Don't Blame C.J. Spiller for His Slow Start

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Don't Blame C.J. Spiller for His Slow Start
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Do you hear that? If you listen closely, you might hear the faint sounds of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It comes from Bills fans and fantasy owners who drafted running back C.J. Spiller.

Remember when Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said he would ride Spiller until the latter threw up? Me neither. Neither do his fantasy football owners.

Granted, there hasn't been much to ride thus far in the young season. Through three games, Spiller is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and two yards after contact per carry. In other words, efficiency hasn't been part of the package this season.

Out of his 43 carries thus far, just three have gone for 10-plus yards. He is the second-worst running back in the league by Pro Football Focus' metrics (subscription required), and he has scored a grand total of 16.7 standard fantasy points.

In short, Spiller has been an abject disappointment, both for the Bills and for fantasy owners who chanced a top five pick on the speedy running back. 

What lies beneath this steaming pile of sadness and despair? What is causing this misery on fantasy rosters across the country? Has Spiller been body-snatched by Thomas Jones?

Let's take a closer look at his woes and what might have caused them through the first three weeks of the season.

 

The Definition of Insanity

The first few weeks haven't see the Bills do a whole lot of messing around in the ground game. In fact, charting all of Spiller's touches and targets has revealed that 75 percent of those plays came out of the shotgun and 56 percent were run with "11" personnel on the field—one running back, one tight end and three receivers.

That doesn't necessarily mean much when it comes to this study. After all, it's what you do out of those personnel packages and formations that counts. Unfortunately, the Bills haven't exactly run a host of different plays for Spiller.

In fact, there was one counter, one draw play and a couple of sweeps called for Spiller on all of those plays. The rest were simple inside or outside zone plays.

Again, that wouldn't mean much if the Bills were succeeding on these plays. But they are not. In fact, there are some curiosities to be found in the All-22. Here is one. 

Scott Chandler ran right by Rob Ninkovich on the play, and Spiller had nowhere to run.

The Bills ran some version of this play several times throughout the first three games, usually out of a cluster formation.

It involved some apparent misdirection that did almost nothing to trick the defense into moving out of position. More so than that, there were several opportunities for a pulling player to block where he purposefully avoided contact with the defensive player.

There were seven defenders in the box and eight potential blockers near the line of scrimmage, yet somehow two linebackers went unblocked on the play.

Perhaps the play was designed for maximum misdirection—the Bills might have tried to fool the defense into thinking receiver Steve Johnson might take a handoff on an end-around or tight end Scott Chandler was running a route. In fact, Dont'a Hightower was tricked for a moment when Chandler went outside, but he had plenty of time to recover and keep Spiller contained.

Even if that was the point of the play, what's the use of stranding your running back with several unblocked defenders?

Here is a version of that play with Frank Summers lined up at H-back rather than Scott Chandler. It featured the same action as the first illustrated play—a fake sweep by Johnson with Summers cutting across the formation—and the result wasn't much different.

This time, Spiller dove to the "A" gap. As you can see, the blocking was actually well executed along the offensive line—a rarity for the Bills, something we will see later on—but Summers inexplicably hugged his own offensive lineman.

Luke Kuechly comes free to stop Spiller in his tracks.

What was he doing? Did he temporarily go blind? Was this by design?

As you can see, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was the only unblocked player at the line of scrimmage. Had Summers simply turned up field in the hole, he would have at least chipped Kuechly and given Spiller a chance to gain some yards. 

Perhaps Summers might have even executed a successful block on Kuechly and sprung Spiller for a big gain.

This sort of poor design and/or execution was a theme on most Spiller runs through the first three weeks. Are these issues with the offense grasping everything Hackett head coach Doug Marrone have thrown at it?

The Bills simply haven't been creative on offense, at least when it comes to the running game. There's no reason to go to trick plays or anything, but this is an offense seemingly designed to keep things simple for its rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel.

To that point, there was one screen called for Spiller, in Week 1. The rest of his receptions came mostly from your garden variety routes to the flat or over the middle. 

 

Missing Andy Levitre and Other Tales of Woe

The Bills had a problem on their hands when Andy Levitre and Jairus Byrd were set to hit the market as free agents this past offseason. They might have been able to keep both, but that would have quickly gotten expensive—tying up all that money at safety and interior offensive line positions doesn't seem like wise stewardship.

