Bills believe run game can carry them


It was probably their performance against the Jets in Week 10 that convinced them that they were on their way. With a nagging hamstring injury behind LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams healthy at the time, Buffalo rolled up 148 yards rushing against the league's number one ranked run defense in a 22-17 win. Since their bye week the Bills are averaging 164 rushing yards per game. As head coach Rex Ryan sees it the run game is peaking at just the right time.

"When you look at our team I think we have the ability to run the ball and be successful running to our standards, and if we do that we're going to be successful in games," said Ryan. "If you can run the football and stop the run in December and January you've got a great chance to win."

Over the last month of the regular season Buffalo faces run defenses that rank 27th, 25th and 15th before finishing up again with the Jets who are still number one in the league.

Ryan admits his defensive unit has some improvement to make in stopping the run. They're ranked 14th in the league and their rushing yards allowed average has climbed from 82 yards allowed in Week 5 to 104 entering Week 14.

"I think this is what we talked about with building a team," he said. "It's complementary football. That's what you want. You want to have a defense that can close out games and you want to have a defense that can keep you in games and then you want an offense that can control the ball and mix in some big plays, go into four minute mode and still win games that way."

The second half surge in Buffalo's run game can be directly attributed to LeSean McCoy. The linemen up front obviously deserve their fair share of credit, but McCoy's ability to make something out of nothing when the blocking isn't perfect on some plays is what has helped to keep the offense in manageable down and distance and finish drives.

"There's a lot of things that aren't blocked up and Shady makes a great play," said Richie Incognito. "He had a couple in the game last Sunday where there wasn't much there, he made a guy miss, and it's a 15-20 yard gain."

That being said it also appears that the offense has developed an identity as to what they are as a unit.

"I think as an offense as a whole, we've figured out what we do well and what Shady likes to run, and what we block well," Incognito said. "You've seen an emphasis on things we do well. There's a lot of things we get blocked up and Shady hits."

Buffalo at 6-6 has no margin for error with four games to play, but it's not unlike Rex Ryan's situation in his first year as head coach of the New York Jets in 2009. Ryan had a talented roster, and though there was good week to week production the wins weren't showing up with those performances.

That is until the final six weeks of the season. Sitting at 4-6 heading into Week 12, the Jets won five of their last six, qualified for the playoffs and advanced to the AFC Championship game in 2009.

Ryan's first Jets team led the league in rushing averaging more than 172 yards a game on the ground. That run game supported an inexperienced quarterback in rookie Mark Sanchez, who completed just 54 percent of his passes and had 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions.

Buffalo's offense appears to have a much better option at quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, who has a better than 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio and is the fourth-rated passer in the NFL.

Under a first-year head coach there was a natural feeling out process between Ryan and the Jets players in 2009. Bills assistant special teams coach Eric Smith was a safety on that Jets team.

"Anytime you get a new coach you've got guys looking at the past and what they've done and with the new coach he's doing things differently," Smith said. "So the big thing is getting guys to buy in and do the things they're being coached to do."

Injuries largely crippled Buffalo's offense early this season and through the middle of the season they've hurt the defense. The 2009 Jets team experienced similar setbacks. They lost nose tackle Kris Jenkins for the season just like Buffalo lost Kyle Williams. Do-it-all running back/return man Leon Washington also went down with a season-ending injury. Despite the lack of success in the win column, Ryan managed to keep the team united.

"The biggest thing we did was we stayed the course," said Ryan. "We believed in what we were doing. That meant eliminating penalties and just focusing on the job at hand. I think that's exactly what we did. We knew we had a good football team. It just hadn't shown up in the wins and losses, which is very similar to the situation we have now."

"During the early part of the season we would play good on one or two phases and one phase would have a bad game," Smith said. "But when we got to the end of the season we were playing good on all three. That last month and a half of the season we just got everything rolling."

The Jets defense was able to lock things down for most of that season, but over the last month and a half no opponent scored more than 15 points, with three failing to score a touchdown.

That combined with their run game, which averaged 187 yards an outing over those last six weeks, took a good deal of pressure off of their rookie quarterback.  

Buffalo's 2015 offense has been every bit as productive on the ground in the season's second half even if it has a different way of doing things.

"That Jets team had a little different kind of run game," Ryan said. "We did a lot of I-formation and two tight end sets and just run zone and smash mouth, but we did a lot of Wildcat too. We have more variety in our run game now. We're very multiple in what we do in our run game. Are we a perimeter run team? Yes. Are we an inside run team, a trap team and the answer is yes to those too."

That's due mainly to the versatile talents of the aforementioned McCoy, who Ryan says can make defenders miss in a phone booth. The other big plus for the offense is a quarterback with a multi-faceted skill set.

Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman hasn't put too much on Tyrod Taylor's plate knowing there would need to be manageable steps taken by the first-year starter. But he does provide a big play element with his accuracy on deep balls.

Is it enough to carry Buffalo down the stretch to a playoff berth much like Ryan's 2009 club?

The answer might hinge on whether the men in Buffalo's locker room truly believe they've got an identity as a team and can impose their style of play on whoever is next on the schedule.

"I think we're getting there," said Smith of the Bills identity as a team. "It doesn't seem like it's completely there, but we're getting close. Running the ball though, that's Rex's thing, ground and pound and then the defense is starting to put it together, stopping the run and taking care of the pass."

"We're definitely figuring it out," said Ryan. "I think there's a trust issue and they've got to see what you're all about as a coach, what you stand for and what your values are and what's important to you. The same thing with our players. As coaches you learn about who you have. Who is in that fox hole with you and developing your team. I think that's it. There are a lot of new players on this team as well as a bunch of new coaches.

"Right now anytime you get down the stretch you want to be playing your best football when the snow flies. That hopefully is where we're at now."

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