Despite an overall positive season in which the Buffalo Bills finished with its best record in over a decade, 2014 left much to be desired. One of the most notable deficiencies of last year’s team was the offensive line and their inability to protect the quarterback and provide adequate rushing lanes.
There are a few explanations for this group’s putrid performance, but the most obvious holes start right in the middle at the guard position. This pressing need has been somewhat addressed through free agency and the NFL Draft, but the Bills will be heavily relying on a new coaching staff and offensive scheme to increase the production of this unit.
Make no mistake a lot of talent has been added to Buffalo’s roster since the end of last year. Even so, the team needs to start winning in the trenches if it plans on snapping its playoff-drought this season. Here are five reasons the Bills offensive line will improve in 2015.
New Personnel/Player’s Development
The Bills wasted no time in trying to improve the guard position when free agent Richie Incognito was signed in early February. Despite being out of football all last season, the controversial linemen is a relentless player that actually made the NFL Pro Bowl in 2012 and has finished ranked in the top 20 as a blocker for his position multiple times. The veteran is 31 years old, so he’s not really a long-term solution, but definitely provides starter’s experience and the ability to help bolster the line right away.
John Miller, a versatile guard out of Louisville was selected in the third-round and has some traits that make him an early favorite to start opposite of Incognito. In limited workouts during minicamp and OTAs, the rookie has impressed coaches with his knowledge of the schemes and ability to pick up on changes and variations on the fly. Additionally, he has great upper body strength and strong hands to keep defenders at bay. Miller is most effective in the power running game and will need to improve pass protection to maximize productivity.
While it’s definitely exciting to look at the potential contributions of brand-new additions, don’t overlook the development of player’s currently on the roster. Last year’s second-round pick, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandijio only played three snaps in all of 2014, but has been working like crazy to improve his game this offseason. The 2013 consensus All-American joined some familiar faces in Arizona to workout at an offensive lineman camp of sorts. Cyrus had this to say in an appearance on “The John Murphy Show” regarding his training:
“I’ve been there since the second week out. So I’ve been there for nine weeks, and I’m going to stay there until we have to report. We work six days out of the week, take Sunday off. Real strict diet, and you’re surrounded by people who are like-minded with what they want to do in their lives. It’s a really positive environment. I like it.”
Also, don’t forget Cyril Richardson, who started four games at guard as a rookie last year and played in 12 contests overall. Although he struggled to adjust to the pro game, Richardson has great size at 6’5” and 345 pounds and was an All-American in 2013 as well. It would be nice to think the experience from last year will translate to a better performance in training camp and may put him in the mix for a starting job.
Offensive Blocking Scheme
For the past two seasons under the previous regime, the Bills’ offense ran mostly a zone-blocking scheme for its offensive linemen.Some teams use these concepts well, notably the Denver Broncos, who seem to produce a new 1,000-yard rusher every year.
In Buffalo that game plan did not work so well. The team had the heaviest offensive line in the NFL in 2014, but finished ranked at the bottom of the league for performance. Fortunately, offensive coordinator Greg Roman should be introducing more of a man-to-man blocking scheme that should fit this group better.
The line hasn’t gotten any smaller, so a downhill, run-heavy approach will play right into their strengths.This allows them to dig in and be aggressive right away instead of looking for the right guy and space to block. Zone-blocking typically caters to fast and more nimble linemen, and not the big, heavy players that the Bills have. This new man-to-man system should be an easy transition and will make it harder for opponents to ‘blow up’ the line on a consistent basis.
Offensive Line Coach Aaron Kromer
Following a two-year stint as the Chicago Bears offensive coordinator, Aaron Kromer signed on to Rex Ryan’s staff to be the offensive line coach. The Miami (OH) alum is no stranger to getting the most out of his player’s and has a reputation for improving the lines he works with.
During his four-year tenure as OL coach with the New Orleans Saints, Kromer sent five player’s to a combined nine pro bowls. Two of those years (2009 & 2011), the Saint’s offensive line won the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award for the best unit in the entire league. There is plenty of young talent on the roster for Kromer to mold and guidance should immediately help bolster this group’s performance.
Return of the Fullback
Following right along with Rex’s building a “bully” comments during his first official press conference, Buffalo signed plow-horse fullback Jerome Felton to a lucrative 4-year, $9.2 million contract. While he may not be a household name, Felton does plenty of the dirty work to spring his running backs with room to run.
In 2012, the fullback was named to his first Pro Bowl after lead blocking for Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yard rushing season. The veteran figures to be used heavily in Buffalo’s new offense which will feature plenty of ground work. Also, the Bills just brought in fullback in free agent John Conner. A favorite from Rex Ryan’s New York Jets days, “The terminator” is also a known for his ability to block, catch passes and pick up tough yardage on the ground.
Buffalo may not even keep two fullbacks on the final 53-man roster, but it’s clear the team is committed to improving the rushing game. A player like Felton or Conner will help the offensive line by coming behind them to clean up whoever is still in the running hole. They can also serve as formidable pass-blockers given the opportunity.
Once a staple of its identity, the Bills’ offense didn’t use the fullback position all that much the past two seasons. In 2015, having a lead blocker in front of LeSean McCoy or Fred Jackson will be a common occurrence and should help Buffalo win the battle at the line of scrimmage.
Nowhere to go but Up
Given its 2014 PFF ranking of 30 out of 32 NFL teams for overall blocking efficiency, the Bills’ offensive line doesn’t need much to improve its performance in 2015. Pass protection was actually better as Buffalo ranked 23rd in the department, but dead last in run-blocking at 32nd in the league.
With a new coaching staff, new personnel and a new offensive system, the Bills offensive line has no excuse but to improve upon its 30th overall ranking in 2015.