Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bills' potential in two-back sets never materialized


After hearing Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone talk in preseason interviews about the potential of his running back tandem, you'd have thought the New Orleans Saints' game plan was making a move up north.

Problem is, that talk didn't amount to much on the field.

Make no mistake, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller were good this year. Really good. The best tandem in the league, in fact, in terms of real estate, totaling more than 1,800 combined yards and averaging 4.5 yards a carry.

The issue with the duo this season wasn't in its ground production, but rather its lack of involvement in the pass game.

Back in May, Marrone told reporters he saw both men progressing toward being "complete backs," saying he wouldn't pigeonhole either player and use them in only one role. He even went as far as to say they'd been used in unison during practice, eluding to the potential of some two-back sets finally appearing in the offense.

"I think we have an opportunity to have two backs back there that can be productive, and sometimes we've had them in the same backfield together in this camp," he said, via Tim Graham of the Buffalo News.

That had fans (and us) excited to see what the offense could do with playmakers of that caliber coming out of the backfield, surrounded by a slew of deep-threat wideouts to keep the defense honest. And with Marrone formerly part of a New Orleans offensive crew that perfected the two-back spread offense, it seemed like a no-brainer.

What resulted, however, was more of the same from the Buffalo sideline, a relatively simplistic schematic that saw lots of run plays between the tackles and few opportunities for the tailbacks to display their skills in the open field.

In 522 total passing plays, Buffalo used a lone setback formation a staggering 84 percent of the time, according to How many times did they pass out of a split-back formation or I-formation to utilize the two on the field at once? Zero.

Even in the run game, the Bills only used a split-back set 18 times, despite its effectiveness.

On the whole, the running backs' production as pass-catchers out of the backfield was pretty forgettable in 2013, particularly with Spiller.

The fourth-year back tallied a meager 185 yards on 33 receptions, an average of only 5.6 yards a reception. And while teammate Jackson hit a career high in receptions (47), his total yardage (387) and per-catch average (8.2) were far from jaw-dropping.

Much of the reason for the team's lack of pass production out of the backfield could seemingly be placed on injuries to quarterback E.J. Manuel and to Spiller, but the fact is the team never really gave it a shot, much like the situation with former coach Chan Gailey the year prior.

Spiller recognized at least his own shortfall in the passing game while talking to reporters Monday, pointing to the growing pains of a new system as part of the problem. 

"This was the first year in the offense, so we’ll go back and look at some things, see what we can do, bounce ideas off each other," Spiller said. "Try to see if we can split me out wide and do certain stuff. If we’re able to do that that’s fine, but if not, I can’t sit around and pout about it. I have to just do what’s asked of me and first and foremost I have to run the ball effectively and then we’ll get the passing game going." 

Both Spiller and Jackson are under contract for next season, so it'll be interesting to see if Buffalo's coaching staff sticks to its guns and pushes the conservative run game once again, or if the team's lack of production by its receivers forces some outside-the-box thinking and some more exotic play calls.

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