The Buffalo Bills were expected to emerge as legitimate contenders in the AFC behind a stifling defense and high-powered offense featuring explosive playmakers on the perimeter. While the D is having a tough time finding its identity, the offense is beginning to round into form, now that creative coordinator Greg Roman finally has a full complement of weapons at his disposal -- and just in time for this week's showdown with the Jets on "Thursday Night Football". The return to health of the Bills' most dynamic playmakers -- including quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams and receiver Sammy Watkins -- could make Buffalo a serious threat to make a deep postseason run in 2015.
1) Tyrod Taylor is an electric game manager for the Bills.
Skeptics snickered at the thought of Taylor starting, based on the fifth-year pro's inexperience (35 career pass attempts prior to 2015 season), but he's been a solid performer when healthy as the offensive leader. In six starts this season, Taylor has completed 71.8 percent of his throws while compiling a 10:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 108.9 passer rating and a 4-2 record. Most importantly, he's given the Bills a dynamic dual-threat playmaker to build around.
While the Bills have seemingly asked Taylor to play as a "pass-first" point guard directing a multi-faceted offense built around the running game, he's shown opponents he can make plays as a run-pass threat on the perimeter. From executing zone-read concepts to orchestrating various bootleg and movement-based passes, Taylor creates chaos for opponents with his ability to create big plays on the edges. Although Taylor capably throws the ball from the pocket, it is his ability to create explosive production (gains of 20 yards or more) on unscripted plays that has taken the Bills' offense to another level.
The All-22 Coaches Film from the Bills' Week 5 win over Tennessee shows how Taylor's running skills expand Buffalo's playbook. In the play depicted below, the Bills are aligned in a duo stack formation, with Taylor positioned in the shotgun. The Bills will run a quarterback draw, with bubble screens on each side of the field. Taylor takes the snap, fakes the throw and runs through the A-gap on the draw, slipping through the crease and weaving through traffic on his way to a 22-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Scouts certainly aren't surprised by Taylor's dangerous potential as a runner. Measuring 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.51 seconds) of all quarterbacks at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine -- faster than both Cam Newton (4.59) and Colin Kaepernick (4.53). Considering Taylor passed for 7,017 yards and rushed for another 2,196 as a four-year starter for Virginia Tech, the Bills' young playmaker is a dynamic weapon to feature in the game plan.
The Bills have also taken advantage of Taylor's skills as a polished deep-ball thrower. He exhibits terrific range, anticipation and touch dropping the ball down the chute on deep boundary throws. Consider his 63-yard bomb to Watkins in Sunday's win over the Dolphins -- the pinpoint placement and accuracy really stand out. The ball is delivered away from the defender, allowing Watkins to avoid a big hit while making the grab.
With the Bills' running game forcing opponents to play eight-man fronts with one-on-one coverage, Taylor's ability to make plays as a runner-passer allows Roman to creatively attack defenses with a variety of exotic tactics.
2) LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams are thriving under Greg Roman.
The Bills were expected to field one of the NFL's dominant rushing attacks, with Rex Ryan and Roman promising a hard-hitting, "ground and pound" approach upon their arrival in Buffalo. Roman, former offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers under Jim Harbaugh, is a proponent of a power-based scheme that features powers, counters, wham plays and traps designed to get runners to the second level. Although Roman will mix in some traditional zone-blocking plays, the power-gap blocking system is his bread and butter.
From a blocking standpoint, the Bills' gap scheme features multiple pullers working on most plays. The "down, down and around" scheme allows the Bills' blockers to take advantage of angles to seal defenders, creating creases and cutback lanes at the line of scrimmage. Roman will use a variety of formations, motions and personnel groupings to disguise the blocking scheme. Even so, it is simple for the players to remember their assignments. The constant pulls and traps require the ball carriers to exhibit patience and vision when attacking downhill or taking the ball to the edges. Runners who are adept at spotting creases on the back side can produce big plays on a consistent basis.
When they traded for McCoy, the Bills acquired one of the NFL's most electric cutback runners. The 5-foot-11, 208-pounder has four 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé, including a 1,607-yard season in 2013 that produced his first rushing title. Yes, McCoy claimed that crown as the lead back in a zone-read Eagles scheme that featured a host of shotgun runs from one-back sets. But the shifty playmaker was also one of the best runners in college football as a "dot" back in a two-back power scheme at Pittsburgh. Thus, he's ideally suited to thrive in a scheme that routinely produces creases at the point of attack.
