The Bills ground game was naturally expected to be productive for two main reasons in 2015. First and foremost the talents of LeSean McCoy. With his elusiveness and big play ability it was anticipated that he could serve as the engine of the offense while Tyrod Taylor learned on the job. Combined with offensive coordinator Greg Roman's proven run schemes Buffalo was expected to be a successful run first team.
By all accounts Buffalo was that and more. They finished tops in the league in rushing and only the Carolina Panthers ran the ball more times than the Bills. And
though McCoy led the team in rushing, injuries compromised his availability during the season. Fortunately for Buffalo, McCoy's setbacks allowed two other young running backs to emerge and convince the team's coaching staff and front office that they have a stable of ball carriers who can deliver.
"I think that was one of the main reasons we led the league in rushing," said head coach Rex Ryan. "It was the talent that we had a running back. We draft Karlos Williams in the fifth round, we pick up Mike Gillislee, 'Touchdown Mike' as a free agent. Then you add a Greg Roman system with tremendous coaches that we have and it just works."
Work it did. McCoy came into the regular season at less than 100 percent due to a hamstring injury suffered in training camp. So his slow start wasn't surprising, but when he was healthy and found his groove he was his typical playmaking self.
Over a seven-game stretch from Week 7 to Week 14, McCoy went for over 100 yards from scrimmage in each of those games. He finished the season with eight games of 100 or more total yards and almost single-handedly beat the Jets in the team's first meeting with New York in Week 11 rolling up 112 rushing yards against the league's top ranked run defense.
"He can make you miss in a phone booth," said Ryan. "He's just a rare guy. He made some runs yesterday against a good run defense and he just leaves you scratching your head. He left them scratching their heads and picking something up off the ground. He's just got unbelievable moves that he makes."
Perhaps most encouraging for 2016 is that McCoy said he never felt like he was at his best physically all season in 2015. He believes he can be far more explosive and productive with a healthier body next fall.
Karlos Williams had earned the backup job behind McCoy as his preseason exploits convinced the team to cut ties with veteran Fred Jackson. But not much was expected from a fifth-round draft choice.
Williams quickly changed that conversation. Despite limited opportunities the Florida State product routinely found the end zone scoring seven times in his first six games becoming just the second first-year player to do that in NFL history.
"If we knew he was going to be this good we would've taken higher than the fifth round," said Ryan. "But we knew he had size, speed and he was tough. He was a great special teams player at Florida State. I mean tremendous. We knew he had the size and the measurables and all that. We knew he was tough and loved to play the game. Passionate and all that. Did we realize what we had? I think in training camp, that was when we said, 'Oooh this kid has some special qualities.' In the scrimmages and all the stuff we did you could see that we really had something."
A concussion and shoulder injury forced him to miss five games, but he still rushed for more than 500 yards on the season averaging 5.6 yards per carry. His nine total touchdowns tied Sammy Watkins for the team lead.
Williams attributed his success to the affinity his offensive linemen had for his downhill running style.
"The big guys in front of me, those guys love when I run the football, they love the way I run the ball," Williams said. "Very aggressive, very downhill and we have that kind of offensive line that's going to push, grind it out, and make those holes. They want me in the end zone, and I'm going to find a way to get in there."
Seeing Williams' style take a toll on his body Buffalo's coaching staff has a muscle-building offseason regimen planned for him through the team's strength and conditioning staff.
"I think in the offseason you start addressing those things," said Ryan. "You realize quickly in this league as a young back that there are men out there. You've got to build your bumpers up. A huge emphasis in the weight room for him to build his shoulders and his (trapezius muscles) up. I think it's something he's going to need to do."
Gilly come latelyMike Gillislee didn't get called up to Buffalo's active roster until Week 13 after some roster shuffling left the Bills with just LeSean McCoy and Boobie Dixon as the team's only healthy backs. Called up from the practice squad, Gillislee wound up with a bigger role than anticipated right off the bat and made the most of it.
His first carry for the Bills was a 30-yard run down the right sideline against the Houston Texans. It would prove to be a sign of things to come. Despite limited work over the next three games, Gillislee managed to turn in a big play in the run game. A 19-yard touchdown run against the Eagles. A 60-yard touchdown run against Washington and a 50-yard score against the Cowboys. After four games Gillislee was averaging 10.3 yards per carry.
"You put him in there and this kid is amazing. Once he gets out in the clear… he's housed a couple of them," said Ryan. "The kid just does a tremendous job for us. You've really got to tip your hat to him. Even in protections, all the stuff you've got to learn as a back he's done it."
The game where Williams and Gillislee really picked up the slack was in Week 16. Without LeSean McCoy, who was out with a knee injury, the two young backs combined for 169 rushing yards in a 10-point win over Dallas.
"I thought it was absolutely terrific," said Ryan. "You've got a Pro Bowl running back out and two young men step in and do a tremendous job for us. That's impressive against a good defensive unit. I was really proud of the guys' effort."
Though the resume is short for Williams and Gillislee, Buffalo's front office and coaching staff believe they have a stable of backs going forward that can provide consistent production in the run game. And that leaves running back as one of the team's most stable positions heading into 2016.
"I would absolutely agree with that," said Ryan. "You look at these guys. Going into it look at what we've been able to do running the football. The plan coming in I think we've run the ball the way we expected to or even exceeded what we wanted to. We're not where we want to be as a football team yet. When you look at the positives this is a real positive thing. That we were able to lead the league in rushing and rushing average with a stable of backs we feel really good about moving forward. We're in pretty good shape with the backs that we have."