Running Game Failures


Well, the Buffalo Bills have reached the bye week and, in Bills fashion, this season has had its ups and downs. But going into their football-less Sunday 3-2 probably wasn’t expected. I’ll say it: as of right now, they have overachieved, thanks to a stingy defense that leads the league in scoring, only allowing 14.8 points/game.


The commitment to tackling, discipline, and simplicity has paid off on that side of the ball. But that approach on the offensive side of the ball has led to a massive dip in production, specifically on the ground.


The Bills’ elite rushing game has gone missing. The new outside zone running scheme has failed, and failed miserably. Over the prior two seasons, the Bills have led the league in rushing. They used a very complex and powerful run game to snatch the will out of opposing defenses. But what most fans don’t realize is that the reason the Bills were so dominant was because of the massive amount of time they spent practicing it.


Each concept and scheme has different techniques, footwork, and line calls that each player has to know and execute, based on what the defensive front is. They could run the same play at separate times, see two completely different looks, and have to know how to adjust their blocks to the front as a unit. That takes practice, which in turn takes time, and the Bills spent a majority of that time in practice repping that run game.


In comes Rick Dennison and his scheme. It’s almost the polar opposite. It’s simpler, has fewer rules, but overall is still a very effective run game. The team has been able to spend less time in practice repping the run game and more time trying to get the best out of its pass game, which is also predicated off of the run. Simply put, the outside zone is aimed at displacing the defense horizontally, testing their discipline, and letting their decisions open up lanes for LeSean McCoy. But in order for all of that occur, you must have the correct type of linemen, and you absolutely must have consistency.


To start the season, the Bills were all in on the scheme. Against the Jets, the Bills ran the ball a total of 34 times (minus kneels, QB scrambles), 21 of which were outside zone runs. The scheme was a massive success; they registered 128 yards by simply running outside zone runs. McCoy averaged 7.3 yards per attempt on outside zone runs. However, a lot of that success had to do with the opponent. The Jets’ defense is a really athletic defense, but their key players aren’t the best at keying and diagnosing plays. Linebacker Darron Lee is slow on the read; Shady sets up his blocks and goes.


The success running outside zone was due to, well, Shady McCoy, but also an undisciplined defensive unit, and it masked some of the inconsistency along the offensive line and bad reads by the running backs.

Watch LB Demario Davis on this play.


In week 2, head coach Sean McDermott met his former defensive unit, and his knowledge of them didn’t help, at all. They are a defensive unit that currently ranks third overall and 6th versus the run. The Bills’ offensive line’s overall inconsistency was exploited by a very good defense. They ran outside zone seven times, inside zone four times, and even five gap/man runs, and had zero success.



Center Eric Wood, RG John Miller, and RT Jordan Mills were all bad. Jordan Mills, who currently has a 37.5 run grade, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), was helpless. But the scheme and personnel didn’t help, either. On 1st down the Bills are in 21 personnel, but have TE Charles Clay split wide to the top, WR Jordan Matthews in the slot, and WR Zay Jones split wide to the bottom. With no true receiving threat, a guy that can separate with his physical abilities, the defense can stay in their base defense and put a safety over Matthews, thereby keeping three VERY GOOD LBs in the box. The defense has good numbers to each side of the ball as they set their over front to the field. So they have 4 defenders to the weak side, 3 and a safety to the field, and are in good shape. On the snap the Bills run outside zone weak, and Mills is unable to kick out and stay engaged to 37 year old DE Julius Peppers, which takes away any options for RB Mike Tolbert. But he isn’t the only lineman that struggled; Miller doesn’t help Wood gain leverage of the shade DT because he is worried about LB Luke Kuechly. Wood leads with wide hands and is unable to control the DT.


The play call is a bust, the execution is a mess, and the simple run scheme is shut down.


In week three, the Bills faced another dominant front and struggled to run the ball. They attempted 12 outside zone runs, eight inside zone runs, and five gap/man runs. None of them were successful. Miller and Dawkins were the worst two graded run blockers, and it showed why on the following play. The Bills attempt to run outside zone weak, but Dawkins lunges and loses the simple kick out block. This play is not going to ‘bounce’ anyway because of edge defender Shaq Barrett’s alignment, so all Dawkins has to do is stay engaged. The ‘bang’ is taken away by DE Wolfe, but if Miller had realized Wood had good leverage, felt the inside backer sooner, then he would’ve had a better angle on the backer, and this could have been a huge run for Shady on the ‘bend’ or cutback.

BUT, Shady doesn’t get a pass on this play. By a running back’s third step he must have a decision on whether to bounce, bang, or bend. McCoy doesn’t cut on this third step. Instead, he hesitates another two steps and prepares for the hit.

Below is his third step:


The run blocking and rhythm of the running back are symbiotic, if they are not you get zero yards versus an explosive 20+ yard run.


Against the Falcons, the Bills had mild success running outside zone and gap/man runs. A lot of the success had to do with the Falcons missing several key players. Mills was the second-highest graded run blocker. On this play you see the Falcons stack the box in a similar front to the Panthers earlier. Miller quickly helps Wood out, then climbs, while Mills torques the backup defensive end, Brooks Reed. This makes the decision easy for McCoy, and he gains a good chunk of yardage.


