The Buffalo Bills could try to fuse Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller into two sides of the same coin, but that might merely leave them with an awkward combination like Free J. Jackler. If head coach Chan Gailey is going to get the most out of both players, he’ll have to get a little more creative than that.
All along, Gailey and the Bills have acknowledged that having two dynamic runners like Jackson and Spiller is a good problem for the team to have. After all, featuring both players on the roster indicates talent and depth and offers both creativity and flexibility on the offensive side of the ball.
The most important part of that scenario, however, is execution.
It’s all fine and well to realize the two terrific skill sets that these two backs provide. Heck, it was one of the biggest reasons for optimism during the offseason. But if they aren’t utilized properly, what’s the point in boasting of both of them?
These aren’t trophy players. They’re football players.
Based on each back’s recent statistics, it’s evident that both Jackson and Spiller are more effective—and productive—when given the bulk of the touches. There’s no denying that.
Before succumbing to injury last year, Jackson carried the ball 170 times for 934 yards and six touchdowns through 10 games in a lead role (counting the game in which he got hurt). He added 39 catches for 442 yards as well.
Filling in for FJax in 2011, Spiller finally emerged and took advantage of the full-time opportunity he was given. On 86 carries, he notched 446 yards for three touchdowns and added 23 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns in just the six games that Jackson missed.
Considering the superb production Spiller had once again this year when Jackson missed time, it’s no secret these two guys play at their best when given the lead role.
Their numbers speak for themselves, and perhaps the biggest takeaway is that, while both are immensely talented, it seems pointless to have either one of them riding the bench while the other is receiving the lion’s share of the carries.
So what’s the solution?
It’s quite a pickle, but the first and most logical step for Buffalo to take is to simply make a more conscientious effort to run the football—in general. It’s not a coincidence that in the team’s two victories thus far, it was able to establish the run game, notching a ratio of 70 runs to 54 passes in those two games. In the three losses, that ratio shifts to 72 runs to 97 passes. Here’s the breakdown for each contest:
Certainly, a lot of factors affect the way plays are called, and it doesn’t help in the slightest that the Bills’ offensive line has been ravaged by injuries already. But Buffalo’s offense has to run through, well, the run.
The line has done a great job so far of power blocking when the team didn’t have its back against the wall, but getting its back against the wall in the first place is at least partially due to not getting the rushing attack going in the first place.
In order to maximize each running back’s potential, they simply need as many touches as possible.
Gailey acknowledged the importance of the run game when talking to Bills lead blogger Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com:
“We need to get (the run game production) back and if we don’t get that back we’ll struggle offensively,” he said. “We’ve got to have a balanced running game to complement our passing game. It’s going to be important to use both of them and get them both involved and be able to let them go play.”
Brown points out in his report that Gailey openly acknowledges not quite knowing how to best solve the problem of utilizing both backs. With all due respect, as a head coach, that’s Gailey’s job. He has to figure out a way to get the most out of both players. It’s not an easy task, surely, but it has to get done nonetheless.
In addition, Brown states that Jackson’s and Spiller’s carries were nearly split down the middle in last week’s loss to San Francisco. That leads to the second solution to this dilemma, which is having them both on the field at the same time far more frequently.
In Week 5, Jackson saw 22 offensive snaps and Spiller saw 24. That means that each player saw only about half of the team’s total offensive snaps (46). Getting the most out of both players requires putting them both on the field as much as possible. Otherwise, they’re merely being fused into a Free J. Jackler-type creature as we discussed previously.
Based on personnel, then, Gailey has to ensure he features these players as much as possible. It might mean having just two receivers on the field at a time, or it might mean decreasing some of Scott Chandler’s reps. Both Jackson and Spiller are great pass-catchers, so they can absolutely be used in the passing game.
Or, Gailey can take a cautious step back from this madness and make one of these guys his featured back. As painful as it might sound to have one of these guys on the bench for the majority of a game, or even a season, it might make the most sense for the team considering how well the offense seems to function with just one guy as the focal point.
But that seems unrealistic right now, and it doesn't equate to getting the most out of each player.
Ultimately, these are two of the top running backs in the NFL, and having both of them certainly is an advantage. It becomes a disadvantage, though, if trying to figure out how to use them becomes more of a problem than a solution to the team’s offensive struggles.
They need to see more snaps and they need to see more touches. Hopefully the Bills will be doing a whole lot more of handing the ball off during the rest of the season. And hopefully, both of these dynamic weapons will be on the field at the same time much more often each and every week.
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