ADVERTISEMENT

The Buffalo Bills’ passing game was in its infancy in 2013.

The Bills’ coaches were playing to the strength of their running backs and taking extreme care to avoid overloading the plate of rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.

It was no accident the Bills finished second in the NFL in rushing and 28th in passing.

They finished with the most rushing attempts in the NFL – 34.1 a game. They had the third most run-oriented offense in the NFL. They ran 48.9 percent of the time, more than all other teams except Seattle and San Francisco.

Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett considers those numbers and sees potential flashing before his eyes.

“Where we are is not where we want to be right now,” Hackett said. “Where we can go is very exciting.”

Obviously, the passing game has a lot of room for improvement. The Bills ranked second last in the NFL in catches by wide receivers, with 144.

Hackett looks forward to having the same quarterback (Manuel) working with the same receivers all offseason and for much more of next year’s regular season.

“It’s been hard because right when you want to amp it up,” Hackett said, referring to offensive sophistication, “you have to get down lower again, because you have to make sure whoever’s out there is going to be able to be successful.”

“Where it can go, once we get the pass game rolling, once we get the same wide receivers, the same quarterback, I mean, it’s exciting,” Hackett said.

If the Bills had tried to pass as much as most teams – 58.4 percent was the league average – it probably would not have produced better results this season, because Manuel was not ready to carry the offense. The Bills had their most rushing yards – 144 a game – since their third Super Bowl season, 1992. They got 927 rushing yards from C.J. Spiller and 896 from Fred Jackson.

“I think you always want to be 50-50,” Hackett said in an interview before the season finale. “You always want to have a balance. I always want to concentrate on what those guys do good. I always want to pass the ball more, but it’s hard when you’ve got Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller back there, and you’re getting chunk after chunk.”

“So as much as you want to throw it, you go, ‘Oh man,’ and those guys start looking at you, like, ‘Hey, we’re getting 6 yards a pop.’” Hackett said. “I think that as EJ develops, that’s where it all comes in. Now you start hitting on all cylinders, you convert more of those third downs, you get even more opportunities than we had this year.”

Here’s a capsule review of the Bills’ 2013 offense:

Unit Grades

Quarterback: ŒŒŒŒŒ

EJ Manuel showed promise. He showed poise in driving the team to a dramatic win over Carolina and in coming back from a bad start to win in Jacksonville. He was 4-6. Like any rookie, he has a long way to go in terms of fully grasping the offense. He took a lot of sacks by not being patient enough to allow receivers to open up. Obviously, he needs to stay healthy, too. Thad Lewis showed courage and competitiveness in going 2-3 in relief of Manuel. The Bills need to decide if they want a more veteran mentor behind Manuel. The Bills were heavy on potential, low on production at QB.

Running back: ŒŒŒŒŒ

Hackett and Manuel should be thankful for Jackson. Where would the offense have been without him this year, and not just because Spiller labored for six or seven weeks with a high-ankle sprain? Jackson, at age 32, was 13th among NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage with 1,283 yards, even though he was 18th in touches. He was sixth in yards after contact, according to ProFootballFocus.com. It’s the fourth time in the last five years he has been in the top six in that category. Spiller produced 1,112 yards, way below expectations and the hopes of fantasy football players. The Bills need to figure out how to make him more productive running out of the shotgun formation. Fullback Frank Summers was effective in playing almost 20 percent of the snaps. The Bills ran well out of their “regular” formation (two RBs, two WRs, one TE), averaging 4.74 yards on 123 carries.

Receivers: ŒŒŒŒŒ

After three straight 1,000-yard seasons, Stevie Johnson fell to just 597 yards. He missed two games due to injury and two due to the death of his mother. Can he and Manuel develop the kind of chemistry that makes him the QB’s go-to guy out of the slot? That’s one thing the pass game needs. Robert Woods lived up to his billing and had a fine rookie year. T.J. Graham caught only 23 passes despite seeing 71 percent of the snaps. Marquise Goodwin wasn’t healthy enough but showed promise in averaging 16.6 yards per catch with three TDs. In all, Buffalo got 144 catches for 1,924 yards from wide-outs. Obviously, the Bills need to keep throwing to Spiller and Jackson. But 31st in WR catches isn’t nearly good enough. At tight end, Scott Chandler had a fine year, leading the team with 53 catches. Can one of the other tight ends, Tony Moeaki or Chris Gragg, become a play-maker?

