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Aaron Schatz (Football Outsiders) on the 2014 Buffalo Bills

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders spoke with Buffalo Rumblings this week about some key stats and talking points for the Bills heading into the 2014 season.

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Several years ago, the Football Outsiders Almanac replaced the annual slew of preview magazines that had dominated my preseason NFL reading since adolescence. And, for the last few years here at Buffalo Rumblings, the author of the Buffalo Bills chapter of the Almanac has been gracious enough to talk about the team heading into the new season. (Here is last year's, for example.)

That trend is bucked this year, however. Christopher Price wrote the Bills chapter, but as he's currently covering New England for WEEI in Boston, we have a fill-in interviewee: Aaron Schatz, FO's creator.

The FO Almanac is an annual must-read; you can order it here right through FootballOutsiders.com, or pick up your copy via Amazon, as well. Schatz was happy to discuss some of the more intriguing aspects of the Bills chapter with us.

Up-tempo offense

A huge portion of Price's words were dedicated to giving Doug Marrone (and by extension, Nathaniel Hackett) some credit for running an offense nearly as innovative, at least from a tempo perspective, to the one Chip Kelly has famously installed in Philadelphia.

The Bills have repeatedly stated - and backed up with action - that they'd like to improve on third downs and in the red zone in 2014, as those were areas where they were especially bad on offense a year ago. Schatz doesn't see a correlation between struggles in those areas and the tempo of an offense - at least not yet. (This was a big sticking points for critics of Hackett's offense last season, particularly as they apply to keeping the defense on the field too long.)

"On the surface, I would say I don’t see any reason why a fast-paced offense should be an impediment specifically in the red zone or on third downs," Schatz told me. "The Bills really were no worse in the red zone or on third downs than they were overall last year. Although I looked, and maybe there is something to your question: Philadelphia was third in offensive DVOA overall, but ninth on third downs and 18th in the red zone. We’ll have to see if that’s a one-year fluke, or a general trend that could also apply to Buffalo’s similarly run-heavy no-huddle."

I also wanted FO's opinion on Hackett's comments from back in June regarding the team's doubled-up depth at running back. You may recall that, when asked how he was going to keep a backfield containing C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon, and Bryce Brown happy, he said he wants to run even more plays than he did a year ago.

Schatz shared details of exactly how fast the Bills were already moving in 2013.

"Stylistically, their offense wasn’t as complicated as Philadelphia’s," Schatz said, "but the numbers it produced were the same. The Bills were the third-fastest team we’ve ever measured by situation-neutral pace, trailing only the 2013 Eagles and the 2011 Patriots. Their pace in the second half of games was the highest we’ve ever measured, going back to 1997. And the Bills took all those plays and just ran, ran, ran with them."

Philosophically, the Bills have a system in place where keeping four running backs sufficiently well-fed isn't completely out of the question - especially if Hackett gets his wish, and the play count increases even more.

"They led the league in rate of runs versus passes in the first half of games (49 percent) and on first downs (60 percent)," Schatz continued. "They led the league in runs, even though they were almost never running out the clock, with ten losses plus two wins in the final minute. If (running) was their strategy with EJ Manuel as a rookie, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be their strategy with Manuel as a second-year player."

Manuel, by the way, was also a player I initially asked about, as new quarterbacks coach Todd Downing was brought up by Price in his Bills write-up. Downing was widely criticized in Detroit for a perceived failure to develop Matthew Stafford properly - his footwork, specifically - and I wanted to gauge a reaction to how the Downing-Manuel relationship might evolve based on historical evidence. Schatz has always been averse to talking about anything scouting-related, but did offer this: "Golly, yeah, hiring the coach of a guy whose ridiculous arm still gets somewhat sabotaged by questionable footwork to (coach) a guy whose footwork is clearly his biggest attribute in need of improvement seems really weird."

Schwartz sub-packages

We've known all along that Buffalo's transition from Mike Pettine to Jim Schwartz was going to be a fairly radical one from a stylistic point of view. The base defense is different, but more importantly, the way the two coaches approach passing down sub-packages is even more radically divergent. Pettine is one of the more dime-reliant coaches in the NFL on passing downs (the Bills played a dime defense on 22 percent of snaps in 2013), while Schwartz historically used it very sparingly with Detroit (they used it on two percent of snaps last season).

I asked Schatz how much of that discrepancy was based on the Bills simply having a far deeper stable of defensive back talent than Detroit ever did, and how much was pure scheme preference.

"My guess is that it is maybe two-thirds Schwartz’s preference, one-third personnel," Schatz offered. "It wasn’t just last year; the Lions haven’t played much dime at all the entire time he was there. The one thing that seems clear to me about Schwartz’s defensive philosophy is that he wants to build great defensive lines and let them loose at the passer. So I can’t really imagine him ever running a lot of defense that doesn’t have four defensive linemen. Even if there’s a player who technically is a linebacker, my guess is that guy would be a pass-rusher, and thus effectively there would be four defensive linemen. So if he’s going to play dime, I would think it would be 4-1-6."

Pettine's dime defense was a 4-1-6, by the way. The team's top four defensive linemen heading into 2014 were all on the field in Pettine's dime looks, as was linebacker Kiko Alonso, the top three corners of the day, the top two safeties of the day, and safety Da'Norris Searcy serving as the hybrid safety-linebacker in the look. Buffalo is still capable of running that look, or even dropping the third safety in lieu of a fourth corner, which could influence Schwartz' scheme choices a bit.

"I don’t think (Detroit) really got what they wanted out of either Darius Slay or Bill Bentley last year; those guys sort of took turns playing as the third corner, so you would rather have Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both on the field than both of those guys," Schwartz explained. "At the same time, the Lions didn’t ever really go out and make sure they built up a deep secondary in case they wanted to run four corners out there at once. They didn’t make those personnel moves. So we’ll have to see what happens with the Bills, because without Alonso, I would think you would much rather have four corners out there when the opponent is going four-wide, rather than going with two linebackers - especially if your fourth corner is Nickell Robey, who was very good as a rookie, and especially if using a 4-2-5 would leave Brandon Spikes covering a wide receiver for any reason. Not pretty."

An area where Schwartz might show a bit more flexibility is allowing his lighter defensive ends - Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson, specifically - to stand up pre-snap. Schatz was again hesitant to comment on Hughes' transition to the Wide 9 alignment that Schwartz is famous for, but did note that league trends indicate that there might not be a stricture that takes Hughes out of his comfort zone.

"One thing I’ll note is that we’ve seen a rise recently in ex-3-4 outside linebackers who move to 4-3 teams and play defensive end, but still stand up to rush the passer because that’s just how they are comfortable," Schatz said. "I’ve got to imagine that if Hughes feels more comfortable starting the play without a hand on the ground, then that’s what he’s going to do, no matter what technique location he’s playing at."

The FO Almanac is full of conversation-starting tidbits like this. Once more, if you're interested, you can buy a PDF here or a Kindle-ready version of the book here.