With five games in the books and a rookie quarterback hurt, the Buffalo Bills return home to face the Cincinnati Bengals in what could set up as a make or break game. Standing at 2-3, the Bills face a 3-2 Bengals team in the hunt for the AFC North crown.
Currently the Bills will be starting recently promoted practice squad quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to take the place of the injured EJ Manuel. This will be Lewis’ second career start in his three years in the league, and if the Bills are to be successful offensively this week, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett needs to realize what he’s got on offense and put the focus on the ground game.
At this point the Bills have rushed eight more times than they have thrown the ball this year (178 v. 170). But don’t let the numbers fool you. 30% of those rushing attempts (55) came in one game against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bills average 35 rushes a game, but subtract that one game and the Bills only average 30 runs a game.
Though it may not seem it, the impressive thing in all of this is that the Bills are currently second in the league in plays at 363 and first in rushing attempts. But when you watch the game, it seems as if Marrone and Hackett enjoy airing it out more when sometimes it doesn’t need to be. In fact, the Bills have passed more than run in three of their five games.
Hackett in the preseason talked about how he would give the ball to running back CJ Spiller “until he threw up.” Instead, Spiller has 74 rushes in five games, or 15 a game. Which is about three more a game than he averaged last year. Yes, Spiller has been limited in the past three games with an injury, but with this extended break between games he should be at or near 100%.
With question marks at the quarterback position, the Bills need to get Spiller the ball early, often and in space, which has been an issue. Though the rushing attack is averaging 4.3 yard per run, the lack of a screen game has allowed teams to blitz often to apply pressure on the quarterback, as well as to stop the run.
Spiller just scored his first touchdown in the fifth game of the season, and has only nine receptions. Hackett would do wise to put Spiller into motion out of the backfield to create more one on one situations, and use the screen pass to make opposing defenses play more honest and hold their blitzes.
In comparison, Fred Jackson has caught 17 balls and is leading the Bills in rushing yards, though not attempts. Jackson has always been reliable and in the passing game he works well slipping out of the backfield. He is being utilized correctly and you can see it in the numbers.
The problem in all of this is though Hackett is controlling Jackson’s workload and allowing him to excel, it appears he has mismanaged Spiller. It’s been that or his injury has limited greatly. Spiller will always be the surgical knife to Jackson’s hammer, and Hackett needs to find that right combination of strength and speed.
But when Spiller is used correctly, like the long run he had against Cleveland, he was able to get to the edge and break away from the pack. He said he was only 80-85% healthy for the game, if he is closer to 100% Hackett needs to take note and work Spiller more on sweeps, bubble screens and out of the slot where he can burn a linebacker and be his shifty speedy self.
When looking at what Hackett and Marrone did in Syracuse in 2012, they ran the ball more than they threw in 10 of their 13 games. Their play calling totaled 55% run and 45% pass. This year for the Bills it has totaled out to be 51% pass to 49% run.
Hackett and Marrone had a shiny new toy in EJ Manuel that they utilized very well until he got hurt. Now as they look around they have to realize and look to where they made their mark in college, and where arguably their best players lie, in the backfield.