Inside the Buffalo Bills' offense
September, 30, 2011
By James Walker | ESPN.com
Getty ImagesFred Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson have the Bills leading the NFL in scoring.ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The NFL's highest-scoring offense might be found in Buffalo, but it was hatched in Pittsburgh.
In the mid-1990s, Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey was a wide receivers coach for the Steelers. Gailey realized he had a deep and talented group, and convinced Pittsburgh -- primarily a running team -- to use more four-receiver sets.
"We kind of evolved to it, to be honest with you," Gailey said. "Ron Erhardt was the offensive coordinator, and we had four really good players. We had Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, and Charles Johnson and Yancey Thigpen. So we said, 'How can we get them on the field at the same time?'"
The concept helped lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl after the 1995 season. Sixteen years later, Gailey's spread offense is tearing up the NFL once again. The Bills lead the league in scoring with 113 points in three games. Buffalo (3-0) averages 37.7 points per game, is third in total offense and is the only undefeated team in the AFC.
Now, instead of Neil O'Donnell, the Bills have fast-rising quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Thigpen's role as the No. 1 receiver in Gailey's offense is filled by Buffalo's Steve Johnson. Charles Johnson and Hastings are replaced by Donald Jones and David Nelson. Receiver Naaman Roosevelt, tight end Scott Chandler and tailback C.J. Spiller share time as Buffalo's fourth receiver.
Even Kordell "Slash" Stewart, who was used on trick plays by Gailey and Pittsburgh's staff, is comparable to Bills receiver/quarterback/returner Brad Smith. But so far, Buffalo hasn't used many trick plays.
Gailey's system thrives on several core principles. First, by lining up with four receivers, Buffalo is able to "expand the defense." Buffalo's alignment forces defenses to spread out. It creates bigger seams, and makes it easier for the quarterback to read defenses and recognize blitzes.
Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate, is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. He’s done a great job of reading defenses pre-snap, and changing routes and protection. It's led to Fitzpatrick’s fast start and his earning AFC player of the month honors. He's thrown for 871 yards and nine touchdowns in three games.
"When he's confident, on top of his game and hot, he's really hard to deal with," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of Fitzpatrick. "I don't know if that's going to keep up for 16 games. But he's on fire right now. He's at the pinnacle of his game."
Buffalo's spread also takes defenses out of their comfort zones. Every base defense in the NFL has three or four linebackers. The Bills, with three and four receivers, create tough choices. If opponents stay in their base defense, they have to cover wide receivers with linebackers. If opponents go away from their base defense, some of the better, front-seven players are taken off the field. That makes it easier to run the football. Bills tailback Fred Jackson is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (303).
It's a catch-22 opponents have yet to figure out.
"Oakland stayed in a lot of base, and we exploited that," Jones said. "David in the middle, if they're going to keep a linebacker on him, that's a mismatch all day. Kansas City did the same thing.
"That's why we do it: to see what the defense is going to do. Are they going to bring in extra corners, or are they going to stay base? We're going to exploit it, whatever it is."
Buffalo's offense works because it defies stereotypes. With spreads, typically you think of big plays in the passing game but also a lot of sacks and struggles running the ball. Fitzpatrick has been sacked just once this season, and Buffalo is fourth in the league in rushing. The Bills average 5.6 yards per carry.
One of the secrets of Buffalo's success has been its receivers' blocking downfield. Buffalo is second in the NFL with six runs of 20 yards or more.
"This is what we tell our receivers: 'Do you want the running back to block the protection when you're running a route so you can catch a pass?'" Gailey said. "If you do, then when he's running the ball, you block for him because we're in this thing together."
Gailey's selfless team concept is working for the Bills. Buffalo usually sends four receivers out on passing plays, and it's Jackson's responsibility to block the extra rusher.
"I don't know if there's a better pass-protecting back in the league with what he does," Fitzpatrick said. "The fans and everybody watching the game, they see his runs, they see what he does after the catch, but that’s the thing that nobody really talks about and that’s what makes him one of the most complete backs in the game.
"He's taken on defensive linemen, he's taken on defensive ends and he's storming linebackers. Whatever it is, he's the best I've played with in terms of picking up blitzes. There are no stats for that."
The success of Buffalo’s offense has permeated the entire team.
Veteran Bills kicker Rian Lindell has seen a lot of bad offenses in his eight seasons in Buffalo. He provided some insight into how this year's offense has changed things.
"I have a kicking shoe that's tighter, so I don't wear it all game," Lindell said. "It used to be, I would wait until we get to midfield or in field goal range until I put it on. Now, if we get the ball on our own 20, 25 or 30, I say, 'I better put the shoe on. It might be a couple plays, and I have to get warmed up.'"
These Bills believe they can score with anyone. They proved it in a 34-31 shootout victory against New England. The Bills fell behind 21-0 in the first half and became the first NFL team to overcome deficits of 18 or more points in back-to-back weeks. Buffalo trailed by 21-3 at halftime of a 38-35 victory over Oakland in Week 2.
The offense is clicking because players better understand the system, Gailey said. In 2010, Gailey's first year in Buffalo, the Bills were ranked No. 25 offensively. They got off to a horrendous 0-8 start but finished the second half of the season 4-4. The Bills are 7-4 in their past 11 games.
Surprisingly, Buffalo's offensive playbook is not huge, players say. Gailey puts an emphasis on keeping things manageable. He believes that if everyone knows exactly what he's doing, the plays will work and it's easier to hold players accountable.
Many question whether the Bills, a four-win team in 2010, have the staying power to remain in contention. Much of it rests on this offense's ability to perform at a high level over 16 games.
Through three weeks, Buffalo is on pace to score 602 points this season. That would break the NFL record set by the Patriots (589) in 2007.
"I don't know if we'll set records this year," Gailey said. "But it'd be nice if we did."