The Falcons’ speedy defense gave the Bills’ offense some easy looks on outside zone. On this play there isn’t a defender on the line of scrimmage wide of the TE, so Shady ‘bounces’ it. Shady and Tolbert averaged 4.45 yards per carry on outside zone runs in this game, and that was with a 21-yarder called back on a hold by Wood.


Dawkins’s raw strength was too much for the Falcons, regardless of concept. Here is an inside zone run:


The Bills also had success running gap/man runs. Shady averaged 4.5 ypc and Tolbert 4.0 ypc. Dawkins overpowered the Falcons’ defensive line. This doesn’t include the 9 yard gap/man run they had called back.


The staff went into this game with the mindset that they were going to run more downhill schemes versus the lighter front, but I also believe that after watching the film they realized that running inside zone and gap/man schemes may be the easiest way to get the run game on track going forward.



Finally, the Bengals game, and another top-five defensive unit. The staff all but eliminated zone runs against the Bengals’ stout defensive front. They only ran Dennison’s bread and butter runs four times, and good thing, because they only averaged .75 ypc.

With no Clay in the game, running outside zone never stood a chance, even when the look screamed big play. There’s no defender on the line of scrimmage outside of the TE, so Shady bounces it. The quick read by LB Burfict and slow climb by O’Leary blows the play up for a loss of four yards.


But the staff made a foolish move by putting guard Vladamir Ducasse in over the struggling Miller, especially considering all of the inside zone and gap/man runs they planned on running.


However, credit should be given to the staff for running more inside zone. They ran it five times, and Shady averaged a whopping 8 ypc on inside zone runs. The Bills ran inside zone runs 24.1% of the time in 2016.


These zone lead plays are plays that Shady had success with last season. Maybe the Bills should run it more often from pistol….


They had a clear intent to run the power game versus the Bengals, running gap/man concepts 13 times. Although they only averaged 3.4 ypc, the offensive linemen showed much more consistency running these concepts. A concept that the staff has incorporated this season is called ‘duo’. The Bills ran duo several times, and it’s similar to inside zone, but instead of the linemen stepping in the same direction of the play and the center working towards the Mike LB, the run shows more like a gap run. The linemen block opposite the direction of the run and the center is working to the weak side LB.

Think of it as a combination of zone and gap blocking, but it still leaves the creativity in the hands of Shady. There are two double teams at the point of attack, and as the Mike LB Kevin Minter chooses to come downhill, Shady is reading him and makes his cut.


It’s a nice adjustment by the staff and a good job by Shady.


This concept and game could have been a lot different if Clay was in the game and this 44 yard ‘duo’ run wasn’t called back on the hold.


But that’s irrelevant now; the Bills now have the bye week to adjust their plan of attack. The outside zone running game has obviously struggled since week one, but on the year they are averaging 3.9 ypc. Some will blame the personnel, some will blame the scheme, some will say it’s defenses stacking the box, some will say it’s just bad play calling altogether, and then others will blame it on injuries. None of these are the wrong answers, but none of them are the absolute reason why the run game has struggled as a whole. The fact is there has not been any consistency. But even with the perceived struggles, here are the statistics for the entire season thus far.

Surprised? The Dennison run game has appeared to be struggling, but is it just perception? No, there is truth to it when you look at the context. The Bills put up 128 of the 216 outside zone yards against the Jets..So, since then they have struggled.


The line has indeed struggled to execute the zone heavy scheme the last couple weeks, but that’s not because they can’t do it. It’s a muscle memory thing, in my opinion. There’s a timing element involved with zone runs, the exact moment when a lineman should climb, the exact moment when a running back has to cut. That takes repetition and timing.


Even with the struggles, the Bills are 3-2 going into the bye week and, as HC McDermott mentioned, they must evolve. Over the last couple of weeks the staff has dialed back on outside zone runs, so that evolution process has already started.


If not for a few minor brain farts by offensive linemen, some bad reads by running backs, and penalties, then the running game could be a lot different.


The outside zone game will not be totally phased out, as the staff needs it to set up play action and the perimeter passing game, but there is no doubt that they have to be better on the ground. Right now on third down they average 3rd and 8.6, and we all know that is not a favorable down and distance, regardless of which QB is playing.


The Bills should double down on what they do well. Spend more practice time repping the run game, augment it with more inside zone and gap/man runs, and even some more designed QB runs. Hint: use the pistol to make Taylor more of a run threat. It will hold that backside defender on outside zone runs but it will also help Taylor in the passing game.



Focus on what they have done well in the past, running the ball. It will help keep the offense on schedule, in manageable down-and-distances so that when 3rd down arises the offense stands a chance, especially when the defense is playing as well as they are.


Getting Cordy Glenn back should definitely bolster the level of play up front. But everyone knows that the Bills don’t have the offensive weapons to light up the scoreboard. They don’t have many guys that can separate on their own consistently.


They don’t have quarterbacks who can carry a passing game, so they must adapt and that’s what self-scouting during the bye week helps you do.