The 2014 Buffalo Bills showed that a dominant defense can only carry a team so far. The franchise posted its first winning record since 2004, but several putrid offensive performances left many feeling like they didn’t fulfill the expectations set prior to the season. When Rex Ryan was hired to replace Doug Marrone, he brought Greg Roman on board as offensive coordinator, a position he held with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-2014.
Before free agency even began, General Manager Doug Whaley worked to bolster the offensive side of the ball by signing offensive lineman Richie Incognito and trading for LeSean McCoy. In March, the Bills signed tight end Charles Clay, fullback Jerome Felton and wide receiver Percy Harvin to lucrative free agent contracts, complementing an already-talented receiving duo of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.
In the 2015 NFL Draft Buffalo continued to focus on offense, selecting offensive guard John Miller in the third round, running back Karlos Williams in the fifth round, tight end Nick O’Leary in the sixth round and wide receiver Dez Lewis in the seventh round.
Now, it’ll be up to Roman to get the most out of the offense through his game-planning and schemes that have proven to not only be innovative and aggressive, but successful as well.
While the Bills’ quarterback situation continues to be a major question mark, Roman has the benefit of working with a premier running back that’s gained 5,075 rushing yards and scored 33 touchdowns over the last four seasons. Additionally, he has one of the more talented “H-Back” tight ends in the NFL to go along with a trio of versatile and explosive playmakers in Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Percy Harvin at the wide receiver position.
Figuring out how to best utilize this talent is the main “problem” Roman will face during training camp.
Running the ball will be the first step, as Ryan and Roman each share a “ground and pound” mentality, as both have went to conference championship games with teams that fielded top rushing attacks. Last season, the Bills finished 20th in the league in rush attempts (402), 25th in rushing yards (1,482) and 27th in rushing touchdowns (7). In Roman’s four years coordinating the 49ers’ offense, his units carried the ball 1,965 times for 8,912 yards and 59 touchdowns—an average of 491.25 rushes for 2,228 yards and 14.75 touchdowns per season.
While the powerful Frank Gore was the bell-cow of his rushing attack in San Francisco, LeSean McCoy—albeit a different style of player—has proven that he can handle a significant workload, as he’s averaged 320 offensive touches over the last three years with the Eagles. The 49ers’ offense featured multiple tight ends and a fullback in order to have a power run game based on the counter, the power and iso, but also had some zone concepts wrinkled in, with the read-option and inside and outside zone.
LeSean McCoy has been extremely productive in a zone-blocking scheme under Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, but he was a superstar at Pittsburgh in a power scheme, so he’s familiar running the ball in a variety of schemes. He’ll be behind Jerome Felton, one of the best blocking fullbacks in the NFL, who the Bills signed as a free agent early in the offseason. Behind McCoy, the Bills’ backfield is crowded with Fred Jackson, Boobie Dixon, Bryce Brown and Karlos Williams. Jackson will likely see time as a third-down back, due to his ability as a pass blocker and a receiver, while Dixon and Brown will battle for one roster spot in camp. Williams is a raw, but intriguing running back that projects well to Roman’s offense due to his size, physicality, speed and downhill mentality.
Roman also utilized his quarterbacks extensively as rushers, with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick combining to gain 1,889 yards and 12 touchdowns on 342 carries. In Buffalo, Roman has two dual-threat quarterbacks in EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor that have the athletic ability to pick up big chunks of yardage on designed rushes, as well as extending plays with their legs when things break down in the pocket. Expect to see the quarterbacks throwing on the run, utilizing play-action, bootlegs, and overload concepts with high-lo reads integrated into them in order to get the most out of the position.
In the passing game Roman will need to get creative, finding ways to get the ball to his playmakers in space—something the Bills weren’t able to accomplish under Doug Marrone and Nate Hackett. Sammy Watkins is the No. 1 option and is coming off of an inconsistent, yet impressive rookie season in which he proved that he could beat man coverage, exploit soft zones, generate explosive plays and make contested catches. Robert Woods is an underrated player that can play outside or in the slot. He’s tough and can work the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. Percy Harvin is one of the most electric playmakers in the game, but he’s limited in what he can do from a route-tree perspective. While Rex Ryan and receivers coach Sanjay Lal have each stated that they intend to utilize Harvin as a “traditional” receiver, Harvin is at his best in space, using his speed and elusiveness after the catch to make plays on screens, slants, hitches and underneath routes.
Tight ends are major weapons in Roman’s passing game, as noted by the 315 receptions for 3,921 yards and 35 touchdowns the position produced from 2011 through 2014. Charles Clay will be a featured player for the Bills and will be used in a variety of roles— whether he’s lined up as a traditional in-line tight end, in the backfield as an H-Back, or split out into the slot. Clay is an impressive athlete that can attack a defense in a variety of ways. Expect to see him splitting the seam vertically, catching quick swing passes on wheel routes, quick outs and corner routes.
MarQuies Gray and Chris Gragg also fit the H-Back mold and will be likely be battling for the same roster spot in training camp, while Matthew Mulligan and Clay Burton figure to fight for the role as the blocking tight end. Rookie Nick O’Leary is a well-rounded player who saw his draft stock fall due to his lack of size and athleticism, but he could be a relatively early contributor as a blocker.
The skill position players at Roman’s disposal are talented and each bring something a little different to the table. However, if the Bills want to enjoy sustained success on the offensive side of the ball, the offensive line will need to take a huge step forward. In 2014 Buffalo’s offense had arguably the worst guard play in the entire league, but the additions of Richie Incognito and John Miller should bring that position to average, at the very least. The team’s veterans, left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Wood saw their play regress last season, but switching back to more of a man/gap blocking scheme should benefit both. After starting all 16 games as a rookie seventh round draft pick, Seantrel Henderson will be battling with 2014’s second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio for the starting right tackle position.
On paper, the Bills offense looks light-years ahead of last year’s version, but ultimately, one of the quarterbacks will need to step up. Greg Roman’s schemes and game-plans should maximize the talent on the roster, but EJ Manuel, Tyrod Taylor or Matt Cassel will have to prove themselves capable as a passer if they want to clear out the box and open up the run game. We already know that the defense will keep the Bills competitive in just about every game, but in order to turn some of those close losses into wins, the passing game will be critical.