There were high hopes for the Buffalo Bills offense entering last season. New head coach Doug Marrone was talking about an up-tempo style offense at the beginning of 2013. Coupled with first-round quarterback EJ Manuel joining a cast of veteran playmakers, there was reason for optimism.
Unfortunately after the first year that offense didn't live up to expectations, specifically the team's passing offense. The front office focused on improving this part of the offense and believes that Manuel can develop into a quality starter with the added weapons.
The team added size on the offensive line with Cyrus Kouandjio, Chris Williams and Cyril Richardson as well as a big wide receiver in Mike Williams. The big addition, though, is rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who has the potential to be one of the best in the league at that position.
Second-year quarterback Manuel is not the only one who will have added pressure this season. Coach Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will need to figure out how to capitalize on the strengths of their new additions.
Well, I am here to help the coaching staff figure out how to optimize the Bills offense in its second season. The team's offense should be driven by three key points:
- Rely on the run game
- Protect Manuel from opposing defenses (and himself)
- Be creative with playmakers
If the coaching staff is able to capitalize on these three points, the Bills offense should be much improved from last season.
Rely on the Run Game
It is apparent from the chart below that the Bills run game was not a problem last year, finishing in the top 15 in a number of rushing categories. Where the team struggled, though, was in the passing game, which finished in the bottom five of the following categories.
|2013 Bills Offensive Ranks|
|Rushing Attempts||546||1||Completion Pct.||57.3%||29|
|Rushing Yards||2307||2||Passing Yards||3103||28|
|Yards Per Attempt||4.2||14||Yards Per Attempt||6.5||28|
|Rushing Touchdowns||15||10||Passing Touchdowns||16||30|
|Stats courtesy of ESPN.com|
The front office made changes that should help Manuel move the ball through the air but this offense is built for the run game, and the coaching staff should not stray from this identity.
The Bills still boast the dynamic running back duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who talked this week about feeling the best he has since 2012. When healthy, the running back is electric and one of the best at the position in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has an "elusive rating," which is defined as "a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers." In 2013, Spiller ranked 15th among running backs with a rating of 37.5. This was a drop of 57.1 points from 2012, when he finished first in the league.
If Spiller is No. 1 on the depth chart, Jackson should be considered 1A since the veteran is just as valuable to this offense. Last season, Jackson had a nose for the end zone, finishing with nine of the team's 15 rushing touchdowns. The concern is that Jackson, at 33, is starting to get up there in age, and many are wondering how many good years he has left.
In the offseason, the team signed Anthony Dixon and traded for Bryce Brown, giving it one of the best collections of players at the position in the NFL. These moves, particularly the trade for Brown, were made to try to keep Jackson's carries down and keep him fresh over the entire course of the season.
The area the offense needs to improve on this year is not necessarily running the ball more but rather improving the quality of the rushing attempts. The Bills finished first last season in rushing attempts but finished 14th in yards-per-rushing attempts. This means that more often than not Jackson and Spiller were getting the ball and being met quickly by opposing defenders.
This was one of the reasons the Bills decided to use their second-round pick on Kouandjio, who excelled in run blocking while at Alabama. By adding him and Chris Williams at left guard, the Bills offensive line should be much more effective at opening the running lanes for the team's excellent group of running backs.
Protect EJ Manuel from Opposing Defenses (and Himself)
When Manuel was drafted he was not expected to start right away and was considered a "raw quarterback" who could use a year or two to polish his game. Unfortunately for him, that did not happen because of injuries, and he was named the starter beginning Week 1.
The rookie quarterback started out fairly strong, leading the Bills to two wins in his first four games and only throwing four interceptions in his first eight. The concerns started to arise about whether he can stay healthy and does he have the ability to throw the ball down the field.
Last season, Manuel finished 32nd in the league in yards per attempt (6.44). He was also hit pretty frequently, getting sacked 28 times in 10 games.
The question is what do the Bills have to do to keep him healthy and fix some of the negatives from a season ago? First, the team will need to establish the run and take pressure off Manuel during the games. If the coaching staff hopes to get into a shootout with opposing teams on Manuel's arm, at this stage in his career, it won't win many games in 2014.
The Bills can't be one dimensional, though, and will need Manuel to make throws to keep defenses honest and not allow them to stack the box. Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz went into great depth into Manuel's first year in the NFL and looked at every throw.
At the end of the article, Frenz wrote:
"If the Bills give Manuel more opportunities to go through his progressions, and if Manuel begins hanging in the pocket long enough to see his receivers downfield, they could expand the offense and open up the play calls."
This will be a major factor on the success of the Bills offense this year, and the team has helped him in two ways. First, the new additions on the offensive line should give Manuel more time to work through his progressions, but he may not need as much time with the added talent at wide receiver getting open quicker.
There is a great deal of potential there for Manuel to make a big jump in his second season.
Be Creative with Playmakers
The last thing the coaching staff will need to do this year is be creative with its playmakers. The talent at the skill positions is possibly the best the Bills have had in a long time. There are endless possibilities on how the team can utilize them and give opposing defenses numerous looks.
One of the issues from a season ago was that the team didn't have Spiller and Jackson on the field at the same time. This was frustrating to watch because with these two in the backfield at the same time will keep defenses guessing as the Bills can call a number of different plays.
If OTAs last week were an indication of this upcoming season, those frustrations could be gone as a number of plays were called with these two playmakers on the field at the same time, according to Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550.
The wide receiver group is just as versatile, which creates a good problem for Marrone and Hackett. They have three wide receivers (Watkins, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin) who can line up anywhere on the field from outside to inside in the slot.
The Bills should try to utilize these players' speed and elusiveness by calling more screens and end arounds in 2014. According to Frenz's article, Manuel only threw 16 screen passes last year, which is too low considering he had players like Spiller and Goodwin around him.
There is no question that the talent on the offensive side is much better this year than this time last season. There are also undoubtedly higher expectations now for Marrone, Hackett and Manuel because of this, and they have a year of experience under their belts.
They built a solid foundation with their running game, and they should not stray too far from this in the coming season. However, Manuel will need to improve on his numbers from a season ago and get this passing attack to the point where defenses have to respect it.
If the Bills can do that, this offense has the potential to be one of the best the franchise has had in years.