Last season the Bills finished last in nearly ever critical offensive and defensive statistic, but the most glaring were the rushing stats. On both sides of the ball, it was clear that changes were needed in order for the team to become more competitive and compete with the top dogs in the AFC.
On offense, the Bills drafted Marshawn Lynch and found another gem to compliment Lynch in Fred Jackson, however too many times the offense stalled. Lynch and Jackson create a formidable punch, as Lynch packs both wicked speed and a power punch, while Jackson’s agility and field vision leave many defender’s heads spinning.
The problem? Identity. Inside holes were few and far between for Lynch, and too often, he created his own holes instead of letting the line create for him. This was not Lynch’s fault, as the line was simply too finesse and built for pass blocking and speed running. When the down was 3rd & 3, or 1st & goal from the 3 yard line, the Bills never had the confidence that they could, or would, run the ball and get four yards. They had huge, hulking linemen, but could not overpower a defensive line.
On the surface, it may not appear that the Bills did a lot to improve the running game, however they have made some moves which show they recognize the ineptitude of the offense. Both offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild and offensive line coach Jim McNally were replaced, respectively, with Turk Schonert and Sean Kugler. With Schonert came a new attitude. Almost immediately after the Schonert hire, the Bills added fullback Darian Barnes after going through all of 2007 with an H-Back role using solely Tight Ends. The Bills also focused heavily on improving their weapons through the draft, and the Bills hope they did by adding 6’6” WR James Hardy and TE Derek Fine.
Schonert promised a better passing game, and better use of both runningbacks. That was seen in mini-camp and training camp as the team began seeing a more diverse and complex passing game to fit the complex mind of QB Trent Edwards, and quirks such as sets using both Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. The Bills have never had a player like Hardy. He is tall, fast, has soft hands and an incredible vertical leap which gives the Bills a player who can open the red zone, or any part of the field if Schonert schemes properly. The rest of the receiving corps is just as dangerous: Lee Evans, a true no. one receiver, hands, speed, consistency, strength, Josh Reed, a pure slot receiver who gives Trent Edwards a clean route runner and his runningbacks some great block, and Roscoe Parrish, electricity defined, lightning quick, the Bills work to find ways to get him touches because they know he can score every time he has the ball.
Another advantage the Bills have is on the offensive line. Assuming Jason Peters’ holdout eventually comes to an end, all five starting lineman are returning. If Peters holdout persists, the team will replace Peters by shifting Langston Walker to left tackle and inserting veteran Kirk Chambers at right tackle. The team also will have both quality depth in G/C/T Duke Preston and G/C Jason Whittle, as well as some young additions this season in guard Christian Gaddis and tackle Demetrius Bell. Continuity is critical to an offensive line’s success, and the line played together for 15 games last season, so reuniting again, or having minimal change, will be a great advantage for new coach Sean Kugler.
How this all fits remains to be seen. The Bills haven’t tried much power running in the exhibition season so far, and when they have it hasn’t worked very well. That leaves the team with two choices, really, they can continue to try to be a power running team for the first few games, and if successful, begin to establish an identity with it. However, if they remain unsuccessful, they need to get rid of the idea and rely on the pitches, counters (which made the Bills of the 90s go), and sweeps instead, and be comfortable being a finesse offense. If the Bills do find comfort in power or finesse, look out, because either Lynch or Edwards can be primed for a huge season. If the Bills continue to try to be both power and finesse, like they did last season, then they will continue to fail. Hopefully Schonert figures this out early and the team goes on to success.
Up Next: The Defensive Line...of Terror?