Know Your Enemy: Buffalo Offense

A quarter of the NFL’s 32 franchises brought fresh faces aboard in 2013 to lead their squads from the sidelines, with mixed results. Of the eight new coaches, three saw their teams make the postseason, with Bruce Arians’ Cardinals just missing the playoffs after a 10-6 slate. Gus Bradley’s Jaguars doubled their 2012 win total, and Marc Trestman’s Bears scored 70 more points than in 2012 despite injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler. But while offensive-minded head coaches Andy Reid of the Chiefs, Trestman, the Eagles’ Chip Kelly, and San Diego’s Mike McCoy brought dramatic improvement to their respective scoring attacks, Doug Marrone’s Buffalo Bills finished with virtually the same point total (339) as the year before (344) and an identical 6-10 record.

Longtime Bills owner Ralph Wilson passed away in March, creating a sense of urgency within the organization to win now. It’s been a decade since the Bills last had a winning record and 15 years since they made the playoffs, deepening the desperation in Orchard Park and resulting in aggressive offseason moves. Next year’s first-round pick is already gone, having been dealt as part of the package to move up five spots to select Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins. Last year’s first-round pick, quarterback E.J. Manuel, has been benched just 14 games into his career in favor of Kyle Orton, who has been with the team for barely a month and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2011.

Early returns in 2014 have been a mixed bag. The team is 3-2 and tied for the division lead, a result that has to please long-suffering Bills fans. But the offensive changes haven’t produced the desired results, as the Bills’ 19.2 points per game ranks 28thout of 32 teams. However, the defense has been stingy, allowing just 17.8 points per game for a 5th-best ranking in the league. The run defense, long a below-average unit, is allowing a paltry 3.0 yards per carry, good for 2nd-best overall. The defense is keeping Buffalo in games, but Marrone still has to be uneasy – after all, he was brought in to be the offensive mastermind. If the Bills continue to have a bottom-five attack, they’re unlikely to snap their streak of sub-.500 records and Marrone is likely to be looking for employment elsewhere in the offseason.

Backfield

Two elements have characterized the Buffalo backfield in recent seasons: 1) the two-headed running attack of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who’ve divided the workload since the Bills tabbed Spiller in the first round of the 2010 draft; and 2) mediocre quarterback play. Since their last playoff appearance in 1999, Buffalo has deployed veterans like Drew Bledsoe and Doug Flutie, draft picks such as Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman, and castoffs including Alex Van Pelt, Brian Brohm, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Neither of these two elements figures to change in 2014 ‒ Jackson and Spiller are still capably splitting carries, while Orton and Manuel figure to resemble the quarterbacks named above rather than the likes of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.

Quarterback – Kyle Orton #18

The 31-year-old has faced the Patriots once before, and beat them, completing nearly 73% of his passes en route to 330 yards and a 20-7 Broncos victory. His head coach at the time was current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who unveiled a “Wild Horses” attack that befuddled the New England defense. Through that point, Denver was 5-0 and Orton was 26-12 as a starter for his career. That was just about the high water mark of the McDaniels-Orton partnership, which did not quite reach the heights of Belichick-Brady. The Broncos lost 8 of their final 11 games in 2009 and 10 of their first 13 in 2010 before McDaniels was fired and Orton was replaced by Tim Tebow.

Orton has a reputation as a game manager, a limited but smart player who will take care of the football and make the safe play, but not necessarily the flashy one. For his career, he’s thrown interceptions at a rate 5% better than average, but since the beginning of the 2011 his interception rate is 9% below average, which is in the bottom quartile of signal-callers. He’s shown improved accuracy over that time period, completing more than 62% of his passes after connecting on just 58.1% from 2005 through 2010. Bills receivers have complimented Orton’s ability to diagnose defenses and get the ball out quickly, manifested by an above-average avoidance of sacks. If the Patriots can confuse him pre-snap, they can limit this elusiveness and cause him to lose composure in the pocket:

Signed at the end of August, Orton is still learning the Buffalo offense and made his 2014 debut just last week against Detroit. His performance was up-and-down; he passed for more than 300 yards and made good throws at times, but the Bills scored just 17 points and he threw an ugly interception:

Orton figures to be an upgrade over Manuel for the remainder of the year, as well as someone who can help young receivers Watkins and Robert Woods develop. But his ceiling is limited.

