The issues with the Bills run game

11/21/2020
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The bye week is a time for the players to recharge their batteries and mend their injuries. But, for the scouts and coaching staff, the grind continues. The bye week gives the staff a few days to self scout, evaluate and augment what they are doing well, and fix what they are struggling at. And when it comes to the Bills, their inability to get a consistent run game going is the issue in their sights.

β€œIt’s something we have to take a look at, particularly this week as a staff,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll told the media. “And work hard to correct the things that we know we can correct.”

Head coach Sean McDermott added that the run game hasn’t been good enough. “We’ve got to do a deep dive this week and figure that part of our game out.”

I will follow suit and point out some observations I uncovered while doing a deep dive into the film and advanced analytics.

Philosophy change

The Bills gave QB Josh Allen all the weapons that they could this offseason to figure out if he is their guy long term. I think it’s safe to say, he is their franchise QB and will likely remain in Buffalo for many years. With all of the new toys at the disposal of Daboll and Allen, along with how defenses have defended Allen, the offense needed to be tweaked. The Bills evaluated their weapons and the analytics and committed fully to a spread, pass-happy offense: The offense of today. But with that comes different schemes, concepts and overall changes in Daboll’s plan of attack.

The biggest area that has been affected is the running game. Think about this change logically, when an offense spreads a defense out with weapons like John Brown, Cole Beasley, Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss just to name a few, the defense has to respect those names. Even more so when the Bills pass at the rate they do. Going into Week 10, the Bills were the third-ranked passing team in pass rate over expectation.

So they are the second pass-happiest team in the league, with a multitude of dangerous weapons so defenses are going to space the field in an attempt to stop that plan of attack.

When you commit to that sort of volume and frequency, most of the practice time is spent repping the passing concepts and less of the run concepts. So maybe the Bills don’t execute as cleanly or maybe they just don’t have the rapport yet because of all of the injuries and shuffling Bobby Johnson and the staff has dealt with along the line.

But most of all, where the Bills are attacking upfront has totally changed, and it has impacted some of their explosive plays on the ground.

In 2019, the Bills top two areas via volume and 10+ yard runs (explosive runs) was along the perimeter. They averaged 5.0 yards per attempt outside the left end and 5.3 yards per attempt outside the right end. They rattled off 24 of their 67 runs of over 10 yards, so nearly 36% of the explosive runs came outside.

In 2020, it’s almost the complete opposite — most of their runs are attacking up the middle which is generally the case with spread offenses. Their top two areas of attack are middle right and middle left where they average 4.1 yards per attempt and 5.2 yards per attempt respectively. They have only been able to rack up 11 10-plus yard runs with six games remaining. Their yards per carry are 4.0 to the left outside and 2.8 right outside, and they only have gotten 6 explosive runs.

Now, there are games left so there can still be quite the shift in these numbers, but given how the offense is drawn up, the inside runs will be their strategy of choice because of how much spread they play.

The Bills spread teams out so often, they generally see a lighter box. Let’s look at one specific area, six-man boxes. Of the Bills 196 rushing attempts on the year, excluding QB kneels, sneaks and scrambles , 88 of them have come against six-man boxes. That means the Bills see six-man boxes 45% of the time, the third highest percentage in the NFL. That’s getting your offense advantageous numbers and leverage. But the Bills rank 20th in yards per attempt in those situations! They average 4.4 yards per attempt against six-man boxes as a team (including WR and QB runs, not scrambles), and 4.3 yards per attempt by running backs alone (19th).

That screams inefficient and generally ineffective if you ask me. But there’s more to football than just stats. Defenses are fighting Daboll and Allen’s spread offense and run-pass tag tendencies by showing a light box then inserting the seventh or eighth defender post-snap and it’s blowing up the Bills run game.

Changing the box numbers

How defenses choose to defend Allen also affects the running game. Allen is blitzed the second most of any QB in the league sitting at just under 41%. If the defensive coordinator dials up a blitz to affect Allen, and the Bills run, that blitz will impact the running game. Blitzing the Bills offense as a whole is a good place to start strategically because blitzing, especially off the edges, is the primary to slow down the run game of a spread offense. Which makes sense right? The defense is spread out, so the box numbers are light, so when a run occurs, outside linebackers or defensive backs will be pursuing outside in. So the Bills offense may see a six-man box pre-snap, but the defense sends a slot corner off the edge and the defense blows the play up. That has happened on numerous occasions. Look at how the Jets send the boundary corner, and he becomes the edge force player.

Teams love blitzing from the boundary because it’s easier for the safety to replace the corner over the top. The Bills get zero movement on DT Quinnien Williams so Mitch Morse can’t get to the backside linebacker. So Singletary can’t cut it back because of the linebacker sitting in the hole and the corner protecting the edge. Tough sledding for a RB.

Below the tackle box looks very light doesn’t it? But the Cardinals send a rusher from the field, which hems the play in. He is the C-gap defender which means the edge defender Haason Reddick is told to shoot the inside into the B-gap. That is meant to disrupt the zone blocking, which it does. Right tackle Darryl Williams isn’t able to adjust his zone footwork and it’s Reddick who brings Moss down. Reddick makes the tackle even with the Cardinals having two guys in one gap. To give you an idea on how often the Cardinals rushed off the edge we can look at their their starting cornerback Byron Murphy’s pass rush numbers. The Cardinals sent Murphy at Allen 14 times. Murphy had rushed the QB 23 times the entire year, and again, that’s just the passing game.

