*It's about time. *
That's what Buffalo Bills executives and coaches are likely saying after watching running back C.J. Spiller emerge as the NFL's most explosive player in the early goings of this season.
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The Bills selected Spiller ninth overall in the 2010 NFL Draft to add a big-play element to their offense, but his output through two seasons was limited to a handful of dazzling moments. Spiller recorded just one 100-yard rushing game during his first 30 contests, and mustered only eight runs of 20-plus yards in his first 281 rushing attempts.
Stepping in for injured veteran running back Fred Jackson this season, however, Spiller found his groove, and the results have been spectacular. Spiller leads the NFL with 292 rushing yards (on just 29 carries) through two games and has produced four runs of 20-plus yards and two of 40-plus. Spiller has also become an explosive weapon in the passing game, too, tallying five catches for 72 yards.
When Spiller suddenly started putting up ridiculous numbers as a multi-purpose playmaker, I thought I'd break down his game to see how the Bills have gotten their young superstar going. Here is what I discovered:
Spiller has become more decisive at the point of attack
The biggest adjustment young runners have to make when transitioning to the pro game is getting used to the speed of NFL defenses. Linebackers and safeties are faster and more explosive than they are in college, and holes close more quickly. Runners must make good decisions at the point of attack in order to pick up positive yardage, regardless of the defensive call.
During Spiller's first two seasons, he routinely attempted to outrun defenders to the corner rather than cutting inside to grab three or four yards. Although Spiller's extraordinary speed occasionally allowed him to get to the edge for a big run, opposing defenders typically corralled him before he could turn the corner.
This season, though, Spiller has been more decisive at the point of attack, showing a willingness to take the ball between the tackles for a short gain rather than just bouncing it outside and hoping for a big play. Those three- and four-yard gains don't pop out on the stat sheet, but they eventually lead to the monster runs that Spiller covets as a home-run hitter.
In the screengrab below, taken from the Bills' Week 2 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Spiller is running an inside zone play out of a "deuce" formation aligned to the right. He will take his initial steps to the left, then make a cut based on the reaction of the Chiefs' interior triangle (both defensive tackles and the middle linebacker):
When Spiller sees the Chiefs aggressively pursuing to the play-side, he quick-sticks his foot in the ground and attacks the seam created on the backside:
Spiller eventually burst into the secondary and rumbled for a 38-yard gain on this carry.
Quick-hitting plays get Spiller to the second level in a hurry
Spiller is a burner who boasts electrifying elusiveness in the open field; his speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds) and explosiveness are scary for opponents. The Bills capitalize on his talents by frequently getting him the ball on quick-hitting plays like traps and quick pitches, which catch defenders by surprise and allow Spiller to burst into the secondary. The combination of Buffalo's play-calling and Spiller's ability has regularly resulted in huge gains.
In the screengrab below, taken from the Chiefs game, Spiller is running an "inside zone kick." Tight end Scott Chandler (84) will work across the formation to block the defensive end on the right, while the Bills double-team the nose tackle with left guard Andy Levitre (67) and center Eric Wood (70). Cordy Glenn (77) will kick out the outside linebacker on the right, creating a seam in the B-gap:
On the snap, Spiller takes the handoff in front of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, while the double-team by Levitre and Wood creates a huge seam:
Spiller waltzed through that hole on his way to a 17-yard touchdown.
In the screengrab below, taken from the same game, the Bills are running a quick pitch to the left. Receiver Donald Jones and Chandler are blocking down to seal the edge, with Glenn pulling around the corner to lead Spiller to the outside:
This play was executed perfectly, and Spiller scampered into the end zone for a five-yard score.
The Bills are putting Spiller to good use in the screen game
Many have focused on Spiller's tremendous running skills, but he is just as dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. His speed and quickness make him indefensible in the open field. The Bills have started taking advantage of those skills by featuring him prominently in the passing game on various screens. Spiller gets the ball in space, and a few blockers are assigned to clear a path down the field. Given his speed, quickness and burst, Spiller is as much of a big-play threat for the Bills in the screen game as he is carrying the ball.
In the screengrab below, taken from the Chiefs game, the Bills have Spiller flanked out wide to the offensive left. He will take a few steps upfield before bowing back to catch a quick screen pass from Fitzpatrick. Receiver Stevie Johnson will work to the outside to block the corner, while Glenn and Levitre work up the field to clear out the most dangerous defenders on the second level:
This turned into a 27-yard gain for Buffalo.