Quarterback – E.J. Manuel #3

It was no surprise that the Bills tabbed a signal-caller in the first round of the 2013 draft, but it raised eyebrows when they chose Manuel over options like Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, or Ryan Nassib, who played for Marrone at Syracuse. At 6’5”, 237 pounds and with terrific Combine metrics, Manuel has the physical gifts to be a top-flight quarterback. Despite that, ESPN writer Adam Caplan recently noted via Twitter that he hadn’t “found a team with a grade of better than a 3rd [round pick] on Manuel for last year’s draft,” largely due to questions about his accuracy and decision-making. Many of these issues showed up his rookie season, and, after less than a season’s worth of starts, Marrone has pulled the plug on the 24-year-old.

Halfback – Fred Jackson #22

Jackson spent his first three years out of tiny Coe College playing in the NIFL, UIF, and NFL Europe, none of which exist anymore. He joined the Bills in 2007, the same year Buffalo used a first-round pick on Marshawn Lynch, but has outlasted Beast Mode in western New York. At the age of 33, Jackson remains a major player in the offense, second on the team in both rushing and receiving yards.

Jackson doesn’t have great size or explosive speed. He has just one run longer than 20 yards this year, but also has just one carry for negative yardage. He has vision to find holes and knows when to try to avoid tacklers and when to just plow ahead and maximize the gap that’s there. Here he takes the five or six yards that are opened for him and turns them into a ten-yard gain on sheer effort:

Jackson is quite effective in the passing game. He’s already hauled in 26 catches in 2014, and has tallied 30 or more catches every season since his second. Buffalo will occasionally split him out wide to draw a mismatch.

Halfback – C.J. Spiller #28

Spiller’s career probably isn’t what Buffalo envisioned when they selected him ninth overall in the 2010 draft – he has just one 1,000-yard season to his credit – but he’s still a useful player. Spiller tends to be a boom or bust back; his 5.0 career yards per carry is testament to his ability, but only three halfbacks have more negative carries in 2014. He can be explosive in space, and had a 102-yard kick return touchdown against Miami. Spiller’s speed and agility will pose a challenge for New England’s slower linebackers. He’s had big games against the Patriots before, most recently in the final week of 2013 when he ran 19 times for 105 yards.

Fullback – Frank Summers #38

The Bills don’t run a lot of two-back sets, but when they do, they’ll call on Summers, a 5’10”, 240-pound battering ram. The 29-year-old is an effective run blocker but rarely sees the football – he has just 6 touches in 2014.

Receivers and Tight Ends

The Bills’ receiving corps is almost unrecognizable compared to last season. Two of the Bills’ three primary wide receivers are gone, with veteran Stevie Johnson having been

dealt to San Francisco and disappointing T.J. Graham waived after just two seasons. The Bills traded a late-round pick to Tampa Bay for 27-year-old Mike Williams. But their biggest splash was giving up a king’s ransom to move up and select Sammy Watkins with the number four pick in the draft. With the changes, the Buffalo passing offense has improved from last year’s 29th in net yards per attempt (5.4) all the way up to 24th (5.9). Well, it’s a start, anyway.

Wide Receiver – Sammy Watkins #14

The 21-year-old entered the draft as one of the most polished receiver prospects in recent years, a player who paired strong physical tools with rare understanding of the nuances of the position. At 6’1”, 211 pounds, he’s built more like a running back than a prototypical wideout, and the Clemson offense frequently targeted him with screens and short passes to get him the ball in space. Watkins missed much of the preseason with a rib injury but has started the regular season strong, leading the Bills in receiving yards and touchdowns. His hands have been a bit inconsistent so far, as he’s dropped three passes already, but he can also make the spectacular catch:

That circus grab set up Buffalo’s game-winning field goal against Detroit. The reception itself was amazing, but just as critical to Watkins’ NFL future is what happens before that, as he undresses the cornerback with his footwork to set up the slant. The Clemson offense didn’t always ask him to run a full route tree, but this sort of play highlights his route-running skills. Just five games into his NFL career, he’s already the Bills’ most dangerous receiver and someone the Patriots will have to account for in the passing game.

