Chan Gailey created quite a stir when he suggested the Buffalo Bills could split carries between Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller this fall. This statement certainly caught some by surprise, due to Jackson's outstanding production as the Bills' feature back over the past three seasons. He has amassed 1,200-plus total yards from scrimmage during each of those seasons and is coming off a stellar 2011 campaign when he tallied six 100-yard games and accounted 18 plays of 20-plus yards and five of 40-plus yards.
However, Jackson suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 10 of last season. Combining his age (31) and some durability concerns with the emergence of Spiller as a legitimate big-play threat, Gailey's decision to diversify the workload appears to be a wise one in my mind. After grinding through a little tape, here are my notes on what I expect to see from the Bills' offense with Jackson and Spiller sharing the load:
The book on Fred Jackson
Jackson is a rugged runner with size, speed and vision. He attacks the line of scrimmage with ferocity, but is also nimble enough to make defenders miss in the hole. Although Jackson is at his best when running between the tackles, he is certainly capable of turning the corner on outside runs. In addition to his effective skills as a runner, Jackson is an outstanding receiver with the capacity to run precise routes from the backfield or a flanked alignment. From screen passes to slants/under routes out of a wide alignment, Jackson has been the Buffalo Bills' do-it-all weapon for the past three seasons. But the Bills particularly utilize Jackson in the following three capacities:
1. Inside zone
The Bills take advantage of Jackson's rugged running style by featuring the inside zone prominently in the game plan. The play instructs the running back to run at the tackle's inside leg before making a decisive cut at the line of scrimmage. The runner will attack the frontside A-gap or make a cut to the backside against an overaggressive defense. The offensive line will step in unison to the side of the call and block any defender that steps into an assigned area. When executed properly, the runner will pick up at least four yards and keep the offense on schedule.
2. The cutback
The Bills capitalize on Jackson's running skills by calling predetermined cutback plays. This variation of the inside zone instructs the runner to immediately bend the ball to the backside after taking his initial steps to the frontside. The Bills create a huge seam for Jackson by aligning the fullback in an offset position and having him run across the formation to block an unsuspecting defender at the point of attack. Jackson cuts off his blocker's back and finds an open hole between the guards. In looking at Jackson's biggest runs, I was surprised at the number big runs he produced off this play.
Chandler will run across the formation to block the most dangerous defender at the point of attack:
Jackson will take his initial steps to the right before cutting back to the weak side:
Jackson will read Chandler's block and burst into the open area:
Jackson eventually finds daylight and finishes with a 43-yard touchdown. Click here to watch the full video of the play.
3. Screen pass
The Bills feature Jackson extensively in the passing game by routinely getting him the ball on screens. He displays outstanding patience waiting for his blockers to get out in front, and excels at finding creases at the second level. The Bills will utilize the screen in long-yardage situations, but the play has been effective for them in every scenario and should become a staple of their game plan with Jackson on the field. Watch this video to see a perfectly executed screen.
The book on C.J. Spiller
Spiller is an explosive perimeter runner with outstanding speed and quickness. He overwhelms defenders with his burst and acceleration, and displays exceptional elusiveness in the traffic. Spiller's ability to outrun or avoid tacklers in the open field makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Last season, Spiller rushed for 561 yards on 107 carries and tallied 39 receptions for 269 yards with two scores. Most impressively, he averaged a hefty 5.2 yards per carry and produced seven runs of 20-plus yards. Given Spiller's outstanding production in limited opportunities, it is not surprising Gailey is intent on getting the speedster more touches in 2012.
1. Outside zone
The Bills capitalize on Spiller's explosive speed and acceleration by frequently running off-tackle plays when he is in the game. One of their favorite plays is the outside zone, which instructs the runner to aim for the outside leg of the offensive tackle before making a decision to bounce (runner takes the ball around the corner), bend (runner cuts the ball back against an overaggressive defense) or bang (runner attacks the open crease with the intention of gaining at least four yards). The offensive line steps in unison to the direction of the call, with blockers assigned to take the first defender that shows up in their area. Based on the defensive front, either the center and guard or the guard and tackle will execute a double-team block to neutralize penetration at the point of attack and provide the runner with a clean look at the hole.
2. Lead draw
The Bills will also take advantage of Spiller's speed by featuring the lead draw prominently in the game plan. This is very similar to an isolation play, but the draw features delayed action between the quarterback and running back to create the illusion of a passing play for the defense. The backfield action forces linebackers to hesitate before attacking the line of scrimmage, allowing the fullback to getting a running start through the hole before initiating contact. As a result, the fullback is able to control the linebacker in the middle and give the running back ample room to run. Given Spiller's explosiveness, the additional running room creates a big-play opportunity for Buffalo.
Spiller reads the block of McIntyre to determine which way to cut in the hole:
With McIntyre stonewalling McCarthy in the hole, Spiller is able to burst through the line for a 25-yard gain. Click here to watch the full video of the play.
3. Swing pass
Spiller's speed and burst also makes him a lethal weapon in the passing game. The Bills will routinely attempt to get him on the perimeter by throwing swing passes to him out of the backfield. These passes are akin to toss sweeps because they allow Spiller to use his explosiveness to get outside of the defense. The Bills enhance the play by pulling the center and play-side guard to lead Spiller up the field. With Spiller capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, the utilization of the swing pass gives the Bills' offense an added dimension. The video to your right shows this strategy in motion.
Gailey's decision to diversify the offensive workload has been met with skepticism, but I believe the Bills are more difficult to defend with both Jackson and Spiller playing key roles. If Gailey can work out the logistics to make sure both receive enough touches to make an impact, Buffalo's offense could become one of the league's most difficult to defend in 2012.