The Bills love to run these condensed sets, but they allow defenses to disguise these pressures. Especially corner blitzes from the boundary as I noted in the Jets clip above. There is zero hints of a blitz from the boundary by the Chiefs. This is important because either the linemen or receiver have to be able to recognize blitzes like this coming prior to the snap or after. This means linemen, even tackles, have to aware of the defensive back’s posture, or likelihood of blitzing given the safety’s alignment and possible rotation post-snap. The play itself determines whether the line, tight ends or receivers are to pick up these edge pressures so I can’t tell you definitely blew their assignment here, but my guess is Brown.

I am sure that the Chiefs picked up on the lack of awareness by the boundary WR the week before.

Here’s another six-man box that changes post-snap. The blitz call completely disrupts the zone blocking and the running back has to make a defender miss just as he receives the handoff. I’m not even sure Dawkins would have the time to bang the defensive linemen over to Cody Ford and get a piece of the defensive back off the edge. It happens too quickly. Even if the corner simply contained the run, he would be forcing the back up inside which is one strategy that defenses are using to limit the Bills outside run game, the area they had the most success in 2019.

Recognizing these pressures off the edge is not easy, but sometimes it’s about communication and recognition. Watch the movement before the snap and after on this run by Joyner on the Bill’s second drive.

Flash forward to Bills fifth drive, which took place late in the third quarter the Bills run a similar call but this time keep Knox to the play side. Why would they do that? Maybe because they wanted him to block up Joyner. After McKenzie moves across the formation, Joyner stays wider this time as to not get caught in traffic and Knox never takes a look at him, before or after the snap. He has to pick him up, and if he had, the Bills would have the perimeter and an explosive run.

Understanding defensive fronts prior to and after the snap comes with experience. Late in the game, the Bills call the same play but the Raiders present their defense differently because they understand the Bills are trying to run the clock out. So they are in man coverage and Joyner is on the perimeter but not the force player. That is left for LB Corey Littleton. This makes more sense to Knox, he understands who he needs to block now. He cuts Littleon down and the Bills get the edge and an 11-yard game. The Bills get into their victory formation on the next play to seal the win.

Here’s Kroft carrying out the block on the very same run that Knox failed on.

Mental processing is something players struggle with and if they don’t improve, their ceiling as a player may be limited in the league. Recognizing these pressures is not easy. The devils are in the details but if you look closely, you can spot tells. And it’s much easier to do when you are in my seat.

Here’s another example of the defense cuing, but the player, rookie WR Davis not recognizing the corner blitzing. The failure to cut the DB off, and a blown wham block by Kroft crush this play.

Recognizing it is only one piece of the puzzle, getting into an advantageous play is the second factor. On this play against the Jets, it almost looks like the dummy cadence uncovers the slot blitz. I am not sure if that prompted the audible to this run or not, but Allen changes the play with the headset still on. So the blame could go on Allen or Daboll. Unfortunately, he checks into a play that is running right into the blitz and it puts the offensive line at a disadvantage.

In the fourth quarter of this game, the offense is faced with a third-and-1 situation with 2:08 on the clock. The Jets showed a bear front and show Cover 0, a front you don’t want to run into. Especially given how strong of a run defense the Jets have.

Allen could have checked out of it. We know this because after the game Allen stated “that third down to finish the game, I know they went zero, I could have checked out of it. But I felt comfortable with the play call and kept the clock moving.”

Daboll had a read-option type run called that ultimately failed. Given the defensive coverage, Allen’s check could have easily been a pass to one of his playmakers, but Allen chose to keep the ball in his hands. You can’t blame him, but the clock isn’t really an issue at this point. If the pass goes incomplete the clock would stop but you still kick the field goal and would likely hit the two-minute warning after the kick or even after the kick-off. So this decision not to check out of it, falls on Allen.

Once these strategies by the defense are recognized the players, they must have the proper answers. It sounds like sometimes they do and Allen is failing to check to them or guys are simply blowing their assignments. I think Daboll needs to give Allen and the offense a few more wrinkles to help the run calls he wants but also give Allen some more run checks. Run plays that run opposite of the blitz or allow them to run up the middle efficiently when the defense is in a two-high set and leaving a light box.

Some of these answers are already in the playbook, and it’s something I wrote about a few weeks ago — more QB runs and run-pass options (RPOs).

Let Allen read that slot defender after the snap. That will counter the defense’s ability to disguise that slot blitz. Post snap, Allen reads that defender and if he blitzes he fires it out to Beasley. If that defender stays out wide, then he hands it off.

The Bills had this in their arsenal in Week 7 against the Jets but have gotten away from it recently. The Bills have only run 12 RPOs all season – they finished 2019 with 33.

These short passes and screens are an extension of the run game. But it will force the defense to stop bringing that corner off the edge. And that’s when Allen can start to hand it off and the line will be able to block everyone up.

The Bills need to commit to 10 personnel even more. They have run 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TEs) 18% this year and have averaged 7.4 air yards per attempt and 5.5 yards per carry.

Their best rushing game from a DVOA perspective was against the Patriots, and in that game they ran 10 personneel 19% of their plays and averaged 6 yards per carry.

Football is a game of chess. Teams scout each other all offseason, as well as week to week once the season begins. Defenses have adjusted to Daboll’s scheme, specifically how to defend their run. He and his players have plenty of film to look over in order to make those adjustments for the long haul.

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