Nearly 25 years have passed since the Buffalo Bills' high-flying "K-Gun" offense was destroying the NFL with a frenetic pace and all-star cast of playmakers. Led by three Hall of Famers (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed), the unit powered Buffalo to four straight AFC titles and came to be regarded as one of the most dominant in league history. Though the Bills failed to win a Super Bowl behind the electrifying attack, it was a juggernaut that kept the team among the ranks of the elite.
Based on the moves orchestrated by the Bills this offseason, I think the city of Buffalo could be in for a bit of déjà vu in 2015. Here are three reasons to think the new and improved offense will spark a legitimate playoff run:
1) The Bills will pummel opponents behind a ground and pound attack.
It's no secret Rex Ryan wants to hammer opposing defenses with a powerful running game. His ground-and-pound Jets did, after all, reach the 2009 and 2010 AFC title games behind a run-heavy offense that ranked among the top five in rushing yards both seasons. And just because the Bills' offense will be taking a run-first approach, don't expect it to lack pizzazz and sizzle. The brash coach has hired a creative, run-centric play caller in Greg Roman and given him a cast of playmakers who will make the running game the most feared in the league -- and much sexier than your typical "three yards and a cloud of dust" power-run offense.
Roman, the former offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, is a proponent of power football, and he'll use a variety of schemes, formations and personnel to create advantages in the run game. When he was with the 49ers, Roman featured a host of multiple-tight end sets, unbalanced offensive lines and constant pre-snap shifts to foster one of the most productive running games in the league. Not only did San Francisco rank eighth, fourth, third and fourth, respectively, in the past four years under Roman, but Frank Gore finished among the top 10 rushers in each of those seasons.
From 2011 to 2013, Roman called more runs than any other offensive coordinator in the NFL, and his 2013 unit was one of only two squads that ran the ball on more than 50 percent of its offensive snaps. The Niners' winning ways (36-11-1 record during that span) did, of course, provide Roman with plenty of opportunities to pile up lead-preserving fourth-quarter rushing attempts. But it should be noted that San Francisco also leaned on the running game to establish a physical identity and alleviate the burden on the quarterback to carry the offense. Most importantly, the strategy put the ball in the hands of the offense's top player (Gore), enabling the star to set the table for his teammates.
The Bills' recent acquisition of LeSean McCoy gives Roman a dynamic workhorse runner to build around. The six-year veteran led the NFL in rushing in 2013 and remains one of the most elusive runners in football. McCoy excels at avoiding defenders in the hole; his ability to slip through cracks makes him a threat to deliver an explosive run (20-plus yards) at any moment. McCoy's recent success in Philadelphia's spread offense suggests he is most comfortable as the "dot" back in a one-back spread formation, but his time in former Eagles coach Andy Reid's system proves he can also dominate in two-back sets. McCoy posted a pair of 1,000-yard seasons under Reid, notching an NFL-best 17 rushing touchdowns in 2011 as the centerpiece of an offense that featured some two-back formations.
Thus, I expect Roman to give McCoy plenty of carries on a variety of one-back "stretch" or outside zone runs, to enhance his ability to turn the corner or attack cut-back creases on over-aggressive defenses. These runs were staples in the Eagles' offense -- and, of course, Roman also featured outside zone runs in San Francisco, with Colin Kaepernick executing a handful of zone-read concepts. The fact that Bills quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor are certainly capable of executing these tactics as crafty runners on the perimeter could lead to the outside zone-read appearing in Buffalo's game plan.
From a two-back run game perspective, the addition of Jerome Felton gives Roman the flexibility to incorporate some power plays from a variety of heavy or jumbo sets, with McCoy aligned at tailback. During Felton's time with the Vikings, the hammerhead fullback paved the way for Adrian Peterson with his aggressive blocking at the point of attack. He uprooted linebackers out of the hole and routinely sealed the backside on cut-back runs for Peterson. Felton will have an opportunity to do the same for McCoy when Roman employs the two-back power running game from tight formations. Given McCoy's previous success finding creases in traffic, providing him with a lead blocker could produce fireworks for the Bills.
The video below shows an example of McCoy running in a two-back system in Philadelphia:
If the prospect of facing McCoy in a diverse power running offense doesn't strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators, the thought of having to account for receiver Percy Harvin on misdirection runs and gadget plays will drive them crazy. The seventh-year pro is one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL, with the speed, quickness and burst to turn the corner on jet sweeps and reverses. Harvin has also been effective on traditional sweeps and off-tackle runs from the backfield, which gives Roman an X-factor to use in the running game.
When Harvin was in Seattle, the Seahawks frequently used fly sweeps to get the dynamic runner on the perimeter. In the play depicted below -- from Seattle's Week 1 win over the Packers last season -- the Seahawks are aligned in a Trix motion, with Harvin positioned at WR3. Harvin motions into the backfield prior to the snap to receive the handoff from quarterback Russell Wilson on a fly sweep to the right. Harvin takes the ball and races around the corner for a 13-yard gain: (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given Roman's track record for building a dominant rushing attack, the Bills' talented backfield will make their version of ground and pound downright scary.
2) The Bills could have the most explosive receiving corps in the NFL.
I know that statement will draw quizzical looks from those familiar with Buffalo's putrid passing numbers in 2014 (225.9 passing yards per game, 18th in the league). But there's no denying the collection of pass-catching talent that's been assembled. Buffalo has one of the best 1-2 WR combinations in Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods; the additions of Charles Clay and Harvin makes for a dynamic quartet that could be the envy of the NFL by season's end.
