TEMPE, Ariz. – The Buffalo Bills are having problems, even when it comes to their best players.
Coach Chan Gailey is faced with the challenge of getting touches for both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, both of whom have proved they need the ball in their hands as much as possible.
“I don’t know how to solve that problem when you have two great players at the same position,” Gailey said. “If one all of a sudden gets a hot hand, it’s easy to figure that out but when you go into a game and have two great players, you want to play them as equal as possible.”
Last week against the 49ers, that meant an almost identical snap count, 24 for Spiller and 22 for Jackson. The week before against New England, it was 36 for Jackson and 31 for Spiller, according to data compiled by Pro Football Focus.
Problem is, neither back is doing much with his opportunities. Jackson has 58 rushing yards on 22 carries since returning from a sprained knee that caused him to miss two games, along with another 55 yards on four catches.
Spiller, who led the NFL in rushing through the first two weeks, has just 57 yards on 15 carries during the Bills’ two-game losing streak, with only one catch for 5 yards in that time.
“We need to get [the running game] back,” Gailey said. “If we don’t get that back, we will struggle offensively. We have to have a balanced running game to complement our passing game. We have to use both of them, get them both involved to let them go play.”
A few different factors have produced the run game’s problems. One of those is the shuffling of the offensive line, which has lost starters in Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik and key reserve Chad Rinehart. Another is the score, especially in the second half of the past two games. The Bills fell so far behind they had no choice but to pass.
They can help themselves better establish the run early by staying on the field.
“It’s gonna be tough to get guys as many touches as they want because there’s only one football,” Jackson admitted. “I think the thing we can do better is convert third downs [the Bills were only 2 of 10 against the 49ers]. We only had 44 or 45 plays last week [it was 46], so nobody’s going to get the ball if we have drives that are done in three-and-outs and things like that. It’s going to be hard for anybody to get into the flow.”
Jackson has long maintained that running backs get better when they’re in a rhythm, which comes with more carries. But he said that can’t be a concern right now.
“We have to go out there and make a play whenever we’re called upon,” he said. “Whether we get the ball five, six times or 20, 25 times, the best thing we can do is just try and make a play when we’re out there.”
Jackson and Spiller are in constant communication on the sidelines, discussing the looks they are seeing from opposing defenses.
“That’s one of the ways we can stay in the game without being on the field,” Jackson said.
As both continue to get healthier, it’s possible they could be used at the same time more often. That look is something the Bills worked on during training camp, but haven’t been able to utilize much because of the injuries to both backs.
“The only thing they say to us is stay ready, stay mindful of what we’re doing in the game plan, [as] if it were both of us out there,” Jackson said. “We’re constantly performing like that anyway, so once we get back to it [working with both backs in the lineup at the same time], it should be pretty easy for us to jump into.”
Jackson is ready for a larger workload. He said the strength in his right knee, which suffered a sprained lateral collateral ligament in the opener, has increased greatly in the past two weeks. He’ll make a game-time decision about whether to abandon the knee brace team doctors have had him wear the past two weeks.
“I want to come out of it, but again it’s going to come up to what the doctors think. I’ve got to do what they tell me,” he said. “They’re going to do everything they can to keep me safe, so if they tell me I have to wear it another week, I have to wear it another week.”
Jackson is not a fan of the brace because he feels it restricts his movement, which of course it’s designed to do.
“I do have a problem with it,” he said. “It’s something that I’m constantly worrying about, but at the same time they’re doing what they think is best for me and what’s allowing me to be out there. It’ll be a little bit of a tug of war.”