Wide Receiver – Robert Woods #10

With Stevie Johnson’s departure, Woods gets most of the reps in the slot, running more than 80% of his routes from there after just 26% in his rookie campaign. It hasn’t led to great efficiency – in fact, Bills’ quarterbacks have just a 47.2 passer rating targeting the second-year man, worst in the NFL. At 6’1” and running the 40 in 4.51 seconds, the former USC Trojan is neither a huge target nor blazingly fast. His game relies on route-running in intermediate areas, making him a poor fit with the scattershot Manuel. It’s too soon to know what kind of rapport he’ll have with Orton, but he caught three of the four passes sent his way against the Lions. Woods is a good and willing blocker for a receiver.

Wide Receiver – Mike Williams #19

Williams had a checkered college career, getting kicked out of Syracuse his junior year and then quitting the team seven games into his final season, which was also Marrone’s first year coaching the Orangemen. Apparently Marrone didn’t take it personally, as the Bills traded for the former fourth-round pick in the offseason.

Williams averaged 64 catches for 910 yards and 8 touchdowns in his first three seasons with Tampa Bay, but was well off that pace in 2013, when he was placed on injured reserve with a torn hamstring after just six games. He hasn’t bounced back in Buffalo; even his pedestrian 142 receiving yards through 5 games is inflated by one 80-yard catch against broken coverage. He possesses similar size and speed to Woods. Despite his experience and past success, Williams is clearly number three on the depth chart in terms of playing time; he’s played just over 50% of snaps compared to north of 90% for the two younger wideouts.

Wide Receiver – Marquise Goodwin #88

Goodwin’s 4.27-second 40 time was one of the fastest in Combine history. He displayed that speed last Sunday, as his 42-yard catch on a fly route set up Buffalo’s game-tying score. While a splash play like that is impressive, it’s Goodwin’s only reception on the season, a clear indication that the the 23-year-old is still learning how to play receiver.

Tight End – Scott Chandler #84

After bouncing around the league for a few seasons, the 6’7”, 270-pound tight end has found a home in Buffalo. Chandler was a standout in the Big Ten and opted to leave the University of Iowa after his junior season and turn pro. The big target caught 53 passes for 655 yards and two touchdowns in 2013, and has been targeted 19 times in 2014 for 13 receptions. When allowed a free release off the line of scrimmage he can be an effective secondary target for Buffalo, as demonstrated on this play against Detroit:

Chandler is allowed an easy path off the line of scrimmage and is open on a quick out route. After securing the ball he turns upfield and uses a strong stiff-arm to gain yardage after the catch. The 29-year-old isn’t a dynamic athlete but is large enough to take on linemen and linebackers when blocking, and is enough of a pass-catching threat that he can’t be ignored.

Tight End – Chris Gragg #89

With Lee Smith’s return to the offense following an injury, Gragg saw only nine snaps last week against the Lions. The reserve tight end made the most of his time on the field, however, hauling in a short touchdown pass on this goal-line play:

While undersized for a tight end (6’3”, 244 pounds), Gragg is an effective receiver off of the line of scrimmage in jumbo formations. New England will need to be aware of his position in the formation and maintain tight coverage on the former Arkansas player to prevent such an easy touchdown on Sunday.

Tight End – Lee Smith #85

Smith, a former fifth-round pick of the Patriots, is a big man (6’6”, 269 pounds) and an effective blocker. He does not factor into the passing game, tallying just 13 receptions in 45 games with Buffalo and none in 2014.

Offensive Line

ProFootballFocus ranks 74 guards who have played at least a quarter of their team’s offensive snaps. The Buffalo Bills sport #64 (Chris Williams), #72 (Cyril Richardson), and #74 (Erik Pears). That’s not good. It should come as little surprise that the offensive line grades out poorly in Adjusted Line Yards, Football Outsiders’ statistical attempt to separate offensive line contributions from those of running backs. Only six teams fare worse by this metric.

Left Tackle – Cordy Glenn #77

The former Georgia Bulldog is a massive human at 6’6”, 345 pounds, prompting some draftniks to think he’d be a better fit as a guard in the NFL. Glenn has stuck at left tackle and established himself as Buffalo’s best offensive lineman and one of the more underrated players around the league. Glenn doesn’t have the quickest feet, but he knows how to use a strong punch to recover even if he’s beaten by the initial move.

