Almost lost in the final stat sheet of the Bills overtime win Sunday were a combined 34 carries and 113 yards rushing from Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, their best output as a two-back combination this season. The defense ultimately secured the victory by forcing five turnovers (the sixth came via special teams), the last of which led to a game-winning field goal, but establishing the run will need to be a priority again as the team travels to face the Carolina Panthers Sunday.
Entering the game near the bottom of league rankings in rushing average (31) and rushing yards per game (29), the Panthers defense has allowed opposing backs 149.2 yards per game and 5.0 yards a carry. With those figures, it will be important for the Bills attack to take advantage of those weaknesses from the start.
Jackson said the mindset this week is the same regardless of the Panther's downfalls. Instead, like every opponent, the running game needs to exploit a defense's mistakes when the situation arises.
"As a running back we always see opportunities, that's what we live for is an opportunity to make a play here or there," Jackson said. "So, I think it's another week to go out and take advantage of those opportunities. We're excited and looking forward to it."
Since returning from his suspension, Lynch has rebounded from his four-yard performance in week 4 against the Dolphins with 131 the past two weeks. After turning in solid games both running and receiving against New England and Tampa to begin the season, Jackson has trailed off some but still ranks seventh among league leaders in rushing.
Last week was a step in the right direction as both were productive in splitting carries. Against the Jets defense, led by Rex Ryan's exotic schemes, the Bills' game plan was to lean on the run and they came out with 3.4 yards a carry. Although the numbers were modest, they were productive enough to remain 12th in league rankings.
An advantage for both to earn quality yardage could come at the point of attack. Ever since Panthers defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu was lost to a season ending injury in training camp, the interior line continues to be reshuffled in hope of shoring up Carolina's run stopping deficiencies.
After trading for Louis Leonard to help the void before the season, he went on injured reserve courtesy of fracturing an ankle against Atlanta Nov. 22. Since then, the Panthers signed players to provide depth and bulk in the middle. One of the starters, Hollis Thomas, was signed after getting released from Rams Oct. 1. In sending a fifth-round pick to the Chiefs Tuesday, the team traded for Tank Tyler—a former teammate of John McCargo at North Carolina State.
While the Panthers continue to fill spots along the interior line, the Bills'offensive line will be working to create movement up front and get to the second and third levels knowing it will be beneficial to Lynch and Jackson—especially with their ability to burst through small holes.
Demetrius Bell said leaning on the run game is important, especially with areas they can expose, but no more than finding success in all phases.
"We'll just have to go with what we've been going with," he said. "Establishing the run, throwing the ball—those will all be big for us."
He was quick to note, however, the group needs to finish blocks and help the offense sustain drives—an area of improvement against the Jets last week. They would much rather have their backfield tandem on the field than the formidable counterpart combination of Panthers backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. In rebounding from quiet starts, both are starting to hit full stride with 262 combined rushing yards against the Buccaneers last week.
"Whenever our offense has the ball more than theirs—it's a plus," Bell said. "Our offense whenever we take control of game like that it's a positive for us in making big plays to win the game."
The status of Trent Edwards remains uncertain for Sunday, meaning backup Ryan Fitzpatrick could move into the starting role.
In light of facing a Carolina pass defense ranked second in the league and knowing the ability of Williams and Stewart to take over games, Jackson wasn't fazed. He said the team is focused on what they can control to win the game.
"He's a guy (Fitzpatrick) who's played, so he knows what he's doing and we're comfortable with him in there," Jackson said. "With time of possession, I think that's something we want to do anyway. We want to be able to run the ball and control the clock like everyone else. If we go out and establish the running game, it really just gives us a chance for other guys to make plays. They have to bring a safety down and we have the opportunity to get it out to the receivers."