Buffalo’s passing attack, spearheaded by the inexperienced and inaccurate E.J. Manuel, doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of opponents. The unit finished 28th in the NFL last season and was led by TE Scott Chandler, who caught 53 passes for 655 yards.
The Bills drafted first-round wide receiver Sammy Watkins but he’s been hobbled recently and it will surely take time for him and Manuel to develop chemistry.
In reality, the Bears need only give Buffalo’s passing attack token consideration, as the Bills’ run game is as deadly as it gets. The unit finished second in the NFL last season with 2,307 total rushing yards, led by the two-headed monster of C.J. Spiller (1,118 yards from scrimmage) and Fred Jackson (1,277 yards from scrimmage).
“They run the ball well,” Lance Briggs said this week. “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.”
The Bills deploy a zone-blocking scheme in the run game, one that often creates wide cutback lanes, through which Spiller and Jackson are tough to corral.
“With a team like the Bills, if you’re out of your gap, that’s what they look for,” said Jared Allen. “Guys like Spiller and Jackson, they’re so quick to be able to just – 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.”
With that in mind, let’s go to the film room to break down Buffalo’s rushing attack, focusing on the blocking schemes and what to expect from both Spiller and Jackson on Sunday.
This is an I-formation, power set. It will be a straight lead play, with a fullback preceding Spiller into the right A gap.
Key to this play are the Atlanta linebackers. The weak-side linebacker rushes the line of scrimmage, while the middle linebacker is shaded to the outside of the play, obviously worried about Spiller’s ability to bounce plays around the corner. Yet the positioning of these two creates a juicy cutback lane.
Spiller cuts back in a flash and is behind both linebackers in an instant, leaving just the secondary to tackle one of the most elusive runners in the game. (Hint: That’s not a good thing, just ask Chris Conte.)
Spiller flies through the lane to the second level. He then makes another quick cut that leaves both the linebacker and safety in his dust. This play went for a 77-yard gain.
What does it mean?
Spiller is alone in the backfield and will receive the handoff running up the left A gap.
The Falcons do a great job of flooding the point of attack and filling all the run lanes. Yet they don’t get penetration, which gives Spiller a chance to change direction.
Spiller re-directs to the weak side, which immediately takes four defenders out of the play. There is no weak-side contain and he has a clear path to the edge.
Spiller clears the corner and then makes the cornerback miss, picking up 19 yards on the run.
What does it mean?
Spiller has the change-of-direction ability to make a defense pay even when they win the battle at the point of attack. If the Bears lose contain on the edges, he’ll find his way around the corner.
Spiller is going to run off the right B gap, yet the Bills stack two tight ends on the left side of the line. In response, Carolina puts four defenders on that side of the ball, leaving them dangerously thin on the backside of the play.
The tackle peels off for the linebacker. Both the play-side linebacker and defensive tackle are locked up, with the Bills also exploiting the up-field rush of the weak-side defensive end. This creates a crease for Spiller to reach the outside.
Spiller makes a quick cut and clears the safety for a big gain.
What does it mean?
The Bills are going to try and confuse Chicago’s defense through alignments such as these. This formation stacks two tight ends on one side, yet the play is run the other direction. If the Bears are too aggressive against this look, they’ll be exploited in the same manner as the Panthers.
Here we have Jackson in the backfield in shotgun formation. He’ll take the handoff running across the face of Manuel. At the point of attack, the Bills will pull the left guard around the left tackle.
The crash down on the tackle takes him out of the play, while the linebacker is unable to get off the block. This gives Jackson a lane through which he gains nine yards.
What does it mean?
Not everything the Bills do is tricky. This is a straight cross block and the Dolphins have no answer for it. The defensive tackle here needed to be more stout, while the linebacker was far too late filling his gap.
We again have Jackson in shotgun formation. He’ll take the handoff up the middle. Notice the tight end, Chandler, in the left wing position. At the snap, he’ll clear behind the entire offensive line to kick out on the opposite defensive end.
The center, right guard and right tackle all crash down hard and just destroy the interior of the Dolphins defensive line. They can do this because they know Chandler is coming behind them to clean up the play-side defense end. This again creates a nice lane for Jackson.
Jackson sees a hit coming and drops his head to initiate contact. He’s able to gain an extra three yards after contact by churning his legs and falling forward.
What does it mean?
Chandler is a pretty decent blocker. This is a power run play with a play-side kick out. Had the defensive end crashed down immediately on Jackson, who doesn’t have the ability to bounce plays like Spiller, he could have disrupted this run. Against Jackson, instant pursuit is necessary.
Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone, the former Saints offensive coordinator, are creative in their play designs. Their bread and butter is running the ball, so they’ve found numerous formations from which to pound the rock. If the Bears start chasing and lose gap discipline, these diverse blocking schemes are going to create big gaps for the running backs.
With Spiller, patience is crucial. He has the speed, agility and field vision to create something out of nothing. Discipline from both the linebackers and secondary will be necessary, as over-aggressiveness could lead to huge gains.
With Jackson, though, pursuing the ball should be priority No. 1. The 33-year-old isn’t going to outrun many defenders. His game is between the tackles. When Jackson is in the game, the plan is to punch the defense in the mouth, so the Bears must be ready to counter punch by flying to the football.
And if the Bears become enamored with the two-headed monster and tunnel-vision Jackson and Spiller, Manuel is going to tuck the ball away on a read-option play.
This is an extremely tough challenge for a Bears defense that finished 32nd in the league against the run last season. The club made a lot of personnel changes this offseason. Week 1 will tell us whether this updated unit can be stronger against the run than its predecessor.
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.