The 25-year-old excels in the run game when he can lock on and drive an opponent. He isn’t as successful in space on the second level and Buffalo is smart about how they use him in the run game. Glenn toes the line between legal blocks and holds but largely avoids getting flagged.

Left Guard – Chris Williams #74

There’s an old vaudeville quip about a disappointing restaurant experience: “The food is terrible – and such small portions!” Chris Williams is that joke in football player form, proving time and again that he’s an ineffective lineman, and – worse yet! – frequently unavailable due to injury. In 2013 he managed to stay healthy for 16 games for just the second time in his career but still did not make Bleacher Report’s list of top 70 guards. Undaunted, the Bills inked Williams to a four-year, $13.5 MM contract with $5.5 MM guaranteed to be their left guard. The 29-year old struggled in two games, then left a Week 3 contest with the Chargers with a back injury and hasn’t played since. This is presumably a surprise for Buffalo, though not to people with rudimentary pattern recognition skills. He has been ruled out for Sunday’s game.

Left Guard – Cyril Richardson #68

Williams may not be good, but he’s still an upgrade over Richardson, the rookie fifth-rounder out of Baylor. At 6’5”, 329 pounds, Richardson looks the part of a road-grading NFL guard, but the film from his first two games has been ugly:

Look at Richardson’s spacing – he’s close enough to center Eric Wood to feel his breath. I’m not sure whether this is how the coaches are aligning him or Richardson’s own initiative, but whoever is making the decision is so terrified of the defensive tackle shooting the A-gap that Richardson completely fails to protect the B-gap. Detroit noticed and aligned tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh in the A-gap, often in a “tilt nose” all game.

Fairley and Suh are a tough matchup for anyone, but Richardson lacks the quickness and awareness to handle NFL game speed at this point in his career. The Patriots should be able to take advantage of his deficiencies.

Center – Eric Wood #70

The 28-year-old is competent in both the passing and running games, but doesn’t have great strength or athleticism. Buffalo rarely asks him to block tackles one-on-one in the passing game, but he’s active and effective in helping the guards. He can get to the second level in the run game but isn’t great at sustaining his blocks. When a team uses a first-round pick on a center, as the Bills did with Wood in 2009, they usually expect him to become one of the league’s best pivots, but Wood is merely OK. Still, that ranks him as Buffalo’s second-best lineman.

Right Guard – Erik Pears #79

Pears has been a regular starter for the Bills since 2011, but it’s not really clear why. At 6’8”, 316 pounds, Pears is built more like a tackle than a guard, and he started at right tackle for Buffalo prior to this season. The 32-year-old moved to guard in the preseason, but he’s been largely ineffective there and, as noted above, is currently Pro Football Focus’s worst-rated guard. He’s been ineffective both in pass blocking and in run blocking.

Right Tackle – Seantrel Henderson #66

The 22-year-old rookie has ideal size at 6’7”, 331 pounds but, like his compatriots on the Buffalo offensive line, hasn’t delivered performance commensurate with that size. He was the the #1 high school prospect at one point but failed to live up to that billing at Miami, struggling with inconsistency on the field and questions about maturity and work ethic off of it. Despite his physical gifts, Henderson slipped to the seventh round of the draft. He surprised in the preseason, winning the right tackle job over second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, but hasn’t translated his preseason success into regular season performance. He’s currently the worst ranked tackle per Pro Football Focus, 67th of 67.

Analysis

The first goal of any team that plays the Bills is to shut down the running game. Buffalo’s suspect offensive line is unlikely to generate much push, but the Patriots defenders will have to tackle well and prevent Jackson and Spiller from gaining extra yards in the open field.

In the passing game, Orton likes to get rid of the ball quickly. If the Patriots can confuse him pre-snap by shifting coverages, or press his receivers to disrupt the offense’s timing, they can throw the veteran off his game. The injury-depleted New England pass rush might have trouble getting pressure, but it’s risky to send additional rushers in the blitz given how dangerous Jackson and Spiller are catching the football. The Patriots have the secondary to match up with the green Buffalo receivers, with Watkins likely spending a fair amount of time on Revis Island.

The switch to Orton might help Buffalo move the ball a little more consistently, but they need some of their rookie offensive linemen and young receivers to develop overnight if they’re going to improve to an above-average offense.

Mark Schofield contributed to this report.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

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