Upgrading the Buffalo Bills’ Offense: Running backs DO matter

Warning! Arch-conservative defense-oriented NFL head coach alert! When Sean McDermott was asked at his end-of-season press conference what the Buffalo Bills need to improve in 2021 after last week’s AFC Championship Game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, he said (per ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques): “I can tell you right now, we’ve got to run the football better.” Oh no! Is the Bills’ offense going back to trying to establish the run?

Will Josh Allen be nerfed in the name of traditionalist tactics? Or is McDermott onto something? After all, the Bills’ running game was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses in 2021.

Let’s push past the analytics pearl-clutching, take a deep dive into the data, and determine what McDermott, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and the Bills can do to upgrade their running game without shackling Allen to run-heavy game plans or overspending (in the draft or free agency) for a challenger to Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.

Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are not the problems

The Buffalo Bills’ offense ranked 20th in the NFL in the 2020 regular season with 107.7 rushing yards per game and 22nd with 4.2 yards per game. They also ranked 22nd in rushing, according to Football Outsiders DVOA.

Thus, their running game was indeed a relative weakness. A weakness especially when you consider that: A) the Bills led in the fourth quarters of many of their games and should have padded their rushing yard totals while munching the clock; and B) Josh Allen scrambled for 226 yards (designed runs were removed from the data), tweaking their rushing totals by about 14.1 yards per game.

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Singletary rushed for just 687 yards and a nothing-special 4.4 yards per carry, while rookie Moss rushed for 481 yards and 4.3 yards per carry. Moss’ numbers reflect an early-season injury and a late-season fade (plus a postseason injury). Yet, Singletary and Moss should not be blamed for the Bills’ rushing issues.

Diving further into the numbers on the Bills’ running game

Per Sports Info Solutions, they finished third (Moss) and fourth (Singletary) in the NFL in broken tackle percentage at 13.4% and 12.8%. Only Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers and Melvin Gordon of the Denver Broncos broke tackles on a higher percentage of runs. (Since you are curious, Derrick Henry was way down at 25th with 9.0%. That’ll happen when you are fed to the middle of the line 378 times).

Singletary and Moss also finished 12th and 13th in the NFL at 2.8 yards after contact per attempt, per Sports Info Solutions. The Bills’ running backs were generating plenty of yards after contact.

The issue was that defenders were initiating contact too close to the line of scrimmage. That fact is best illustrated by switching to Pro Football Reference’s data, which provides slightly different (but not divergent) broken tackle rates from Sports Info Solutions. Moss and Singletary ranked 43rd and 49th, respectively, with 1.8 and 1.5 yards before contact. Most successful running backs hover in the 2.2-2.7 yard range in this category.

What conclusions, if any, can we begin to draw?

Here’s one more stat to sledgehammer the point home. Per Football Outsiders, Singletary ranked 31st in the NFL with a 49% Success Rate, and Moss was 18th at 53% on far fewer categories. Success Rate is a batting average for running backs. A five-yard run on first down is a success, while a two-yard run isn’t, nor is a 10-yard draw play on 3rd and 20.

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Only 49% of Singletary’s runs helped the Buffalo Bills’ offense stay ahead of the sticks. It’s clear that the Bills’ running backs were getting stopped at the line too often, not that they were too easy to drag down.

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Brian Daboll’s play calling may have been the issue for the Buffalo Bills’ offense

It’s OK to criticize Daboll, right? He’s no longer a coaching candidate short-lister or the Pygmalion who transformed a Cockney flower peddler into Josh Allen, merely a mortal offensive coordinator who sometimes doesn’t have an answer to the Chiefs’ pass rush. And while his coaching may indeed have developed and liberated Allen, his play calling may also have led to a less-than-optimized running game.

Let’s absolve the Bills’ offensive line of any blame before we continue. Football Outsiders ranked them 15th in Adjusted Line Yards. It’s not spectacular, but certainly not a problem. Tape-based traffic-light evaluation systems also see no major issues with the Bills’ line. And they pass the eye test — Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams, and the others form a line that most teams would be thrilled to assemble.

The Bills’ offense on first down

When digging through the Football Outsiders’ database for deficiencies in the Bills’ running game, one split stands out. The Bills were the best first-down passing team in the NFL — better than the Chiefs or anyone else — but ranked just 29th in first-down rushing.

To Daboll and McDermott’s credit, the Bills passed on first down 308 times and rushed just 188 times. They knew what was working. Still, they needed to get more bang from their 188 bucks than 3.8 yards per first-down rush, also 29th in the NFL.

Now, close your eyes and picture a measly, worthless one-yard run on 1st and 10. You’re picturing a plunge into a stacked box, right? Well, the Bills did average 1.3 yards per rush against 8 or 9-man defensive boxes, the worst figure in the NFL. Yet, they also only rushed against a stacked box 42 times, the third-lowest figure in the NFL.

By contrast, poor Derrick Henry (and sometimes his backups) slammed into a stacked box 138 times, averaging a remarkable 4.8 yards per attempt.

More context to consider with the Bills’ running game

Remember that the Buffalo Bills often led in fourth quarters. This means Singletary and Moss were tasked with running out the clock, and opponents knew it. There are also 13 rushes near the goal line in that stacked-box data. Daboll was NOT being Mister Stubborn Old-School Establish the Run Guy, though he should spend part of the offseason looking for ways to get more than 1.3 yards per rush from these situations.

The Bills rushed 82 times on first down against diminished boxes of 6 defenders or fewer, the 7th highest total in the league. That means they were often getting the look they wanted when they ran the ball. But they averaged just 4.0 yards per carry in what should have been favorable circumstances. Successful rushing teams averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in these situations.

We’ve isolated a problem — Daboll was getting the matchup he wanted, but he did not get results.

Sift through the data a little more, and it turns out that the Bills ran outside (sweeps, pitches, the occasional reverse or option) 26 times on first down against diminished boxes but averaged just 3.3 yards per play.

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We’ve reached the level of data mining where we need to be wary of how much atom-splitting we’ve done. Yet, this appears to be a category of play calls Daboll needs to rethink. If the defense is in a dime package and Allen has the safeties 20 yards deep on first down, a quick hitter to Singletary might make some sense, but a run to the outside that allows deep defenders to flow to the ball does not.

Fixing the Buffalo Bills’ running game

The Bills don’t have to bust out the 1977 tactics or trade up to draft Clemson’s Travis Etienne to improve their running game. In fact, they should not do either of those things. They should, however, rethink the configuration of their running game on first downs to improve their efficiency. That includes whether the box is stacked or not.

What’s the best strategy to round out the Bills’ RB committee?

The Bills should also consider drafting for depth at running back in later rounds. This is a sound strategy for most teams (there’s usually someone hanging around in the sixth round who can contribute at running back right away on offense).

Singletary, Moss, and (briefly) T.J. Yeldon shouldered nearly all the load during the 2020 season, and Yeldon is a free agent. A third option can keep everyone fresh when the time comes to burn the clock in the fourth quarter. It never hurts to attack the defense with multiple rushing styles.

The Buffalo Bills’ offense has reached the level of success at which small, marginal improvements can make a big difference. Last Sunday, better rushing could have marked the difference between 2nd and 7 and 2nd and 5. That could have meant the difference between 4th and 23 and a Bills touchdown. McDermott and Daboll aren’t being fuddy-duddies by trying to upgrade their running game. They’re being smart.

Now, about that field goal before halftime …

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