Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we'll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.
It's been largely a two-man show in Buffalo's offensive backfield when it's come to carrying the football the past four seasons. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller have worked very effectively as a tandem and were a big reason why the Bills finished second in the league in rushing last season despite dealing with persistent injuries. Those injuries however, are partly why GM Doug Whaley sought to improve the depth of talent at running back. Knowing how the ankle and knee injuries suffered by Spiller and Jackson compromised the effectiveness of the offense as a whole, Whaley made some key additions at running back with Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. The only question now is how will offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett take advantage of the improved running back depth?
Armed with two more capable running backs than he had last season Hackett isn't concerned about keeping the ground game contingent happy. As he's said since he returned as the team's offensive play caller the speed at which he intends to run the offense will lead to more opportunities for each and every back on the roster.
"The more people you've got the more plays you run," Hackett said. "That's why I like that up tempo stuff because I love the guys that we have. You can keep them fresh and keep feeding them. Keep them hungry."
But Buffalo finished third in total plays run from scrimmage with just over 1,100 to average almost 70 plays a game (69.8). Only Denver (72.1) and New England (70.4) snapped the ball on offense more often than the Bills. So how will Hackett possibly run many more plays than he did last season?
"The big thing for us right now is converting on third down," he said. "If you look at us last year, that right there is going to extend so many more drives. We have to continue to be better at that, and it's something I've really challenged the guys with. Third down and red zone situations that's what we need to work on and that's what's going to get us more plays."
Hackett is right. Buffalo was a disappointing 29th in third down conversion percentage, moving the sticks just 34 percent of the time. If the Bills can push their conversion rate up closer to 40 percent they're running at least three more plays more often.
"The same amount of drives and opportunities we'll have will be the same and it's just how long those opportunities last," Hackett said. "When we would go on a 12 or 15 play drive it was awesome and those guys got in a rhythm and they got touches and they got a good feel for how the defense was playing. When you three-and-out, or four or five play drives, that's when they can't get that. So, I think that just converting on third down can extend a lot of drives for us."
Diverse skill sets
Hackett was not only provided with two new backs in Brown and Dixon who are capable of shouldering the load at the NFL level, but who bring multi-dimensional skill sets to the table. Jackson and Spiller's exploits on the field are well known. Both can split out and serve in the passing game. Jackson is supremely adept in blitz pickup situations and Spiller can even be a factor in the return game.
Brown possesses breakaway speed much like Spiller, but is put together physically to pull through arm tackles and has the hands to help as an outlet in the passing game.
Dixon meanwhile is a 'one cut and go' downhill runner that has more agility in the receiving game than most believe. He can move the pile in short yardage situations and carry defenders for extra yards.
"Any time you add more playmakers—both of those guys have opportunities to make plays," said Hackett. "Different kind of guys-one's a big hard-nosed downhill type of guy. The other guy is a nifty, quick guy. Those are guys along with C.J. and Fred that defenses are going to have to plan for. The more guys you can have on the team that the defense might have to possibly prepare for, the better advantage we're going to have."
The bell cow in this quartet however, is still expected to be Spiller. A home-run threat every time he touches the ball, the Bills former first-round pick is healthy again and back to his elusive and explosive self. After spending a year working with Spiller and understanding where he really excels and how diversified his game can be Hackett is confident he can maximize Spiller's talents for the offense. And now with an extra pair of backs he can freely maneuver Spiller to any position on the field.
"You could put him all over the place," said Hackett. "When you have the depth at that position you can do that. When you're healthy and you have depth at that position you have the ability to do a lot of different things with running backs especially with someone as dynamic as C.J.. Fred and Bryce are dynamic too. When you have that depth it allows you to do more. The longer everybody plays and works together the more things you can do. So we just need consistency with the same lineup and the same group and it allows us to expand everything we can do with everybody."
One lament that former Bills head coach Chan Gailey had was his inability to be as creative as he wanted to be with Jackson and Spiller because there was no one remotely close to their caliber behind them on the depth chart. Gailey wanted to run Jackson and Spiller in a split backfield, but worried if one of them sustained an injury the whole package of plays for a split backfield would have to be scrapped. That kind of a restriction for Hackett no longer exists.
"The good thing about our group is we're very confident in each and every guy," said Spiller. "We've got two additions and we're trying to get those guys caught up to speed, but for the most part it just makes us better. So I'm looking forward to working with those guys and trying to get them better. We'll see what happens."
If the offense is operating at peak efficiency Spiller is likely to touch the ball 20 times a game, they just won't all be carries out of the backfield.
Attacking in waves
Working at a lightning fast pace Buffalo's offense should effectively wear out an opposing defense if they're converting their third downs. That often leads to missed tackles or missed assignments and the Bills offense winds up falling into more yards. That's when Hackett can attack in waves deploying a myriad of different personnel groupings.
Buffalo's offensive play caller knows what Jackson and Spiller can do in just about every situation. At training camp and in the preseason he'll work to learn where and how Brown and Dixon will perform at their best.
"For me it's how I call plays with all those guys. How I mesh with them," he said. "That's why I have to understand what they all do good and put them in situations where they can be successful. That's part of my job. Getting to know C.J. and Fred (last year), that's definitely going to help us as we move forward."
Even if Hackett doesn't have a complete picture as to what Brown and Dixon do best by the start of the season he'll have a firm grasp of their strengths, and their talent almost demands that he find a way to make use of their ability.
"You look at our room and we have a ton of playmakers and you look at the receiver room and the tight end room… coach Hackett is going to have a tough job on his hands trying to figure out how to keep everybody satisfied," said Spiller. "The good thing about us though is we're not a selfish group. We all have always had that one main goal and that's to get to the playoffs.
"We have always had the confidence that whoever has the ball in his hands can make a play for us. I'm excited for how we're going to do it, but we have depth in our room so God forbid anything happens to both me and Fred we'll have the next two guys ready to go so we don't have a letdown."