From day one of the new regime under head coach Sean McDermott, the hire of Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator seemed odd to me (and other Bills fans). Dennison was practically born and raised in the Denver Broncos outside zone stretch running scheme, and it followed he’d bring that philosophy to the Bills. The Bills, on the other hand, had run a predominantly power based run scheme, with some inside zone elements, under Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn in 2015 and 2016 en route to the best rushing offense in the league both years.
The Bills began the 2017 season looking as though they had fully made the switch to Dennison’s system. They relied heavily on outside zone runs the first few weeks of the season against the Jets, Panthers and Broncos. Star running back ran for 110 yards against the rather hapless Jets defense, but stalled against the Panthers and Broncos with 9 and 21 yards, respectively. The struggles were due almost entirely to problems with the offensive line. They really struggled to open lanes in the run game for McCoy (and backup Mike Tolbert) because of the reliance on outside zone runs.
The personnel on offense was poorly suited to zone running from the start. Left tackle Cordy Glenn (who began the season on a bum ankle, which didn’t help the run game) is 344 pounds and excels at blocking straight ahead and dominating the defender in front of him, not sliding laterally. Right guard John Miller was an up and coming 315 pound third year player who looked poised to take the next step in a power scheme, excelling on both pulls and down/base blocks, but lacks the necessary athleticism and footwork to block in an outside zone scheme. To be honest, right tackle Jordan Mills was a liability in either type of scheme.
The Bills offensive lineman had been drafted and signed to run power and it was clear they were not made to function in a stretch running scheme. Runs like this were all too common in the preseason and early on in the year:
So it was fairly predictable the struggles the run game faced early in the year. What was unpredictable was how the offensive scheme changed and adapted as the year went on.
Dennison began incorporating more gap/power runs beginning in the Atlanta and Cincinnati games, and the offense has now become a diverse rushing attack relying on power and zone runs. Dennison also made the move to replace Miller with veteran Vlad Ducasse, who has surprisingly played pretty well in a scheme that takes advantage of his athleticism.
One common gripe of NFL fans, writers and evaluators is that coaches don’t adjust their schemes to fit their players. Whether it’s an offensive coordinator not adjusting the passing game to help a rookie quarterback or a defensive minded head coach switching a team that’s suited to a 4-3 to a 3-4 (looking at you Rex), the NFL is full of coaches unwilling to adjust their schemes to fit their players.
Rick Dennison is.
The Bills have developed a very successful gap running scheme, relying on power and counter trey runs. As the season has worn on though, the periodic zone runs have been more effective and the gap/power runs are dominating.
Counter trey is a power based run game design, where the backside offensive lineman (almost always a guard) pulls to the playside and a fullback/wingback/H-back also pulls to that side to lead block. The rest of the offensive line down blocks in the opposite direction of the run. The running back takes a step to sell a run backside, the quarterback opens to the back side and the FB/H-back will often take a jab step that way as well.
For a great breakdown of the evolution of counter trey read this piece from ITP’s Ted Nguyen or the ITP Glossary entry, also from Ted.
When the Bills run counter trey, it’s the perfect play for their personnel up front, as it allows their big and powerful OL to down block, their guards to pull and beat defenders in the hole, and LeSean McCoy to make plays in space.
This first example of the Bills running counter trey comes from their game against the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s an unremarkable play in many regards, gaining just four yards total. But it was a remarkable play to watch when I reviewed the Cincinnati film after the game, as it was the first time I remembered them running counter or power with consistency all year long. So remarkable in fact, I wrote about their usage of it for Locked on Bills.
Like I said, rather uninspiring. But let me tell you, I was very very excited to see this on film from the Bills, for its implications in games later in the season. By far the happiest I’ve been about a 4 yard run in a long time.
Those implications began to come to fruition in Week 7 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but solidified the return of an explosive run game against the Raiders in Week 8. Their counter runs began to find more success as the line and running backs became more and more comfortable in getting back to their power running roots.
Here, with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter, the Bills will run counter trey from their own 20 yard line against the Raiders. They have 21 personnel in the game, with TE Khari Lee (#88) aligned to the right side of the offensive line and FB Patrick DiMarco (#42) in an offset i-formation to the left of the line.
Oakland has their base 3-4 defense in the game, with safety Shalom Luani (#26) dropped into the box with inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman (#53) and Cory James (#57). The Bills will run counter here, with LG Richie Incognito (#64) pulling to the right and DiMarco lead blocking to that side as well. McCoy will take two steps to sell a run to the left before cutting back to the right to take the handoff, it also gives time for Incognito and DiMarco to get ahead of him so he can hit the hole at full speed.
The rest of the offensive line will down block on this play, blocking the man to their left and creating a wall to that side of the line.
Incognito is tasked with a trap block on this play, as Lee will climb immediately to the second level to take on Bowman, leaving outside linebacker Shilique Calhoun (#91) unblocked for Incognito to trap.
The run works exactly as designed and springs a big play. Incognito takes Calhoun out of the play, Lee climbs and walls off Bowman, and DiMarco slams into James. McCoy gets to the second level and shakes safety Reggie Nelson (#27) to gain 18 yards on the play.
It took a little while, but the Bills can still run power.
Finally, the play that sealed the win for Buffalo over Oakland.
Buffalo was up 13 with just over 3 minutes remaining in the game. And while the defense had bottled up Oakland pretty well to that point, Derek Carr and the Raiders are an incredibly dangerous group that could put points on the board quickly if given the opportunity.
So on the first play of the drive, the Bills run counter for a 48 yard touchdown to LeSean McCoy.
They come out in a heavy 22 personnel, with reserve OL Ryan Groy (#72) and TE Khari Lee (#88) to the left, while DiMarco is shaded to that side as well in an offset i-formation look once again. Here’s the play design:
Rather than a trap block on the outside linebacker, this time it’s DiMarco who will be tasked with picking Bruce Irvin (#51) up one on one. Right guard Vlad Ducasse (#62) will pull around and lead McCoy through the hole, taking on safety Shalom Luani (#26) who will look to fill the hole. The rest of the OL down blocks, with LT Cordy Glenn (#77) and LG Richie Incognito (#64) working a Deuce Block, double teaming defensive tackle Justin Ellis (#78) before Incognito climbs to take on backside linebacker Cory James (#57). Lee climbs right to the second level to keep Navorro Bowman (#53) out of the rushing lane.
The blocks are all really well executed, from Lee to Groy to Glenn to Incognito to… well you get the point. McCoy (#25) hesitates before receiving the handoff from QB Tyrod Taylor (#5) to let the blocks develop before flying through the hole. He goes 48 yards untouched for the score.
A welcome sight for Bills fans to be sure.
So, the offensive line (and tight ends/fullbacks) are meshing right now and blocking incredibly well. LeSean McCoy looks back to his Pro Bowl level self. The run game is grooving as a whole.
But props go to Rick Dennison, for adapting his lifelong scheme to fit and maximize the personnel on the team. That’s rare, and it’s been a huge part of the Bills surprising success in 2017.