Bills' Diverse Run Game a Problem in the Playoffs
NFL Wild Card - Offenses are usually better when they can do more things. That's a simple way to look at it, but if offenses are supposed to be the ones dictating the matchup to defenses, it is easier for them to do that when they have more tools available to them. Uncertainty breeds hesitation from the defense.
The Bills did not have the benefit of that kind of variability on offense for most of the year. Josh Allen being a cyborg with a crew of good pass-catchers was more than enough to put together an effective offense anyway, but it was clear that a portion of the team's volatility could be chalked up to an uninspired run game. They did not have that weapon in their arsenal for most of the year. That doesn't look to be an issue anymore.
The playoff game against the Patriots was a good benchmark for how far the Bills have come in just a few weeks. The Bills did not do much of anything against the Patriots on the ground through their first two meetings, or for most of the season, but in the wild-card round, Buffalo's ground game met little resistance.
The progression of concepts was what impressed the most against New England. At the core, almost all of the Bills' plays were pulling concepts, but the way they got there in terms of personnel, formation, and the actual concept itself varied greatly and gave a generally stout New England front a ton of issues.
This is a third-and-3 from the Bills' opening drive. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has earned some criticism for not using Allen enough as a runner in situational football, but everyone got their wish with this call. The Bills run a "bash" (back away) concept with the center (Mitch Morse, 60) and play-side tackle (Spencer Brown, 79) pulling out in front of the quarterback. Patriots outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) nearly ruins the play by spinning out of his first block and taking on a puller, but Allen uses his explosiveness to make the free-fitting Dont'a Hightower miss anyway, netting the Bills a 15-yard gain that led to a touchdown two plays later.
Giving Allen lead blockers is the way to go in the run game. Not only does he have the size and strength to slam it through a gap if need be, but he has vision and a surprising degree of coordination for a player who is so lanky. Plays like that, with two pullers galloping out in front of him in space, give Allen the best chance to dip into either skill set.
On the following drive, Daboll dipped into his bag of "bash" concepts again. This time around, the left tackle (Dion Dawkins, 73) and left guard (Ryan Bates, 71) pull around to the strong side on a counter concept. It's not identical to the previous play, especially since counter should hit more inside than the more pin-pull style concept from the previous clip, but the general idea of getting pullers moving away from the back remains. Between the quarterback run threat and eye candy, including using typical starting running back Devin Singletary as a lead blocker, all of Ja'Whaun Bentley (8), Matt Judon (9), and Miles Bryant (41) hesitated enough to let Isaiah McKenzie get out in front and pick up 8 yards.
That sequence was a testament to Daboll's ability to tie things together and make use of a number of tools to expose a defense. On the surface, it's clear to see how running similar-ish "bash" concepts together can be tough for a defense to sort out. Daboll was also preying on how the Patriots wanted to handle McKenzie being in the backfield, which was to have Bryant manned up on him. In some ways, manning up the receiver out of the backfield makes sense because no defense wants a linebacker dealing with that. However, as seen in these two clips, man coverage can be manipulated by the offense to either run a player out of the box (first play) or force an instant pursuit angle away from their alignment (second play).
What Daboll did next was not as galaxy brain. It was more Neanderthal. A return to the root of the sport, in a way.
To convert third-and-1, the Bills just lined up in an unbalanced jumbo set and ran power right behind all their extra beef up front. The Patriots remained in three-safety personnel and didn't roll down their strong safety until late, which made this easier, but the book on the Bills for most of this year was that they could not run into favorable looks as well as they needed to. It's an encouraging sign that they could come out against the Patriots defense and face little resistance in getting their power run game rolling when they needed it to.
Moreover, this play is when some of Buffalo's unsung heroes in the run game started to get involved. Neither were particularly instrumental for the success of this play, but this is where we started to see the use of left tackle Ryan Bates (71) and fullback Reggie Gilliam (41) as the pointmen for this rushing attack. Over the course of this game, as well as the weeks leading up to it, both players have been essential in paving the way for Devin Singletary and Co., particularly down in the red zone and in short-yardage.
"Game of inches" is not really the kind of football the Bills were good at for most of the year, but Bates has changed that for the better since taking over at left guard in Week 16. The angle Bates gets on Hightower (54) on this play is the difference between a successful run or not. Just as Bates comes around the right tackle, he does a great job taking a deep step up the field to Hightower's outside shoulder and turning his body. Not only does that ensure Bates can seal off the gap between himself and the tight end, but it helps reduce the surface Hightower can hit, making it a bit harder for him to knock Bates back and pry this block open. Though Van Noy (53) does a good job squeezing Dawson Knox on the outside, Bates nets just enough space for the running back to wiggle through and burst into the next level of the defense.
Later in the game, the Bills got Bates and Gilliam rolling in the same direction on this counter concept. It's worth touching on what the Bills did before the pulls, too. Buffalo comes out in this nub formation (tight end attached as the only eligible receiver to that side) on their right, which is naturally going to let the cornerback to that side play tighter to the core. The Bills use a nifty trick to stretch that cornerback out again by motioning McKenzie across the formation. The cornerback has to get wide to respect the receiver, opening up the space required to let Bates and Gilliam, as well as Knox on his down block, crack open a gap for Singletary. Granted, reserve safety D'Angelo Ross (39) could not have tried to fit this from depth any worse, but credit to the Bills for knowing where they wanted a play to bust open and deploying their personnel in the right way to make it work. They had desperately been missing that element of their offense for too long.
None of this is to say the Bills are a running team now, to be clear. They are not the 49ers or Titans, and they do not have to be. Allen is the lynchpin of the offense and getting him going through the air is priority No. 1 for Buffalo. Bringing in the run game as a viable option for their offense to stay on schedule is going to be important for the Bills as they traverse through the postseason, though. One of the league's dominant quarterbacks now having more stable ground to stand on is a scary predicament for the rest of the playoff pool to be in.