Breaking Down Run/Pass Concepts in Buffalo Bills OC Greg Roman’s Offense

The Buffalo Bills’ offense has struggled to find an identity over the past several years as the team has constantly adjusted it’s schemes in search of success. If one thing is certain from the hiring of Greg Roman as the new offensive coordinator, it’s that the Bills will look to establish themselves as a power team that will physically wear down opponents with an offense that features a variety of looks and motion at the line of scrimmage.

During his time with the 49ers, Roman’s teams have enjoyed great success with the running game, finishing 1st, 4th, 4th, and 7th in rushing yards. Roman’s run game is built around the power, counter, trap, inside/outside zone and the read option, but it’s been his ability to run these few plays out of multiple formations and personnel packages that made the 49ers so efficient on the ground.

While the 49er’s offense was centered on the run from 2011 through the 2013 season, Roman and Jim Harbaugh began showcasing some innovative and creative concepts in the passing game. Most notably, transitioning from their standard 12 (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) or 22 (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver) personnel to more of the ever-growing 11 (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) personnel seen in most NFL offenses today in 2014. In 2013, the 49ers operated with 11 personnel on 21.6-percent of their offensive plays, but that number was more than doubled in 2014, as they used three wideouts on 51.7-percent of their offensive snaps.

San Francisco’s offense runs a handful of core plays, but they will feature six or seven different personnel groupings in a given game which forces opposing teams to prepare for all the different looks and packages that they may (or may not) see.


Here at, I decided to go back and watch how Greg Roman developed and evolved his offensive scheme during his time with the 49ers, in order to discover staple plays, formations and concepts that we’ll likely see during the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season.

Run Game

Unbalanced Formations/Power

By removing a receiver and adding a tight end, fullback or an extra offensive tackle to the formation, another gap is essentially created for the defense to account for. In a game that emphasizes gap integrity, the more points-of-attack an offense has, the tougher it is for an opponent to defend. A traditional formation in 10 or 11 personnel has six gaps to defend, but the addition of an extra linemen creates up to nine.


With an unbalanced line, the possibilities for a rushing attack are almost endless. The extra blockers and gaps make it difficult for defensive players to have clear lanes to the ball-carrier, while pre and post-snap motion creates confusion that typically result in space created for the running back.


The power is one of the oldest plays in football, but offensive coordinators have dressed it up a bit with pre-snap motions and various offensive formations, a team needs to have a certain level of physicality and toughness to execute it.


Running the power requires complete synergy with the offensive line. With so many moving pieces involved, each player needs to execute their assignment flawlessly or the play can get blown up. The concept of the power is to seal off the backside while still creating a running lane on the play-side (the direction of the run). This is done by having the play-side guard and center block down, or defend the man inside of them, while the tackle can either block down or kick out to the second level of the defense, typically leaving the defensive end unblocked. The fullback or H-back is responsible for executing an “inside-out” block on the defensive end, sealing him out of the play. The key to the play is the backside guard, who will pull across the formation and head downfield to block the playside linebacker, opening a lane for the running back.  


Having an athletic quarterback in Colin Kaepernick allowed Greg Roman to add wrinkles into his system, most notably the read-option out of the “Pistol” formation. The Pistol is a shotgun formation with a running back lined up directly behind the quarterback. The system was invented by Nevada head coach, Chris Ault, who taught that system to his quarterback from 2009-2012, Colin Kaepernick.

The Pistol allows an offense to combine the best shotgun plays from a spread system with the old-school “Power” concepts that Roman and Harbaugh believe deeply in. Here, the 49ers are in a “diamond” Pistol formation, with two fullbacks to the side of Colin Kaepernick.


It’s an option run, meaning that Kaepernick will “read” the highlighted defensive end. If the defensive end keys on the quarterback, Kaepernick will hand the ball off. If the defensive end keys on the running back, Kaepernick will keep the ball himself and run.


As Kaepernick receives the snap, Miami’s defenders key in hard on Frank Gore. The fullback to the left side of the “diamond” formation effectively blocked his man to the left, allowing Kaepernick to pull the ball back and run for a 50-yard touchdown.


Greg Roman’s run schemes are some of the most interesting, confusing and fun plays to watch when it comes to NFL offenses. It’s clear that he wants to physically beat down the opponent, whether it’s using pulling guards on wham and trap runs or utilizing an H-Back as a lead blocker on a zone-read or option. He’s innovative and multiple with his system, as there’s several plays that feature two separate blocking concepts in one run play. Roman’s powerful, methodical, creative, chew-the-clock running game allows things to open up in the passing game.

Passing Game

Quick Game

The 49ers offense was consistently able to establish the run early on, which allowed quick passes to serve as an extension of the running game. Curl/Flats and hitches were the staple concepts in Greg Roman’s short passing game and he was able to design plays that attacked defenses with both horizontal and vertical stretches.

One of the most common short pass plays the 49ers ran was the “Hank” concept, a West Coast Offense staple. “Hank” is a mirrored route concept—meaning that the route concepts are the same on both sides of the formation. These 2×2 alignments allow the offense to attack the defense based on post-snap looks and coverages with sight adjustments made by a simple read of the safety.


This concept gives the quarterback a mirrored curl/flat combo and a tight end (Read No. 1) that will sit on the seam.

hank 2

The drag route clears out the middle of the field, as the linebackers must account for him. This leaves the tight end in man coverage over the middle of the field with space.

hank 3

Colin Kaepernick has a clean pocket and the middle of the field has opened up due to Roman’s play design. He’s able to make an easy throw-and-catch that results in a 29-yard gain.

Intermediate Passing

Levels/Hi-Lo Concept

The “Levels” or “Hi-Lo” Passing concept (two identical routes ran at different depths) is a great way to attack single-high coverage.


Here, the 49ers come out in “21” personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end) against the Rams, who are showing blitz while playing a hybrid coverage with a single high safety. While this route concept is designed for Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who are at the top of the formation, it’s crucial that the “X” receiver on the play-side sells his “Go” route to clear out the field and hold the deep safety.

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The clear-out works and due to the Rams sending two linebackers as blitzers, Anquan Boldin finds himself wide open in the middle of the field with a ton of grass ahead.


Kaepernick is able to step up in the pocket and get the ball to Boldin before the blitz arrives. Due to the play-design, Boldin is able to pick up a huge chunk of yardage after the catch.

intermediate gif

Deep Passing

Over the last three seasons, the 49ers’ offense threw deep (20+ yards downfield) 161 times, with much of the success coming when the tight end was involved. In the following play, Kaepernick connects with Delanie Walker for a 20+ yard gain on a corner route.


The 49ers come out in “21” personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end) in a “diamond” pistol formation. Delanie Walker motions from the H-Back to the slot, where he’s trailed by the Dolphins’ strong-side linebacker. This immediately tells the quarterback that he’s going to be seeing man coverage.

After the snap, Bruce Miller runs a flat route, taking the weak-side linebacker with him, while Frank Gore occupies the “Mike” with a check-and-release. The “Z” receiver to the left of the formation runs an in route, which holds the free safety.

Walker, a versatile and athletic tight end (much like Charles Clay) runs a deep corner route, easily beating the linebacker covering him and is able to come down with the ball before the strong safety can get over the top.


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