Against the Dolphins in Week 9, McCoy repeatedly found cutback seams on a variety of power sweeps to the edges. In the play depicted below, the Bills are aligned in a split-back formation, with McCoy positioned on the left. Robert Woods will motion inside to execute a crack block on the strong safety. Guard John Miller pulls around the corner to lead McCoy to the outside. When McCoy spots a crease at the point of attack, he sticks his foot in the ground and explodes to the second level. After throwing a few moves to avoid defenders in the secondary, the shifty playmaker takes it the distance for a 48-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the Bills' Week 7 loss to Jacksonville in London, McCoy broke off a big gain on another power sweep, as you can see below. The Bills break the huddle aligned in an ace formation, with McCoy positioned as an offset back. Charles Clay motions into the backfield to create a two-back set. The team runs a sweep to the right, with Kraig Urbik pulling around the corner. Urbik kicks out the force player, leaving a crease for McCoy on the edge. The veteran rumbles 18 yards for a first down (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Williams has been one of the NFL's biggest surprises this season. The rookie has scored a touchdown in all but one of his first five games, displaying the kind of strength and power scouts covet in big-bodied backs. While most expect a 6-foot-1, 230-pounder to run through defenders with ease, the agility and elusiveness displayed by the fifth-round pick as a runner are uncommon for a big back. Considering Williams' inexperience at the position (he spent two seasons playing safety at Florida State before switching to tailback as a junior), the fact that he's already posted a pair of 100-yard games is a testament to his natural running skills.
In the Bills' power gap scheme, Williams' superb skills as a decisive runner make him a nightmare to defend on power plays. Against the Dolphinsin Week 3, Williams scores a 41-yard touchdown on a simple power play designed to attack the middle of the defense, as you can see below. The Bills are aligned in a split-back formation, with Woods motioning inside to block the outside force defender at the line of scrimmage. Williams follows Richie Incognito through the B-gap and makes an immediate cut through a crease to the left. With Incognito paving the way, the rookie finds a seam through the back side and out-runs the rest of the defense on the way to another score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, taken from Sunday's win, Williams is aligned as the offset back on the right. He takes the handoff heading to the left behind Incognito's pull block around the corner. Williams is instructed to read Incognito's block to determine whether to bounce or cut back at the point of attack. With Incognito kicking out the edge defender, Williams attacks the crease and out-runs the defense on the way to a 38-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) Sammy Watkins is poised to break out as the Bills' WR1.
When the Billstraded up to nab Watkins with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the team was expecting the 6-1, 211-pounder to anchor the passing game as a dynamic WR1, a role he thrived in at Clemson. And as a rookie last season, Watkins showed flashes, snagging 65 passes for 982 yards and six touchdowns.
From a scouting perspective, Watkins is a dynamic pass catcher capable of delivering "explosive" plays (receptions of 20 yards or more) on vertical routes or "catch-and-run" plays on the perimeter. He shows rare speed, quickness and acceleration as a deep-ball specialist, yet his spectacular running skills are what make him one of the most dangerous young playmakers in the NFL. In 21 career games, Watkins has tallied 19 receptions of 20-plus yards, including six receptions of at least 40 yards. He also has nine scoring grabs. Watkins provides the Bills' offense with an explosive element on the perimeter that defensive coordinators must account for.
The All-22 Coaches Film shows that, under Roman, Watkins has been just a spot contributor for most of the season, due to injuries (ankle) and schematic transition. The electric playmaker struggled adjusting to the double-coverage tactics from opponents; the Bills' quarterbacks frequently directed the football elsewhere instead of forcing the ball to Watkins on the perimeter. While the strategy is sensible based on the progression reads, the Bills need to get more out of their top playmaker to move the ball against elite defenses down the road.
Against the Miami Dolphins last week, I saw the Bills make a more concerted effort to feature Watkins in the passing game. Watkins racked up a career-high 168 receiving yards on eight receptions, catching the ball each time he was targeted. He also put the Dolphins in a bind with his ability to blow past their CB1 (Brent Grimes) on the perimeter. Watkins' speed and quickness make him a threat to win against most corners, and the Bills' clever utilization of two-back sets and overload formations (3x1) created big-play opportunities for the second-year pro.
From a schematic standpoint, two-back formations and 3x1 sets force the defense to declare how they will defend the X receiver -- most defenses will play an eight-man front against two-back formations; 3x1 sets make it hard for defenses to double-team or bracket the single-receiver -- early in the pre-snap phase, allowing the quarterback to quickly identify a potential mismatch on the perimeter. Thus, Taylor can come to the line and diagnose whether his top playmaker has an advantage on the outside.
In the video clip to the right, the Bills are aligned in a trips formation, with Watkins positioned at X (split end). The running back is offset to the strong side (three-receiver side) to create an overload formation (four receivers to a side), which disrupts the coverage rules for most zone defenses. Although the Dolphins stay in a Cover-2 shell during the pre-snap phase, Taylor is able to quickly identify the single-high safety after the snap and take a shot to Watkins down the boundary against one-on-one coverage. With most cover corners unable to stay with Watkins on vertical routes, the clever utilization of overload formations creates big-play chances in the passing game.
On the 63-yard pass play mentioned earlier in this piece, the Bills use a two-back set to exploit one-on-one coverage on the back side, as you can see in the video clip to the right. Most defensive coordinators use eight- or nine-man fronts to defend two-back sets due to the threat of the run. The Bills exploited the Dolphins' decision to play "quarters" (nine-man front) by sending Watkins down the boundary on a go-route. Given the Bills' success running the power-sweep and stretch play to McCoy and Williams out of two-back sets, the safeties were paying close attention to the run and didn't provide Grimes with enough help over the top of the route. Without a safety to discourage the deep throw, Watkins was able to snag a 63-yard pass on a fly-route down the sideline.