Fantasy owners be damned; the Buffalo Bills have two running backs, and they're not afraid to use them. Between Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, there's enough talent in the Bills backfield to build the offense around.
Over the past three seasons, an injury to one of these players has facilitated reminders of the value of the other. This year, the dings and scratches on the Ferrari that is Spiller have called for the Bills to turn to that old, reliable—albeit un-sexy—Toyota.
It started in 2011, as a Week 11 injury kept Jackson out of the final five games of the season. That is when Spiller came in and added 653 total yards (5.9 yards per touch) and five touchdowns in his stead.
After another injury to Jackson in Week 1 of the 2012 season, Spiller immediately emerged and made his case to become the top option in the Bills backfield for the foreseeable future. His open-field burst helped him create an abundance of big plays—26 total plays of 15 yards or more; 16 rushing and 10 receiving.
Despite all of those explosive plays, though, it appeared that the previous coaching staff didn't have faith in his ability to be the bell cow for the offense. Regardless, Spiller gained 1,000 rushing yards on just his 154th carry of the year in 2012—the second-fewest carries needed to achieve this benchmark in NFL history, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News (Chicago Bears running back Beattie Feathers did it on 119 carries in 1934).
Enter a new coaching staff in 2013, with promises of feeding Spiller the ball "until he throws up", and the expectation had been set. However, Spiller has been up and down this year, and he has also battled injuries throughout the season, including a quad injury early on and an ankle injury in recent weeks.
The tables have turned, and Jackson has reminded us why it's important to have a solid "No. 2" in your one-two punch in the backfield.
Even with both players healthy, though, the Bills could get creative in how they use the backs.
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According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), both backs spend a share of time filling multiple roles. This year's snap breakdown, so far, is a drastic deviation from last year, where Spiller was seen running pass patterns (251) more often than he was seen running the football (213). That might be due in part to a new coaching regime looking to use their players in different ways, or it might also be thanks to those nagging injuries.
Last year, the Bills were using Spiller in the passing game, splitting him out as a receiver to run routes. On this play, Spiller (circled in yellow) lined up next to wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who motioned toward Spiller and created a "stack" on the right side of the formation.
That stack allowed Spiller to get a free release on a quick slant pattern over the middle, where there was plenty of open space for Spiller to run free.
Once he caught the ball, he turned upfield and churned those legs to pick up a total of 19 yards on the play.
This is just one example, but the Bills could get really creative with Spiller and Jackson on the field at the same time, if they so choose. Spiller, specifically, is a matchup nightmare that can be moved around to exploit mismatches.
Maybe they could put both players in the backfield at the same time, forcing the defense to account for the threat of the run on both sides. Maybe that alignment would be a decoy, with one or the other motioning out wide to run a pattern—Jackson is not as dynamic in that role as Spiller, but he can run some routes if needed. The possibility also exists for the Bills to send both Jackson and Spiller into routes in the flat out of the backfield.
On this play, Spiller (circled in yellow) lined up wide, and Jackson lined up in the backfield with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the shotgun.
Fitzpatrick faked the handoff to Jackson, before pulling up and quickly dumping it off to Spiller on the screen. Spiller caught the ball a yard behind the line of scrimmage and gained 27 yards on the play.
It was a running play disguised as a passing play disguised as a running play.
The options, it seems, are endless. Why limit those possibilities by making one the "exclusive" feature back while the other rides the pine?
The Bills are better off with two backs, but they've yet to even scratch the surface of what they can do with those players. To this point in the season, they have lined up on the field at the same time just twice.
The Bills are missing a huge opportunity to get two of their best offensive players involved on a more consistent basis. The more versatile the Bills can be on offense, the tougher they'll be to defend.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.