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.
Buffalo's passing game with a new offensive system and a rookie quarterback was expected to have its share of growing pains in 2013. By all accounts it did, but their problems were exacerbated by injuries at both the quarterback position and at running back. It made it difficult for the Bills to stay both balanced and productive through the course of the season. In the end Buffalo had the league's 28th ranked passing game. Naturally the expectations are that the passing game will improve this fall, but just how big a step forward will the Bills aerial attack take?
Here are some factors working in Buffalo's favor to move the team's pass game into the upper half of the league in 2014.
It's often been said that the NFL is a game of matchups and there was little question the Bills needed to upgrade their number of potential wins in one-on-one situations down in and down out. Buffalo acquired Mike Williams via trade and moved up the draft board in round one to land Sammy Watkins, the number one offensive playmaker in the class.
"It's exciting. I think it's one of those things as a player and a coach with EJ and myself it's just about getting a feel of what they do good and going from there," said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. "Right now we're just throwing everything at them and seeing what sticks. Seeing what they're good at and what EJ can complete well to each one of those guys. Sammy is an electric player. Mike is a big dude who can go up and make catches. It's just a matter of getting used to them and that's why these practices will be so important."
"Adding Sammy and adding Mike Williams is only going to help Woody (Robert Woods), T.J. (Graham), Marquise (Goodwin), Chris Hogan and all the guys who were here last year," said EJ Manuel. "I'm looking forward to it. It's going to give us more versatility out wide. I think we have a lot to work with this year."
Watkins and Williams give Manuel two dynamic outside receiving threats, who can leap over defensive backs to make plays on the ball even when they're not open. What's more the ball doesn't need to be right between the numbers for either to make plays as both possess a large catch radius. The new pair should also pull attention away from Woods, who figures to do most of his work in the slot this season, and should see a lot more single coverage.
Premium on protection
It was a statistic that largely went by the board for fans last season, but in 2013 the Bills gave up the fourth-most sacks in the NFL surrendering 48. A good portion of that was the willingness of opponents to be aggressive facing three very green quarterbacks in EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel. All three of them faced more than their fair share of blitzes because young QBs have a tendency to hesitate more than a veteran signal caller. The result was a lot of stalled drives last season due those negative plays.
Bills GM Doug Whaley put a premium on improving the offensive line not only to get bigger for the run game, but to have more depth for the pass game. It began with free agent guard Chris Williams, who should be a steadying force at left guard, a position that saw three different players man the spot in 2013.
Buffalo then drafted a pair of tackles and another guard in the draft in May to further fortify the front line.
"Mr. Whaley is building around me as far as more weapons outside to throw the ball to and obviously drafting guys on the interior, three big linemen which I was very excited to see," said Manuel. "Those guys are hard workers and they are looking great right now."
With Chris Hairston also back in the fold after missing all of 2013 with a non-football illness, Buffalo's offensive line contingent looks to be the deepest it's been since the perennial playoff Bills of the 90's. That should prevent any kind of significant drop-off should a starting lineman succumb to injury during the season, affording more time for Manuel to deliver the ball.
Buffalo's leading receiver the last few years was Stevie Johnson, a highly unconventional route runner. His unpredictability made him difficult for cornerbacks to cover, but also left his quarterback guessing wrong at times as to what Johnson's next move might be. In an effort to help EJ Manuel take the next step as a franchise signal caller, the Bills moved away from a high variance of route running to a uniform system based on timing and precision.
The precision is rooted in the footwork of the quarterback and how it links up with the footwork of his receivers on each and every given pass play.
"What we wanted to do was make everybody more accountable," said Hackett. "We've always set a certain depth and we want the receiver to get to a certain depth. What we did was try to make it so there are a certain amount of steps they need to take to get that depth.
"Just like we would tell a quarterback to take a five step drop, it's a five step drop for the receivers, what are the steps for the wide receivers? So we're all choreographed. Everybody meshes and works together. That allows everybody to be more accountable with each other to say, 'You didn't take enough steps.' Rather than, 'Oh you didn't get the right depth.' It gives us something to talk about and provide a solution for what a receiver can do to get better and get at a better depth so the spacing on the field is better."
With the offensive plays draw up with a specific step count for each receiving option that is in sync with the quarterback the hope is the reads for Manuel will be more black and white rather than gray.
"That's the whole point and that's where accountability comes from," said Hackett. "It's got to be black and white. The minute its gray you can't say that was right and that was wrong. We don't want there to be any questions about that. We want everybody to know right where everybody is going to be every time and how we create that spacing across the field to create a more efficient passing game."
Having to juggle running and implementing a new offense while also tasked with getting three different quarterbacks ready for some of the first NFL game action of their pro careers was a daunting burden for Nathaniel Hackett. He never shied away from the responsibilities, but Buffalo's offensive play caller was spread awfully thin last year. Enter quarterbacks coach Todd Downing and senior offensive assistant Jim Hostler.
In Downing Hackett now has an assistant who can spend every waking moment with the quarterbacks.
"I wanted somebody who could be there for those guys at all times that could allow me to concentrate on the other guys and focus on how everything fits together," Hackett said. "My relationship with those guys is never going to change. With the QB changes (last year) we had 10 quarterbacks come into this building. Last year was just nuts. Having him there offers us more support and he brings a ton to the table to help those guys."
Hostler has been a quarterbacks coach, a receivers coach and a coordinator in his NFL coaching career. For the Bills he'll be a primary overseer for Hackett.
"There's nothing better than to have a guy who can evaluate everything," said Hackett. "To have coach Hostler here with as much experience as he's had is amazing. He's watching me, the QBs, the receivers the line, he's watching film with us. It's just going to make us so much better."
Add in receivers coach Rob Moore, an assistant he coached with previously at Syracuse, and Hackett has a solid group of contributors to help the offensive puzzle pieces fit together.
"All the guys that we've got here coming into this thing will help make me better as a coach," said Hackett. "I get to work on the whole offense instead of just one guy and hold everybody accountable."
Last season veterans and rookies alike were new to Buffalo's offensive system under Hackett and Doug Marrone. Now with the majority of the offensive roster invested in the scheme for more than a calendar year an increased rate of consistency is expected.
"You know what's going on. You're not running plays, you're playing those plays and you're playing football," said Hackett. "It's not, 'What is that? Okay that's what I have.' It's, 'I know what I've got and I get to attack because I know where I fit.'"
Obviously chief among them is EJ Manuel. The quarterback knows, as well as everyone else, that he must take a sizable step forward with his play if the passing game is going to make a significant jump in production.
"I would say from the last game last season to now I'm way further ahead," said Manuel. "We've learned our responsibility of having the ability to change plays. Coach Hackett is not second guessing what we're doing. I think he trusts me a lot more to get us in the right play."
"When you get a quarterback in his second year and you keep the same quarterback throughout the year, that's going to dramatically help us," said Hackett. "Being familiar with the system, being familiar with the guys he's been out there with, that's going to dramatically help him also. He's going to understand his reads and he's going to be able to focus on the details, focus on how the defense is responding. He can understand what's happening to him. He can understand where he should go with the ball, so his advancement is growing rapidly."
"Continue to progress," said Doug Marrone succinctly. "And it's important. The quarterback is an important position, but we're also saying that to all the players. We're going to have to improve in everything."