Buffalo slapped Byrd with the franchise tag and let Levitre walk to Tennessee, where he signed a six-year, $48.8 million contract. Not too shabby a price for the big lineman, who remains one of the better guards in the league.

The Bills could surely find a suitable replacement, right?

If Colin Brown's tenure as a starter thus far is any indication, Bills fans are going to wish management ponied up and paid Levitre $60 million.

What can Brown do for Buffalo? Almost nothing, if the tape is to be believed.

Brown is the worst-rated offensive guard in the league, by far, per Pro Football Focus. Below is an example of why he has earned that dubious distinction.

Vince Wilfork is pretty good.

The play call is simple—an inside zone.

Spiller had an A-gap hole with each blocker occupying his defender. There was a cutback lane to the left, but defensive tackle Vince Wilfork looked like he was going to fill that if Spiller cut back to the left. So Buffalo's talented running back hits the hole.

Unfortunately, Wilfork had all the leverage on this play. He practically tossed Brown aside to cut Spiller off once the running back committed to a hole, shutting down the play in the process.

But wait, there's more.

Brown had one job.

Here is an example against the Panthers, another inside zone.

On this occasion, Brown was supposed to block Kuechly at the second level—or at least slow him down somewhat—and the lumbering guard whiffed, allowing Kuechly to meet Spiller as he exited the hole. This was a common refrain for Brown that day, though part of the reason for that is Kuechly's skill.

Alas, the big Buffalo lineman has simply been an albatross to that offensive line and the running game. The Bills might get better blocking out of a tackling dummy than they have out of Brown. 

But he isn't the only culprit here.

There wasn't much running room against the Jets.

Center Eric Wood and guard Kraig Urbik have had their moments of failure. Indeed, Wood is the second-worst run-blocking center to date, per PFF, and Urbik falls below the median in that regard as well.

Buffalo might be able to overcome one bad offensive lineman on a weekly basis, but the offense hasn't gotten great performances out of Wood and Urbik at times. 

Per Football Outsiders, Buffalo's offensive line as a whole ranks as the sixth-worst in the league, generating just 3.0 adjusted line yards, a metric that attempts to assign responsibility to the offensive line for runs.

However you slice it, Buffalo's offensive line has simply been terrible.

 

A Ray of Hope

He might have just three runs that went for double-digit yardage, but one of those was a 46-yard scamper against the Panthers.

Here is an example of what happens when a running play is called at the right time and is properly blocked. Well, for the most part.

As you can see, Brown did his best to ruin the play once again, barely getting a hand on Kuechly, who was avoiding blocks all game long. That defensive end Charles Johnson tried a speed rush allowed offensive tackle Eric Pears to push him upfield, and fellow linemen Urbik and Wood sustained their blocks long enough to open up a big hole on the right side.

Despite Brown's still-poor block, Spiller was able to burst through the hole and beat Thomas Davis and Kuechly outside en route downfield. There was also nice blocking downfield by receiver T.J. Graham. Spiller almost even beat safety Colin Jones, who had an angle and slowed Spiller just enough to prevent him from going to the house.

Had Charles Johnson maintained contain, this play might have turned out much differently. Few times have opposing defenses been caught expecting pass on a run play against the Bills, and even fewer times has Spiller gotten solid blocking from his team.

 

Conclusion

This study was a bittersweet revelation for Bills fans and fantasy owners alike.

On the one hand—despite enumerating the ways Spiller has gotten a raw deal thus far this season—there is little hope to offer without serious improvement across the offense.

The offensive line needs to improve its blocking, particularly along the interior of the line. Can Brown, Wood and Urbik step up enough to give Spiller some breathing room?

As far as the offense itself, the Bills are going to open up that playbook—they have to, right? If and when they do, should mitigate blocking issues to a certain degree. 

Then there is the fact they won't be facing those fearsome defensive fronts every week that the Patriots, Panthers and Jets pose, to varying degrees. Unfortunately, the Ravens, Browns and Bengals—Spiller's next three opponents—aren't exactly pushovers in that department.

It might be a long season for his fantasy owners, but now is the perfect opportunity to buy low. Spiller is doing what he can with what he is given, at times gaining yards where others would have gained nothing.

Spiller is the explosive back in that backfield. Get him while the price is right.

 

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