It was a part of Buffalo's offense that could not get on track in the first half of the season. Part of it was due to stiff competition, and part of it was due to poor execution. But come the second half of the 2008 season the Bills run game excelled and over the last eight games of the year ranked with some of the best rushing teams in football.
Over the last eight games of the year Buffalo ranked ninth in the league in rushing gaining almost 1,100 yards (1,092), which was over 300 more yards on the ground than they had gained in the season's first eight contests. The Bills also ranked an impressive seventh in the NFL in yards per carry over that span gaining 4.7 yards a pop.
"We kind of said it was going to be a matter of time and that's kind of how it went," said Duke Preston. "All of a sudden it breaks, but we really committed to running the football more. And the more touches we got Marshawn the more comfortable he felt seeing the holes and Fred too and the more comfortable we felt with what we needed to do and where we need to move our guys to and we were moving guys off the ball and getting them covered up."
After a disappointing first half of the season the offensive line for the Bills recommitted themselves to re-setting the line of scrimmage in the run game and getting the kind of push the heaviest offensive line in football should be providing on a regular basis.
"When you turned on the film in the second half of the season you could see it all over the place," said Fred Jackson. "Our linemen were blocking guys six, seven, eight yards down the field. And we were definitely thriving off that and were excited about it."
"We knew we couldn't allow our opponents to play in our backfield and at the same time we had to cover up those second level guys and not let them run around and make tackles," said Preston. "Their job up front is to hang on to us and not let us get up there. We had to move them back and get one or two guys up on the backers and then we were successful."
Successful they were. Buffalo improved their league run game ranking from a season low 28th following their Week 10 loss at New England to 13th by season's end, improving their rushing average from 90 yards a game to better than 115 in just seven games (115.1).
Buffalo's five best rushing games came in the last seven weeks of the season including the season-high 187 yards against the Jets seventh-ranked run defense in Week 15. In fact three of the Bills' best rushing games came against run fronts ranked in the top half of the league (Jets-7th, SF-13th, NE-15th).
But the players responsible for the run game's resurgence don't believe it was a change in attitude. Instead they point to the extra emphasis placed on the fundamental techniques that helped to improve their execution down the stretch.
"We always had the attitude," said Langston Walker. "I think it was just focusing on the little things. I think we had gotten away from that earlier in the season. Very small things became very glaring issues. We sat down and said, 'Look in order to get this thing right we're going to have to focus on our footwork and our finish and on our base and things like that and getting our calls out.'"
As a result the holes were there for Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson on a more consistent basis, and many times those holes were also larger. That catered to more long runs. So many in fact that over the last eight games Buffalo ranked third in the league in number of run plays that went for 10 yards or more (31). Only Carolina and Minnesota had more.
"You take a look at Marshawn's 50-yard run against San Francisco and he took the ball and went straight forward," said Jackson. "Any time you have a chance to do that you're going to make a big play. That's all the credit to the offensive line. When we can just get the ball and run in a straight line it's going to be a productive day for us."
The 49ers game proved to be the highest yards per carry day of the season as Buffalo's backs averaged an eye-popping 6.2 yards per rush. The disappointment of course was that success was not rewarded with a victory.
"We had a lot of positives the last six games or so, but the record didn't always show it," said Walker.
But those responsible for the success of the run game are determined to hit the ground running right from the start next season, hoping it adds up better in the win column in 2009 than it did in 2008.
"We're excited about it," said Jackson of the run game for 2009. "We know we're going to be able to move the ball. That's how we're approaching it, and that's what we want to get done. We have to eliminate the turnovers and we feel like we'll be able to do some consistent things on the offensive side of the ball."
"Going into next season we have high expectations already with the team that we have and the group that we've got going," said Preston. "Our one-two punch has got to be up there with anyone else in the league. I don't know if anyone else has two backs like us. So that motivates us up front to get those guys going even more and hopefully that can happen right from the start next year."