Year two under Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman is underway. The offense produced quite well last season finishing as Football Outsiders’ (FO) 8th ranked offense (weighted offense). Now that ranking is primarily based on how they finished the season but seeing as how they went from 28th in 2014 to 8th last season quite an improvement.
Most statistics tracked by the NFL are solely based on yardage gained/loss etc. Football Outsiders takes into account the context of the yardage gained or loss such as down and distance (weighted offense). So, their stats more accurately reflect how an offensive or defensive unit performed.
Football Outsiders just released their 2016 Almanac and if you haven’t purchased it, I suggest you do. One portion of the breakdown that I love is the personnel and formation tendencies exhibited by teams. In 2015, Greg Roman employed a multitude of personnel grouping and formations, quite typical of his M.O. But there were major differences and I want to examine them along with what we can expect from Roman in year two.
After self-scouting this off-season, Roman, like most coaches tweaked the playbook. Sometimes that involves adding new wrinkles. Wrinkles such as personnel groupings, formations, and concepts. Here are the 2015 performance statistics based on personnel groupings:
What was extremely interesting in FO’s almanac was that in 2015, Roman employed 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) 45% of the time. Now, as far as NFL standards 45% is quite normal. But that wasn’t normal based on his history with the 49ers. In San Francisco from 2011 through 2013, Roman led offenses never topped the 22% mark of employing 11 personnel. His personnel groupings in SF were pretty balanced (chart below).
Remember 2012 (Roman’s 2nd season) was the season that Quarterback Colin Kaepernick eventually took over as the starter. He took snaps in every game, but by week 11 he was the starter. So when you look back at how the personnel groupings changed from 2011 to 2013, it makes sense that the 49ers utilization of 21 and 22 personnel groupings slightly increased. The lack of weapons outside paired with an inexperienced QB, led Roman to go all in on the “power” run game.
In Buffalo, the numbers and the film study shows that Roman wasn’t as balanced as he had been in the past. He didn’t utilize the 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE) or 22 (2 RBs, 2 TE) packages often. But according to Football Outsiders, that wasn’t the only drastic difference between Roman’s years in SF.
According to FO, in 2015 the Bills were in the Shotgun formation the 3rd most in the NFL! That’s quite the contrast to Roman’s 2012 season with SF, their offense was in Shotgun the 24th most and in 2013 the 28th most.
I believe that Roman learned from his first go-round with an inexperienced, mobile QB. So, going into 2015 with Tyrod at the helm, the offense operated primarily out of Shotgun. This formation keeps the threat of QB runs in the minds of defense but at the same time keeps the QB’s eyes down field. For example, on play-action passes from under center, the QB must turn his back and take his eyes off the defense. That is difficult for inexperienced signal callers because sight pictures change pre-snap to post-snap.
Now that you see how Roman operated the offense last season versus prior seasons in San Fran, what can we expect from him in year 2?
Recently Roman was interviewed by the Toronto Sun where he stated the following:
“You adapt or die. We’ve eliminated some things, we’ve added some things that are totally new. We’ve added some things that are things that I’ve done in the past, that I feel like we’re ready for now. — the overall scope of the offense, in order to fit it to our players. Hopefully we can stay together, stay healthy this year and really, really focus in on each player and what they do well … We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
One of the first changes I expect from Roman is more pre-snap shifting and motioning. The Bills used a good amount motioning last season, but with the continuity on offense, Roman can build on that. Defenses are so complex nowadays that shifting and motioning often changes responsibilities (you saw first-hand the trouble it caused our defense). With the base offense mastered, Roman can now add much more pre-snap adjustments. When you go back and look at old 49er film, on just about every play they shifted or motioned. Just like this play from 2012.
Here is a clip from training camp. I know it is partially blocked, but you can see Cardale get to the line of scrimmage and call the shift. The Bills then motion to a trips set. I foresee the Bills utilizing a lot of pre-snap shifting in 2016. Look at how the defense must now adjust their alignments and assignments.
The next tweak that I see Roman making is to try and gain more balance in the personnel groupings. I believe that he will try to utilize more 21 and 22 personnel. Only using 22 personnel 6% of the time is really low for his standards. Part of the reason that number was low was because fullback Jerome Felton had an up and down year. But I also think that it was due to the scheme. Felton came from a system in Minnesota that was a base I-formation where he would lead for Adrian Peterson. The running backs had a specific hole to hit, a specific man to block.
Last season the Bills’ primary run concept was the pin and pull, out of the Shotgun formation. That concept gives the ball carrier a general landmark but then they are afforded the opportunity to bounce it, bend it or bang it. This makes it difficult on the fullback. He must be able to read the flow of the backers then adjust his angles and point of approach. Felton struggled with this in my opinion. He was accustomed to running downhill and smacking inside backers. He will definitely need to improve on his blocking in space.
But I think Roman will help Felton out in year two because Roman will have TT operate more from under center in the I-formation. That is what Roman did a lot of in San Francisco. During those years he had an athletic FB in Bruce Miller who he could move around and actually was a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield (something Felton worked on in the offseason). Roman wasn’t shy about using Miller either, in 2011 Miller participated in 373 snaps and in 2012 566 snaps!!! So when the 49ers went to the inexperienced QB, they utilized the FB even more which is supported by FO’s personnel grouping numbers mentioned earlier. In 2015, Felton only participated in 291 snaps. So when Roman says “we’ve added some things that are things that I’ve done in the past, that I feel like we’re ready for now”, I believe that includes more plays from under center and involving the FB more.
