Bills Embracing the Spread Offense?


Cutdown day is here, and the Bills made a move that has pleased many fans: sending fullback Patrick DiMarco to injured reserve. The move ends his season, but now what do the Bills do at fullback? The easy answer is to use undrafted fullback now tight end Reggie Gilliam as the fullback. But the team sent mixed signals by “converting” him to tight end.

Early in camp, Gilliam wore No. 41, but head coach Sean McDermott clarified why and ironed out what position he is going to play.

“It was just what numbers were available to our equipment manager when he came in,” McDermott said. “We put him in a 40s number, but he is a tight end for us.” But don’t read too much into that Coach Speak.

As of today, it appears that the Bills are going to move forward without a true, old school type fullback. Gilliam is the only guy that fits that description having played 53% of the snaps ‘in the backfield’ over the final three years at Toledo (Per PFF). To put that in perspective, DiMarco was aligned ‘in the backfield’ 73% of his snaps last season. So the Bills appear to be embracing the spread offense even more heading into the 2020 season.

To get a better idea of the Bills offense when they used DiMarco, and how they will proceed going forward, lets look at some of their production with him on the field.

Running game

The Bills utilized 21 personnel (two RBs, one TE) 10% of the time last season which was the 12th most in the NFL. Daboll ran it 49% of the snaps (51 attempts), so he was quite balanced. In those situations, the Bills averaged 4.3 yards per carry per According to Sports Info Solutions, the Bills ran the ball 48 times, led by Frank Gore with 28 attempts for 99 yards. His meager 3.5 yards per attempt was tough sledding, but 75 of his 99 yards came after contact. Gore was 29th out of 39 in yards per attempt for running backs with at least 10 carries in this grouping. His running mate Devin Singletary only carried it 12 times when the Bills were in this personnel grouping fo 43 yards. His 4.3 yards per attempt were 19th out of 39. So both produced less than the league average of 4.4 yards per attempt.

Daboll sent in 22 personnel (two RBs, two TEs) 4% of the time, which was ranked 13th in the NFL, and ran it 91% of the time. They averaged 1.9 yards per attempt on 41 carries with zero touchdowns. Another average yards per attempt that was below the league average of 2.9 yards per attempt. The league average in yards per attempt mainly shows how ineffective it is across the league. So the Bills had little success running the ball in this grouping. Singletary didn’t touch the ball at all in these situations while Gore was the leader in carries, toting the rock 26 times for 67 yards. Gore’s 2.6 yards per attempt were ranked 17th out of 19 qualifying running backs with at least 10 carries.

These statistics aren’t necessarily an indictment on DiMarco, but rather how the offense produced as a whole. It is safe to say that when it came to the running game, having a true fullback on the field, didn’t correlate to any sort of success.

Passing game

The Bills only passed four times out of 22 personnel, and only completed one pass. That grouping was used to run the ball which they did 91% of the time, specifically on early downs and to close out games.

Daboll used 21 personnel in the passing game to keep the opposing teams in base defense. So 4-3 teams would generally keep three linebackers on the field and 3-4 times four. Anytime Daboll believed they could get a certain advantage against the linebacker core, DiMarco would be used. But the most important usage the fullback played in my opinion, was to identify coverages. Daboll moved the fullback around in certain formations to help quarterback Josh Allen easily identify coverages, specifically deciphering man vs. zone. If a linebacker followed DiMarco wide, Allen knew that man coverage was likely. Which he could then work the man coverage beater concept. If a corner stayed out wide with DiMarco, Allen was likely going to see zone. But how much of a difference did it make? Here’s a glimpse into some of the production out of 21 personnel.

The Bills passed 51% of the time when in 21 personnel. Allen went 27-for-43 for 292 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a sack. He was ranked 14th out of 19 in completion percentage at 62.8% (min. 20 attempts) and 15th out of 19 in yards per attempt at 6.8. He registered a 2.3% touchdown percentage which was middle of the pack but the second highest interception rate at 4.7%, second only to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Once again, the production in this personnel grouping was minimal.

Play-action game

Of Allen’s 51 drop backs in 21 personnel, 12 of them came off of play-action. Allen completed 58.3% of those passes, which was 21st out of 24 qualifying quarterbacks with at least five play-action passes. But Allen was 10th in yards per attempt in these situations with a 9 yards per attempt average. He was fifth in touchdown percentage at 8.3% but led in interception percentage at 8.3. The Wyoming product only racked up 109 yards in these situations which was ranked 16th out of 24 quarterbacks with at least five attempts. So it’s a small, nuanced sample, and one that really doesn’t move the narrative into calling those package of plays successful or even worth it.

This isn’t to say that the role of fullback isn’t useful or that it may not even exit on the Bills in 2020, it just wasn’t all that useful last year. Gilliam played 436 snaps his final season at Toledo, 127 of those snaps were as an in-line tight end but 265 snaps were in the backfield. So he is well versed in playing fullback  or as the hybrid tight end fullback role.

Either way, the Bills will likely use their tight ends more in that capacity, where they will be aligned off the ball in sniffer roles or shifted into the backfield in two-point stances and asked to lead the run from time to time. It’s something Gilliam, Dawson Knox and Tyler Kroft have experience doing.

But, keep in mind that guys like Gilliam, Knox and even Kroft to an extent are more adept in the passing game than DiMarco was. So, hypothetically, will likely be defended differently. For example, if Gilliam and Knox are in at the same time, I don’t expect the defense to stay in base defense. I expect that grouping will result in more variance in how teams want to match up.

That variance puts Daboll back in the driver’s seat from a play calling standpoint because both are athletically gifted and can catch the ball but they also can be the H-back type that can lead rookie Zack Moss and Singletary through the hole.

The staff is blurring the lines between the fullback and tight end position as a means to keep opposing defenses guessing. They were extremely unproductive with DiMarco on the field, and hopefully, they change their strategy as a way to increase production.