When NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called Bills coach Chan Gailey the “master of the screen pass” last week, he wasn’t being facetious.
The screen play is indeed an integral part of Buffalo’s offense.
Through the first 10 games, the Bills have run 26 screen passes to running backs or tight end Dorin Dickerson, producing 248 yards. Four of those 26 passes have gone incomplete, so on 22 receptions, they’ve averaged 11.3 yards, according to News statistics.
“They are really important because we do run the football, we do throw it and that’s the sort of in-between play. It’s a pass, but it’s the way of getting the ball in the hands of somebody you think can go make a play for you,” Gailey said. “So we try to devise as many different ways as we can to get the ball in the hands of playmakers. Screens are one good way to do it, and we’ve been fortunate to be very successful with them thus far. Hopefully it keeps up.”
In Buffalo’s 19-14 victory over Miami, the game in which Mayock gushed admiration for Gailey’s ability to design the play, the Bills ran four screens that gained 66 yards. Overall, C.J. Spiller has caught 11 screens for 162 yards, while Fred Jackson has nine for 52 yards and one touchdown (on a center screen against Tennessee).
“It’s a big part of our pass game. We’ve got guys who are able to do a good job with the yards after the catch. We try to dress it up as much as we can and we like for it to be a big part of our offense,” Spiller said. “We want teams to have prepare for it. The more they have to prepare for, the more they have to worry about. I love doing it.”
Both Spiller and Jackson excel as receivers, allowing Gailey to dial up the screens as often as he does. Another underrated aspect of the screen game that makes it successful, though, is the ability of Buffalo’s offensive linemen to get out in space and block.
The Bills have a mobile offensive line, with three fourth-year veterans (Eric Wood, Andy Levitre and Kraig Urbik), a second-year player (Chris Hairston) and a rookie (Cordy Glenn).
“I think it works well with their abilities and our abilities. We’ve got a pretty young offensive line. We move fairly well, so it works to both of our strengths. You gotta get out and move in space and you don’t see a lot of the bigger offensive lines around the league running as many screens for that reason,” Wood said.
“We get them [defenses] caught off-guard a little bit when we do it. We’re a little bit more tired after running down the field, but as long as it’s paying off, and they have been lately, it’s all worth it.”
Spiller leads all running backs with eight receptions that have gone for 20-plus yards this season, including two against the Dolphins.
His 31 overall receptions is tied for eighth among running backs, while Jackson has 26 receptions despite missing three complete games and most of a fourth.
“We want both of them on the field, whether that’s together or rotating. We want to get them the ball as much as we can,” Wood said. “They’re explosive with the ball in their hands. They both are extremely elusive. They’re two of our better players, so any way we can get them the ball — and beside handing it off to them — a screen’s about the second best way to do it.”
In addition to being good receivers, Jackson and Spiller have a knack for making tacklers miss.
“I think that says a lot about our running backs. I think some of the screens we’ve had this year, I think our linemen do a good job of getting out and our running backs do a good job of setting up blocks,” said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
“Some of the screens we’ve had this year have been flat-out covered. Those guys have made people miss and got down field. I think the screen game has said a lot about Fred and C.J. and what we’ve got going on there.”
The News’ figures do not include screens to wide receivers, but those also factor heavily into the Bills’ attack, as they’ve run 12 such plays.