On this play from 2012, the 49ers are in 22 personnel and they motion the TE to the weak-side. But Smith kills that play because of the defensive alignment, motions the TE again and pitches the ball to Kendall Hunter.
Here is a snap-shot from camp. The Bills have 22 personnel in and motion Clay to the weak-side and pull Glenn. In game scenarios, TT will have the option to let the play “roll” or “kill” it based on the defensive alignment.
Of course utilizing more 21 and 22 personnel groupings aren’t just done from under center. The 49ers and even the Bills last season used that grouping from the pistol and shotgun sets. Take a look at how the 49ers attacked the Pats in 2012 by utilizing 21 personnel out of the pistol set.
The 49ers shift to the pistol set and run counter trey to the right. The backside guard and fullback lead as the TE kicks out the force player.
Again, the 49ers shift to the pistol set with 2 running backs and 1 tight end. On this play, they run zone read. Having a mobile QB definitely causes headaches for defensive coordinators. Imagine having to scheme on how to stop TT, Shady and even Clay if he were to slip out of the back-field off play-action…
Having two solid tight ends behind Clay is definitely a plus. Roman can then bring in two backs and two tight ends and run zone read. Leaving players unblocked and optioning that defender gives the offense the numbers advantage in the blocking scheme.
Check out this beautifully executed play. The Bills didn’t call too many designed QB runs because of the injury to Taylor early in the year. But with on year under his belt, I think Roman dials up a few more.
Another wrinkle that I expect Roman to not necessarily add but to increase is the empty back-field set. The Bills utilized it only 5% of the time last season which was 23rd overall according to Football Outsiders. That is right in-line with Roman’s average, in 2012 the 49ers were 24th and in 2013 26th. But I believe that he has much more weapons and talent at the skill positions in Buffalo.
An increase in empty sets helps the offense in many ways. First, it makes QB reads easier. The formations force the defense to widen and in essence show their intentions i.e. coverage, blitz etc. But more importantly, it allows the coordinator to design mismatches and the QB to exploit them. Tyrod’s decision making should be quicker in these cases. Take a look at a clip from the 49ers vs. Packers from 2013.
49ers bring in 21 personnel, shift to an empty set with a TE and FB in the slot to the top of the screen. Kap likes the matchup of Davis on a linebacker so he quickly hits him as he runs the curl.
On this play the 49ers motion the RB wide, the motion shows zone coverage. Kap now knows that the defense is in cover 2 zone, so the deep corner (slot WR top of the screen) will be open. If the corner bumps out on Shady and another defender takes the #2/inside WR (Sammy), then the Bills again have a favorable mismatch. Like on this play.
It’s a win-win for the Bills. If it’s man coverage there, Shady has the upper-hand versus a linebacker/safety, which is why the Bills are installing it in training camp. ***The clip takes a second to run***
Another reason why using empty sets could be successful are because by widening/stretching the defense horizontally, it opens up the middle of the field. Something that Bills fans are well aware of. According to FO the Bills only threw 14% of their passes to the middle of the field, only Chicago threw less. Many fans place that blame solely on Tyrod, but I think it was primarily due to the lack of play-calls to the middle of the field. The staff admitted to protecting Tyrod in 2015. Using empty sets will give TT that much more room to operate. Take a look at how the 49ers used it in the Super Bowl.
The final reason why the empty backfield works, are because Taylor is mobile. If the defense is in man coverage, the defenders’ eyes are on their man not the QB. If the defense doesn’t account for the QB, Taylor could take it to the house on just about every play (Kap vs. GB in the playoffs).
Now consider this, with the Bills being such a vertical team can defenses afford to play with only one safety? Heck, can they stop the run without the extra safety in the box? Can they just play zone coverage even though TT will be one year better at reading coverages? Quite the conundrum right?
Using an empty set, adds another wrinkle that causes defensive coordinators to lose sleep. I expect Roman in year two with Tyrod Taylor to use that set more.
One concept that I think Roman will add for the upcoming season will be more designed QB runs. Specifically, the Power Veer Concepts. The Power Veer is the combination of the Power run scheme that we excelled at last year with option-like principles built in.
In Power Veer Concepts the QB has a read similar to zone read but instead of zone run blocking the line blocks power run principles.
As you can see the frontside of the line blocks down. The guard takes care of the DT with the RT helping then moving to the backside LB. The backside guard pulls and takes the inside LB. The DE is left free because he is the “read” man. Take notice of the running backs position and responsibility. The RB is executing a dive-like responsibility from the play-side. If the DE “crashes on the RB, QB keeps it and runs wide. If the DE stays home or widens, the RB will get the ball for an easy gain.
There is also a Power Inverted Veer, it is similar, but the difference is that the RB is aligned back-side and the responsibilities of the RB and QB swap.
Take a look at this video showing the 2012 49ers executing the Power Inverted Veer in the playoffs versus the Falcons.
I know a lot of fans are against calling more designed runs because they worry about TT getting injured. But I also think that the game is slowing down for him and he understands that he needs to slide or get down more. Calling a few more designed runs will allow the Bills to expand their scope of attack, which will pay dividends over the course of the season.
The Buffalo Bills offense has all of the tools to improve upon what they did well in 2015. It is up to Greg Roman to tweak the playbook to fit the personnel this season but at the same time add some new wrinkles to keep defenses on their toes. He has been referred to as a “genius” and “mad scientist”, it will be interesting to see what he has in store for the upcoming season.