A Fine Line

Updated: October 1, 2013
Baltimore Ravens v Buffalo Bills

I am currently reading a book by Sal Paolantonio entitled How Football Explains America. It’s a nice combination of thoughtful analysis on football as a reflection of society mixed in with forced embellishments on the similarities between our nation’s forefathers and the sport’s earliest pioneers. One chapter details the coaching tree in Army’s football program, a legacy born of General Douglas MacArthur’s obsession with the team. Luminaries like Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells would hone their crafts at West Point before taking their acumen on the road to dominate and revolutionize professional football. The link between the Black Knights and the development of football seems fitting for a sport often likened to war, two conquests sharing certain physical and mental characteristics. While platitudes like “warrior,” “hero” and “battlefield” are misappropriated ad nauseam, there exists a very thin line between success and failure in both forums. The Buffalo Bills have engaged in four conflicts this season, splitting the outcomes between victory and defeat. Detecting the common bonds in both categories is key to illuminating the identity the team must seek in order to end their 13 year playoff drought. Offensively, both the generals and infantrymen have established successful and unsuccessful approaches that serve as roadmaps to victory moving forward.

From a personnel standpoint, there is one man who links 2-0 and 0-2. His very presence or lack-thereof has assured both success and failure respectively. This x-factor is none other than fullback Frank Summers. According to Buffalo Rumblings, Summers did not see the field in weeks one or three, games in which the Bills lost while averaging 128 yards rushing per contest. In weeks two and four, Summers averaged 32 snaps while the team notched 176 yards per game on the ground en route to a pair of victories. His role is significant from a philosophical perspective, providing insight into how Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett perceive their offensive line. This past week against the Ravens, in addition to giving Summers his largest work load of the season, the coaching staff threw Lee Smith into the fold for 67 offensive plays after he saw the field only 31 times in the previous three contests. These are two cogs in the blocking scheme that can provide sorely-needed relief for an uneven offensive line plagued by penalties and inconsistent play. Giving these one-dimensional players so much time on the field isn’t without risk, as Smith showed while falling face-first into the grass as a wide open touchdown settled harmlessly into the right corner of the end zone. Any adjustment that makes life easier in the backfield has to be favored on a team with a rookie quarterback and a run-first mentality, however, making the involvement of Summers and Smith a winning strategy.

While the use of two extra blockers had an obvious positive effect on the running game, it opened up even more possibilities for an offense devoid of creativity during portions of the team’s two losses. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Bills ran the league’s second lowest percentage of play action in the first three weeks of the season, even though EJ Manuel had the second highest yards per attempt when running the set. Taking advantage of a rushing attack that forced Baltimore’s linebackers and safeties to respect the run, Manuel was able to employ play action in the season’s best downfield play, hitting Robert Woods for a 42 yard touchdown. Without the backfield fake, the safety maintains position on the deep ball, and without the blocking-bolstered run game, there’s no plausible fake in the first place.

As long as we’re on the subject of Robert Woods, it’s worth pointing out an interesting wrinkle he’s provided for the offense in both victories. Woods has been a productive deep threat down the middle of the field. In weeks two and four, he received six targets deep down the middle, resulting in three catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. Conversely, he didn’t see a single ball thrown his way in that area between the two losses. His ability to find the soft spot in the heart of the defense has been critical for Manuel’s ability to throw the ball downfield and helped Woods edge out Torrey Smith, he of the 166 yards receiving, in yards per route run this weekend.

There were several differences in Buffalo’s week four attack that weren’t featured in their win over Carolina as well. From a personnel perspective, it’s only fair that I acknowledge Colin Brown’s improved performance after eviscerating him in this space for three weeks. He didn’t exactly warrant comparisons to Ruben Brown, but after receiving a brutal -9.6 grade from Pro Football Focus in the loss to the Jets, he bounced back to the tune of -1.7, by far his best performance of the year. Color me skeptical that he’s suddenly turned a corner, but a progression from league-worst atrocity to slightly-below average would do wonders for the offense. The Bills benefited from a pair of adjustments that may be easier to replicate moving forward should the matchup call for such scheming. Buffalo owned the league’s fastest offense through three weeks, running an offensive play every 21.4 seconds of possession. Week 4 saw a much slower approach, averaging 29.2 seconds per play when removing Kneel Gate’s outlier effect at the end of the game. Marrone noted that the team intended to move with less urgency due to the amount of planned substitutions, and this philosophy undoubtedly seemed all the more prudent as the flailing Ravens’ offense completely abandoned the run early on. I’m not so sure this modification is a recipe for blanket success, but it was clearly the right way to attack the opponent in front of them. A more encouraging sign moving forward was Manuel’s increased involvement in designed run plays. PFF noted that Manuel has kept the ball and ran on only six of 46 read option plays, but four of those carries came against Baltimore. This illustrates Manuel’s progression in a pair of important areas. Not only does it show his increased level of trust in his surgically-repaired knee, but it also shows that he’s gaining the trust of the coaching staff who, as I detailed this summer, took their sweet time in opening up the playbook for Ryan Nassib at Syracuse. The staff doesn’t have the luxury of bringing Manuel up to speed at a snail’s pace in the pros, and his willingness to read and react can add an entirely new element to the offense as a whole.

Both the coaches and players have shown tendencies in their victorious conquests that can lead to success in future conflicts. Parsing through which positive strategies are widely-applicable and which subtleties vary based on the opponent will define Buffalo’s quest to become a league super power.