The Buffalo Bills’ running game has an opportunity to get right coming out of the bye weekend.
The Bills’ next three opponents – Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville – rank 30th, ninth and 32nd, respectively, against the run heading into Week 12.
Through the first 11 games of the season, the Bills have faced five of the top 11 run defenses in the NFL, including the top-ranked New York Jets twice.
Despite that, Buffalo ranks second in the AFC and seventh in the NFL in rushing offense, but is coming off a pair of subpar efforts. The Bills managed just 95 yards in Week 10 against Pittsburgh and 68 against the Jets in Week 11.
The difference is that against the Steelers, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel could not carry the offense in a 23-10 loss. That changed in Week 11 against New York, when Manuel threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-14 win.
Running back C.J. Spiller said he expects teams will try to follow the Jets’ blueprint in coming weeks.
“Teams are still going to come stacked,” Spiller said, referring to crowding defenders near the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the run. “When you’ve got two good running backs, you’d be crazy not to. If you don’t, then we’ll just chew you up.”
Bills coach Doug Marrone agreed with that take.
“I think when you have young quarterbacks, a lot of times people will take just a general philosophy of stacking the box – ‘we’re not going to let your backs beat us; we’re going to see if the quarterback can beat us.’ Until the quarterback starts beating people, that’s how people will usually play,” Marrone said.
Manuel did that by completing passes against the Jets on Sunday that he couldn’t in the teams’ Week Three meeting. Manuel completed three passes of at least 34 yards, with two of those going for touchdowns.
“Teams were trying to force us to throw the ball outside,” Marrone said. “When you can do that and loosen people up and make them play more coverage … that gives you a better opportunity to run the football and it gives you a better opportunity to take advantage of the middle of the field.”
The bye week is a good opportunity for the Bills’ coaching staff to go back and review what worked so well for the running game at the start of the season.
“We just have to get back to that,” Spiller said. “At the end of the day, the running game is our bread and butter, especially in the conditions we play in. You have to be able to run the ball. We have a young quarterback, so we want to try to take as much pressure off him. We know teams are going to continue to look at the game plan that the Jets had and try to emulate that. We have to do a better job of executing. And we will. I have all the faith in the world in the guys up front.”
Spiller’s frustration was evident against the Jets. He carried the ball 13 times for just 6 yards Sunday. Marrone said after the game he told Spiller to, in effect, get in the ear holes of the team’s offensive linemen about blocking better.
“Everybody on the sidelines saw that I was frustrated coming off the field,” Spiller said. “As soon as you get the ball, you don’t want to be getting hit for a negative loss. I didn’t go over there and yell at the guys just because I don’t want y’all guys making it seem like ‘he’s being selfish and he’s being that.’ So, you know, I have a certain way that I handle it. I talked to the guys and I encouraged them.”
Spiller said he used some language “mom probably don’t approve of,” but that the team’s backs and linemen have a relationship built on mutual respect.
“We want to have the best rushing attack, and in order for us to do that, it’s got to be a collective group effort,” he said. “If one group is not doing their job, the other group has got to hold that group accountable. That’s the same way with those guys. I wouldn’t have a problem with those guys coming to me and telling me, ‘well you need to hit the ball up inside.’ I won’t take offense to that. I won’t shy away from it.”
Right guard Kraig Urbik said the Bills’ linemen made “easily correctable” mistakes in their technique that led to both Spiller and Fred Jackson being swarmed seemingly as soon as they got the ball.
“We made a lot of whiffs and stuff like that,” Urbik said. “It’s on us to correct that. We definitely can correct it, and we’re going to.”
None of the remaining teams on the Bills’ schedule has a combination in the middle of the defensive line like the Jets’ tandem of Muhammad Wilkerson and rookie Sheldon Richardson, who combined for 18 tackles Sunday.
The Jets are allowing 73.2 yards per game on the ground, while Atlanta went into Thursday night’s game against New Orleans giving up 132.7 per game.
The Bills also enjoy the obvious benefit that comes with the bye weekend – more rest.
With both Spiller (high-ankle sprain) and Jackson (sprained MCL in his left knee) playing through injury for much of this season, that’s particularly important for the team’s two primary rushers.
“I think any time you get a chance to get of any type of injury and not take any shots on it for a week, it’s going to help you,” Jackson said. “Hopefully it can help get some of the pain down a little bit. I’ll be around here the whole time getting some more treatment on it.”