Few teams in the NFL can run the ball like the Buffalo Bills. In fact, only one team in the league had more total rushing yards last year: the Philadelphia Eagles. Other than that, no one presents a tougher test on the ground than the Bills.
That collective “gulp” you just heard was that of the Chicago Bears defense, which finished 32nd in the league last year in rushing.
With the Bills, there is no grace period. Immediately to start the year, Chicago will face one of the league’s toughest two-headed rushing attacks in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, who combined for 1,820 rushing yards last season.
Talk about being thrown into the fire.
“We’re going get a very, very good test in that first game,” coach Marc Trestman said. “They’re sitting back there in their backfield with Spiller and Jackson, two really good running backs. They totaled [more than] 2,000 yards of total offense last year and [almost] 1,000 rushing [yards] apiece. Plus they had 80 catches together in a community backfield. We know this. You have to stop the run, first of all, and they averaged 144 yards a game last year running the football.”
If the Bears give up 144 yards on the ground against the Bills, it will not only make it very difficult to pick up the home victory but it will cast a shadow on the ability of this year’s defense to stop the run.
“They have a good group of skill guys, but really what makes their offense go is their running backs Fred Jackson and Spiller,” safety Ryan Mundy said. “Those guys are very elusive. They run hard, and they get the job done in the running game. Our first and foremost goal is to stop the run.”
With Spiller comes the speed element, or the lightning, while Jackson is the heavy load, or thunder. A one-two punch of their magnitude makes it difficult for defenses on a number of levels. Spiller is going to make you run sideline to sideline, while Jackson is going to smack you in the mouth. And with their constant rotation, it’s easy to keep both guys fresh.
“They run the ball well. They want to establish the run,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “They do it out of a lot of different formations. They do a lot of things out of those formations, a lot of gimmicks and things to try to get you out of your gaps and get the running back to the second level fast. Spiller and Jackson are very good tailbacks. Spiller is very fast. He likes to get outside and use his speed, and Jackson runs really well between the tackles. They are both smart.”
Beyond Spiller and Jackson, the Bills can still hurt you with Bryce Brown, who is arguably the best No. 3 running back in the NFL.
“They actually have a pretty good offense,” defensive end Lamarr Houston told Bear Report this afternoon. “They average about 4.5 yards per carry. They’ve got a stable of backs back there. They’re going to want to come in here and run the ball, pound the ball and see what we’ve got up front. We can expect it to be a physical game, a tough game and I know they’re going to come in here and try to force the ball down our throats.”
To a man, Chicago’s defenders cited discipline and fundamentals as the key to plugging holes in the run game.
“Anytime you go in there where you’ve got three or four backs that could possibly play in the game, it’s tough to game plan. All of them have great quickness. We’ve just got to come out there and be disciplined and play our gaps,” defensive tackle Ego Ferguson told Bear Report. “Any football game comes down to who can be more disciplined, who can be more strong-minded and stay in there gaps.”
A mobile quarterback like E.J. Manuel brings an added element for which the defense must prepare, particularly the read option.
“The zone-read stuff, I’m usually the read guy,” said defensive end Jared Allen. “Me or Lamarr, the D-ends are the read guys. So we all have a large responsibility. We all have responsibilities within the defense. If we take care of them, be fundamentally sound, we’ll be all right. That’s typically how these things go. Especially with a team like the Bills, if you’re out of your gap, that’s what they look for. Guys like Spiller and Jackson, they’re so quick. When you get out of your gap one second they can jump, stop, cut and be right back in your gap full speed in no time. It’s just got to be disciplined football. We’ve got to tackle. That’s going to be the biggest thing this week is tackle, tackle, tackle.”
For a Chicago defense that features six new starters, facing Spiller and Jackson isn’t an ideal scenario. If they had their druthers, the coaching staff would much rather face a mediocre rushing attack to start the season so the players can get their feet wet and build chemistry.
Instead, they’ll be tested by a formidable run game that, if the Bears are unable to stop it, could lead the Bills to victory.
At the same time, if Chicago’s defense comes out and stonewalls Buffalo on the ground, it will bode well for the potential of this unit in the long term. We’ll find out on Sunday a whole lot about this Bears defense.
“They're excellent backs. They run hard,” said coordinator Mel Tucker. “Everyone is at the point of attack when they have the ball. And they do a great job with their offensive line. They're physical. They know how to run the football. So it's a huge a huge test.”
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.