Count me as one of those fantasy nerds who cackled as C.J. Spiller fell to the back end of the first round in a few of my August fantasy drafts.
"No way he replicates last year's results with a bigger workload," says one friend in the Yahoo! smack-talk tab. "Especially in a new offense," he adds.
The notion that a 26-year-old speed back with little wear on his tires could not improve upon his stellar 2012 season was laughable. Spiller was fully healthy after rushing for 1,244 yards at six yards a clip last year, a season not without complaints about how then-coach Chan Gailey kept the former Clemson back on the sideline inside the red zone.
Add in the fact that new offensive coordinator Nate Hackett promised fans before the season that the Bills would be "running Spiller until he throws up," there was little reason not to think that the former Clemson back could build upon last season.
While 2013 has not been a disastrous season by expectations applied to most NFL running backs, Spiller's 507 yards on 123 carries is a far cry from the astronomical numbers expected from him in his fourth season. To put things in perspective in terms of comparing last year to this year, Spiller would have to average 8.8 yards per carry over his next 84 carries to match his exact totals from a season ago.
The way things have been going for him, he would be lucky to finish the season on his current pace of 810 yards rushing on 195 carries. Those who questioned whether Spiller could sustain his play with a workload approaching 300 carries will have to wait at least another year for an answer—unless the Bills' coaching staff suddenly and irresponsibly decides to start giving him 30 touches a game.
So why exactly is a back who almost set the NFL's single-season per-carry-average record putting up very pedestrian numbers?
The issues for Spiller are two-fold. First and foremost is how he is misused in the Buffalo offense. Second is the lack of consistent blocking in the run game despite the Bills' offensive line being one of the healthiest units in the league.
Misuse and Blocking Frustrations
For all of Gailey's faults, the former Bills head coach was really good at one thing—getting his best offensive weapon in space.
Doug Marrone realized early on that if his team was going to have success in his rookie season, he would have to rely on his two-headed attack at running back. Fred Jackson and Spiller complement each other well as an inside-outside attack, but finding a balance between the two is not an easy task. Marrone was repeatedly asked during training camp how he would split the carries between the two, but a clear answer was never given.
When both backs have been healthy, Marrone has leaned on an alternating-possession approach. Jackson has started the first series for a majority of the season, and Spiller works in with Tashard Choice during the second and third series—although much of that has had to do with an ankle injury Spiller has been fighting through since Week 3.
Jackson is most effective between the tackles and as a pass-blocker when needed. More often than not, Jackson will get the tough yard when the Bills need it most, and he rarely goes down on first contact. But expecting big plays from the 32-year-old is no longer a reasonable way of thinking.
Jackson has gotten plenty of the praise when the run game has looked good, while Spiller receives much of the vitriol when he gets stuffed at the line. With all of the focus on Spiller's struggles, one would think that their numbers would be very different. Jackson has 18 more carries than Spiller, but is only averaging one tenth of a yard more per attempt.
No one complains about Jackson's average because it fits in line with his 4.5 career average, and he has wracked up 38 first down runs compared to Spiller's 13. Again, this has to do with his use in the offense as a tough-yardage runner, but the press surrounding him has been much more positive.
The problem with Buffalo's current use of Spiller is that Marrone and Hackett consistently run him up the gut of the defense, expecting him to eventually break a big run. Spiller can make the smallest of holes turn into a big gain from time to time, but a lot of his game is predicated on the ability of the Buffalo offensive line to eat up the opposing front seven.
Unlike in 2012, those holes simply have not been there very often this season.
From a morale standpoint, Week 11's performance against the New York Jets reached a season low for Spiller. He ran the ball 13 times for a measly six yards and had six runs go for no gain or negative yardage. The initial response is to ask if Spiller was dancing in the backfield instead of committing to a hole, because he was prone to doing that during his first two seasons.
One particular carry in the fourth quarter against the Jets is a good example of Spiller not looking confident in the play being run.
A hole opens up late in the middle of the line between center Eric Wood and right guard Kraig Urbik, but Spiller had already made up his mind to kick it outside. At that point in the game, he had already been hit in the backfield three times on designed inside runs, but an extra second of patience would have rewarded him with his best run of the game.
However, many of Spiller's failed runs have not been due to his indecisiveness. Run-blocking up the middle has been surprisingly poor, and a four-yard loss on a Spiller run in the second quarter highlighted the problem.
Spiller lines up as the lone back in a two-tight end set with the run designed to go to the left behind blocking tight end Lee Smith. The Bills brought seven blockers in preparation for the Jets placing eight men in the box, but the play is doomed from the start.
New York defensive tackle Damon Harrison ties up three Bills blockers in the middle, allowing DE Muhammad Wilkerson to come around and hit Spiller a split second after he receives the ball from EJ Manuel.
The Jets were obviously playing the run and daring Manuel to throw it over the top, which he did later in the game, but two other plays had similar results with fewer defenders inside the tackles than the play above.
According to ESPN, Marrone after the game said that he challenged Spiller to go over to his linemen and chew them out for their bad performance.
As bad as the blocking has been, the play-calling with Spiller in the game has been just as bad. Marrone and Hackett have found very few ways to get Spiller in space. The Bills turned to the screen game in Week 5 after barely running it during the first quarter of the season, but they ran it to a fault over the next few weeks.
Opponents quickly caught on to these poorly executed screens, which took too long to develop and resulted in very few positive gains.
The coaching staff would be best served by mixing up formations and the types of running plays involving Spiller. An I-formation or zone-read call will work every once in a while, but Spiller's quickness is limited by those plays. Trying a quick pitch or a well-executed read-option will give Spiller a better chance at reading the defense in front of him and turning on the jets to get to the second level.
Spiller's best run of the year came on the first play from scrimmage in the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs. Buffalo ran a designed cutback run—something Spiller excels at when healthy—and got the Kansas City defense to overcommit on the left side. Spiller took advantage of the overpursuit and cut back to the right on his way to a 61-yard scamper.
There is still time for the lightning quick Spiller to turn his season around; Buffalo has five very winnable games remaining on its schedule after their bye week. His season-ending statistics may not be close to what fantasy players or fans were hoping for after his coming-out party last season, but Spiller is still the same guy he was then.
Now it's time for his teammates and his coaches to help him out.
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