Offensive line:

The line was not one of the Bills’ main problems. Cordy Glenn had an excellent second season. Eric Wood is a quality center, although he took too many penalties (10). Kraig Urbik is capable at right guard. Left guard was a big weakness all season. Doug Legursky offered some stability after Colin Brown bombed, but Legursky is a backup-quality guy. At right tackle, Erik Pears is better at pass protection (even though he gave up a team-high 4.5 sacks) than as a run blocker. It will be interesting to see what Marrone wants on the O-line. Look for the Bills to seek at least two upgrades.

Coaching:

The Bills’ offense produced almost identical totals to last year. Buffalo was 19th in yards and 22nd in points in 2013. In 2012, it was 19th in yards and 21st in points. Hackett followed a league-wide trend in pushing up the tempo. Buffalo ran the most plays in team history (69.75 a game) and ranked third in the league in plays. The up-tempo (which helped simplify things for Manuel) and the run-game emphasis all made sense. Hackett seemed to get a better handle on when to back off the up-tempo in the second half of the season. He needs to get better production out of Johnson and Spiller. Everything in Year One was viewed through the prism of managing a rookie QB. Everything in Year Two will be about getting the QB to take a leap forward.

Playing time

By percentage: Cordy Glenn 100, Erik Pears 100, Eric Wood 100, Kraig Urbik 98.4, Scott Chandler 79.1, Robert Woods 78.4, T.J. Graham 70.9, Doug Legursky 65.9, Stevie Johnson 60.4, EJ Manuel 59.8, Fred Jackson 57.1, Lee Smith 38.0, Colin Brown 34.1, C.J. Spiller 33.5, Thad Lewis 30.7, Marquise Goodwin 27.0, Frank Summers 19.4, Chris Hogan 16.1, Jeff Tuel 9.6, Tashard Choice 9.1, Marcus Easley 5.3, Chris Gragg 4.4, Evan Rodriguez 1.6, J.J. Unga 0.9, Thomas Welch 0.7, Sam Young 0.7, Ronnie Wingo 0.3.

Sack report

The Bills ranked 28th in sacks allowed, no surprise given the inexperience at quarterback. By unofficial count, Manuel was responsible for 9.5 sacks and Lewis 7.0. By The News’ count, the offensive line was responsible for 35 percent of the 48 total sacks, including: Pears 4.5, Brown 4.0, Young 2.0, Urbik 2.0, Wood 1.5, Legursky 1.5, and Glenn 1.5. Others: Chandler 2.0, Jackson 2.0, Spiller 1.5, and Summers and Tuel 1 apiece. We had 7.0 sacks attributable to defensive schemes or coverage. Unofficial is the key word on these numbers, because it’s hard to know when receivers are running the wrong route or when blocking assignments get mixed up.

Road woes

The Bills went 4-4 at home and 2-6 on the road. They averaged 24 points at home, 18.37 on the road. They converted 37 percent of third downs at home, 30 percent on the road. Manuel completed 62.8 percent and had a 91.8 rating at home. He hit 55.1 percent and had a 64.4 rating on the road. A big part of the disparity can be chalked up to the fact Manuel was overwhelmed by the defensive schemes he saw in road games at Tampa, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets.

The Bills gave up 38 sacks on the road and just 10 at home.

“The reason why we had less sacks in the home games is we converted more third downs, so we moved the ball more, so they get tired,” Hackett said, referring to opposing defenses. “So they don’t have a rush. I think that’s the big thing.”

Monday: Defense. email: mgaughan@buffnews.com