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Is C.J. Spiller Really Ready for the Spotlight in the Buffalo Bills Backfield?

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Is C.J. Spiller Really Ready for the Spotlight in the Buffalo Bills Backfield?
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Bills running back C.J. Spiller put his explosive potential on display time and time again in 2012.

Still, the coaching staff hardly found it in their best interest to give the guy the ball.

This for a back whose 6.01 YPA ranked second among running backs in 2012 behind only NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, and whose 20 receptions of 10 yards or more ranked second behind only Saints running back Darren Sproles.

On the one hand, it seems obvious that the Bills should give Spiller the ball more, and that the increase in opportunities would make him one of the top backs in the league.

It's pretty simple math—more carries equal more yards, but also more big plays for the Bills. Spiller became known for game-changing plays in 2012, and not shockingly, the more often he got the ball, the more likely he was to create those plays.

On the other hand, only twice in his seven-year college and pro career has he been the true bell cow. 

Here are his offensive touch totals from college and the NFL (not counting special teams):

  • 2006: 148 touches (129 rushing, 19 receiving)
  • 2007: 179 touches (145 rushing, 34 receiving)
  • 2008: 150 touches (116 rushing, 34 receiving)
  • 2009: 252 touches (216 rushing, 36 receiving)
  • 2010: 98 touches (74 rushing, 24 receiving)
  • 2011: 146 touches (107 rushing, 39 receiving)
  • 2012: 250 touches (207 rushing, 43 receiving)

Will he finally become a consistent workhorse, or will he continue to lose touches to those behind him on the depth chart?

New Bills head coach Doug Marrone's track record shows a history of going either way in terms of the workload split. Syracuse running backs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley finished with about a 60-40 split on the carries in 2012, but Marrone did not shy away from giving one back a majority of the carries when he felt it necessary.

Spiller averaged 12.9 carries per game over 16 games in 2012 (27th in the NFL), while Fred Jackson averaged 11.5 carries in 10 games (29th). Spiller probably won't get all the carries, as that would put him at well over 300 and Marrone never gave a back more than 240 carries in a season at Syracuse.

Likewise, Spiller has never had more than 252 touches in a season in college or the pros.

That being said, the Bills need to find ways to maximize his potential, and should make him a big part of the offensive game plan each week.

Spiller had at least one touch—rushing or receiving—go for 20 yards or more in 12 of 16 games. He had more than his average of 15.6 touches per game in all but two of the 12 games in which he had a 20-plus-yard play. Making Spiller the workhorse could open up the Bills offense.

Jackson is a solid back in just about any situation, but it's clear that it's Spiller's time to shine when it comes to getting the majority of the workload.

One thing the Bills must continue to do, however, is get Spiller the ball in the passing game.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Former Bills head coach Chan Gailey got a lot of flack—in this space and elsewhere—for limiting what C.J. Spiller could do by limiting his touches. Say what you will, but Gailey and the Bills knew how to use him in the passing game.

In 2012, he had 20 total plays of 20 yards or more—12 rushing, eight receiving. At a rate of 5.8 percent of his 207 carries and 18.6 percent of his 43 receptions, it's safe to say the Bills squeezed significant juice out of Spiller's abilities as a receiver. In fact, his 10.7 yards per reception ranked ninth among all running backs in 2012, and is better than a lot of wide receivers.

It was in large part because of big plays like this 32-yard screen against the Browns

Fitzpatrick lined up in the shotgun with three receivers on his right, Spiller flanking him in the backfield and tight end Scott Chandler lined up tight to the line. The Browns came out with a single high safety deep, with seven men in the box and three corners in man coverage.

Spiller cross Fitzpatrick after the snap and moved to the left side of the field, which was left wide open as Chandler ran a seam route to clear the safety in coverage downfield. 

There was an incredible block by Kraig Urbik (circled above), as the right guard pulled all the way across the field to the left side and all the way downfield to take out linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and safety T.J. Ward, allowing Spiller to slip by for the score.

Spiller's big plays weren't often scores, but often gave the Bills an opportunity to score.

That's what happened in the fourth quarter against the Patriots. He had a 25-yard catch-and-run that set the Bills up in the red zone.

The Bills set up the play with a double-fake reverse. 

Spiller slipped into the flat following the play fake, where Fitzpatrick tossed him the ball in space.

He made four defenders miss on the play before breaking free for the scamper.

He shook them two at a time until he began seeing blocks develop, at which point he bounced outside and followed the blocks as long as he could.

Spiller is at his most effective in space, and with eight of his 43 receptions going for 20 yards or more, the likelihood of those plays working was very high in 2012. 

But can he do it as a runner? He has skills between the tackles and in space, but the concern is whether he can carry the ball more than 15 times a game. In fact, Spiller averaged 6.11 YPA in eight games in 2012 when Spiller had more than his average of 13 carries in a game. That's better than his season average of 6.01. He averaged 5.8 YPA in the other eight games, in which he had less than his average number of carries. 

He hasn't been a "bellcow" very much, but his effectiveness last year both as a runner and receiver indicate he should continue to get frequent opportunities as both a running back and a receiver.

With enough chances with the ball in his hands—especially in the receiving game—Spiller could swing the momentum in Buffalo's favor.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.comFollow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro-Football-Reference.com, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.

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