Watkins is an electric WR1 with the speed, acceleration and burst to deliver home-run plays on the perimeter. He's a vertical playmaker adept at winning on go-routes and posts, yet he also possesses the savvy and running skills to deliver big plays on catch-and-run tosses. Watkins showed glimpses of big-play ability as a rookie in 2014, but facing more one-on-one coverage -- thanks to the presence of a dominant running game -- could allow him to enjoy a breakout year in 2015.
In the play depicted below, from the Bills' win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 7, Buffalo is in a jumbo formation, with Watkins positioned on the right. The Vikings are in a nine-man front, with one-on-one coverage on the outside. When Bills quarterback Kyle Orton sees his top playmaker facing man coverage against a fade route, he opts to take the deep shot down the boundary. Watkins separates from coverage downfield, and the free safety is unable to make a play from the middle of the field. Watkins scores a 26-yard touchdown, capitalizing on a big-play opportunity created in a run-heavy set. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Woods has flown under the radar the past two seasons, but scouts and coaches around the NFL will quickly point to him as one of the most polished young receivers in the game. He is a crafty route runner with sticky hands and superb ball skills, making him an ideal complement to Watkins. Woods -- who had 65 receptions for 699 yards (10.8 yards per catch) and five scores in 2014 -- could have a bigger impact this season with the stellar cast now around him. To better handle Watkins, Harvin and Clay, opponents will likely put their third- or fourth-best corners on Woods, giving the Bills a huge advantage when targeting Woods on isolation routes. If Woods consistently faces single coverage on the back side, expect his yards-per-catch figure to spike above the 14.5-yard mark.
Clay gives the Bills the explosive middle-of-the-field threat they've missed desperately at the "Y" position. The fifth-year pro has emerged as one of the premier pass-catching tight ends, notching 127 receptions over the past two seasons -- sixth-most among tight ends during that span. As an athletic playmaker with speed and quickness, Clay is a versatile weapon capable of working the seams on vertical routes or attacking the flats as a hybrid H-back out of the backfield. He also shows solid skills as an in-line blocker in the running game, making him a solid threat as a three-down player.
The play depicted below, from the Miami Dolphins' Week 7 win over the Chicago Bears, serves as an example of Clay's prowess as a vertical receiver. Clay is positioned at tight end in Miami's dubs formation. He will run a corner behind a post-route by the outside receiver. Clay delays slightly before getting into his route, which allows the receiver to clear the zone. With the cornerback occupied by the post, Clay works into an open void near the front pylon and hauls in an easy reception for a TD. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Harvin is the X-factor in the passing game. He is an exceptional catch-and-run specialist capable of delivering big plays on screens, short crossers and option routes. He also adds a vertical dimension to the corps with his ability to blow past defenders on a variety of deep routes from the slot. With Harvin's big-play ability attracting the attention of defensive coordinators, his mere presence should open up the field for the rest of the Bills' talented cast of playmakers.
Of course, quarterback play will ultimately determine the degree to which the outside world respects Buffalo's receiving corps. But opposing coaches are doubtless in for many sleepless nights when it comes to stopping this dangerous quartet of pass catchers.
3) Roman will help the Bills' starting quarterback thrive in 2015.
Quarterback has been routinely cited as the Bills' biggest weakness heading into 2015, with critics questioning whether EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel or Tyrod Taylor can capably lead this offense, regardless of how much talent is stocked on the perimeter. The questions are certainly deserved, but I believe Roman's experience with a similar situation in San Francisco could help him get the offense to hit the ground running behind a "game manager" at the position.
A high-powered offense run by Manuel, Cassel or Taylor? Yes, I can hear the snickers. But we should remember that doubters also wondered whether Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick could play well in Roman's offense in San Francisco. Smith had struggled as a starter prior to Roman's arrival with the Niners, exhibiting questionable confidence and judgment. In addition, he didn't appear to have the "big arm" needed to push the ball downfield, a fault that appeared to limit the team's big-play ability in prior systems. He then went on to have one of his best seasons as a pro in 2011, throwing for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns against five picks while helping San Francisco reach the NFC title game. Kaepernick, meanwhile, was an unknown commodity when he took over in the middle of his second season -- and yet, the ultra-athletic playmaker guided the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII directing an offense that featured the quarterback as a complementary player in a run-first offense.
I believe Roman can tweak his offense to fit the skills of whichever quarterback emerges as Buffalo's starter. If Manuel or Taylor is under center, Roman can use a variety of movement-based play-action passes to complement the dominant power-running game. In addition, the Bills can add some zone-read concepts and pre-designed quarterback runs to keep opponents from keying extensively on McCoy in the backfield. Moreover, the threat of the quarterback run will open up the passing game with a variety of RPO (run-pass option) passes. Considering the eight-man front opponents will need to use to defend McCoy, the quarterback should also have the opportunity to throw against soft coverage on the outside. With opponents forced into single-high safety looks, Manuel or Taylor should be able to rack up production on a number of "pitch and catch" throws to the perimeter.
If Cassel wins the job, the Bills can base their passing game on a number of play-action and drop-back passing concepts. The veteran played at a Pro Bowl level in Kansas City in 2010, directing a balanced offense that featured a variety of complementary passes to augment a powerful running game. He will step into a similar situation in Buffalo, with McCoy still regarded as a premier runner. Additionally, Cassel will have a talented cast of pass catchers to target with the potential to turn short passes into big gains. If he can simply avoid turnovers and consistently move the chains with accurate throws, the veteran could give Roman the Alex Smith-like game manager needed to guide a long playoff run.