteworthy because the team is already playing without two of their top special teams players, receiver Marcus Easley and linebacker Ty Powell. It's conceivable that one or even both will be back on the practice field this week (Powell has a much better shot than Easley, it seems), but if neither can get back this week, the Bills will have some decisions to make.
Ron Brooks, Duke Williams, and Larry Dean are the currently-healthy Bills, beyond Dixon, Powell, and Hogan, that have played more than 50 percent of special teams snaps this season. The most likely candidates to see even a slight uptick in special teams participation with lineup changes on offense forthcoming? Preston Brown, Corey Graham, and Randell Johnson. When they inevitably sign another running back to be on the roster for a few weeks, ideally, that runner will be able to help on teams, as well.
Let's do another segue, this time from Hogan to disgruntled wide receiver Mike Williams: Hogan has played 67 snaps in the past two weeks to Williams' five, all of which came Sunday against the Vikes. Hogan has been the more productive receiver of the two thus far. Therefore, we should not expect Williams' predicament to change any time soon.
In fact, it may even get worse for him. The No. 4 receiving position may only be possible when, as was the case last week, both Marquise Goodwin and Easley were shelved by injury (and the top three receivers are also healthy, of course). The Bills have consistently worked Goodwin into the lineup as a situational deep threat when he's been healthy, whereas they have yet to define a role for Williams now that he's not running third in the pecking order. Easley will always be active when healthy, because he is their best special teams player. Goodwin offers more from a coverage perspective than Williams, too - though it's worth pointing out that he did see a few teams snaps on Sunday against Minnesota.
Bottom line: when Goodwin and Easley are back in the lineup, Williams may end up being the sixth receiver, and inactive on Sundays. In fact, it may only take Goodwin's return for Williams to find himself a healthy scratch once more.
Three-tight end sets
Remember after the New England game, when Doug Marrone received criticism for choosing to deactivate Williams in the name of preserving the three-tight end looks they had incorporated into the Pats game plan? Well, those continued against Minnesota, and it's difficult to envision them going away any time soon.
In those two games, Scott Chandler has played 67.6 percent of snaps, with Lee Smith (32.4 percent) and Chris Gragg (29.5 percent) seeing significant role increases behind him. This is starkly different from the 2013 season, when Gragg rarely played, Smith held the same blocking-only role, and Chandler was taking about 10 percent more snaps per game than he is now.
Not only are the Bills using the three-tight end look quite a bit, it's working for them. You may have noticed it when Sammy Watkins scored on a 26-yard touchdown toss from Kyle Orton in the second quarter on Sunday. The Bills used three tight ends, one back (Spiller), and Watkins on the play. Chandler and Smith lined up tight to the left side of the formation, Orton was under center, Spiller was the lone setback, and Watkins lined up wide right. The play call was four verticals; the three tight ends ran the play with Watkins. That's excellent use of an aggressive downfield play call from the context of an unorthodox personnel package, the latter of which dictated the single-high safety look that Minnesota had on the play.
On Sunday, against a run-heavy Minnesota offense, rookie linebacker Brown played 64 snaps, while veteran Keith Rivers played just seven. That signaled a reversal from the week prior, when, against New England, Brown played just 31 snaps as a pass-down option while Rivers participated in 41 snaps.
For the season, Brown has taken part in 88.2 percent of defensive snaps, which dwarfs the totals of not just Rivers (33.3 percent), but Nigel Bradham (55 percent with two missed games) and Brandon Spikes (53.9 percent), as well.
Bottom line: just like in 2013, when then-rookie Kiko Alonso played every single snap on defense, the Bills' top linebacker in 2014 is another rookie. He should now be considered a starter, ahead of Rivers. Along with Alonso and the energetic Bradham, who is having an excellent season, you're looking at the future of the Bills' linebacking corps - especially if defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his scheme stays in town for another year or two.