Buffalo Bills 2009 To-Do List: Offense

By PFC Bills Writer Jay Kommuru

Get solid O-line play

If there has been any one area of weakness for the Buffalo Bills in this past decade, it has to be the offensive line. The Bills have failed to put together as much as a solid offensive line in recent years.  In the 2007 offseason, they signed FA Guard Derrick Dockery to, what was then the third largest contract in NFL history at his position.  Two years later, they ended up cutting Dockery off their roster! Earlier this year they traded two-time pro-bowler Jason Peters (LT) to the Philadelphia Eagles for draft picks. Nobody can claim that the Bills haven’t tried to fix their O-line issues, but at the most they have been successful at being mediocre on that front.

So now as we approach the 2009 season, with Dick Jauron and his fellow coaching staff squarely on the hot seat, and getting T.O. for rent for one year, this team will only go as far as the O-line takes them. The biggest need for improvement from last year is the toughness in the interior O-line. The Bills are the only AFC East team that does not run a 3-4 defense: which means they will face a massive nose-tackle in the middle of the defensive line at least 6 times in any given year. This year they are playing 8 games against teams that run a 3-4 front. There is no question that the Bills had a very tough time dealing with 3-4 fronts in 2008, and most of the havoc created by the opposing defensive line came on the interior O-line. Our centers and guards were consistently pushed back into our own backfield giving Lynch and Jackson no room at times and leaving only a few moments for Trent to get rid of the ball.

So how do you have one of the best WR duo in the league, have a promising young QB entering his third year, and a solid running game and yet fail to make the playoffs in 2009? By having the same inconsistent, mediocre play at the offensive line position – that’s how! If the Bills want to make full use of their weapons, they have to give Trent time in the pocket.  It seems Dick Jauron has got the memo as just this week he has already named his starting five for the season:

LT Langston Walker
LG Andy Levitre (R)
C Geoff Hangartner
RG Eric Wood (R)
RT Brad Butler

Wood and Levitre, while both rookies, were known for their strength and toughness inside in college.  If they are able to absorb the playbook and minimize their inevitable rookie mental lapses, the running game could be special in 2009. Hangartner is a solid FA signing at the pivot, and word is that he would have pushed for a starting job in Carolina had they not already had a capable starting center in Ryan Kalil. Hang performed admirably in the 4 games that Kalil missed last year due to injury so he is certainly capable of handling a full-time job despite having limited starting experience. The best thing going for the Bills with this re-built offensive line is that there is going to be a certain element of toughness inside, and the two rookies will have capable veterans next to them on either side.

My biggest concern is that every starting offensive linemen except for Hangartner will be playing a different position this year compared to last year. Walker will have to man the blind-side for Trent Edwards and while he filled in well in limited action last year when Peters was holding-out, having him do it for a full season might come back to hurt the Bills. Butler played tackle in college, but has been a guard for the Bills and now he has to move back out to RT. Wood was a college center, while Levitre was a college tackle, and now both have to play guard for the Bills. It might not seem like much, but even a slight position shift can cause problems in performance, especially late in the games when the players are tired and mostly act on muscle memory.

The Bills have some decent backups in Kirk Chambers and Seth McKinney, and another one who has a lot of potential – Demetrius Bell – who reminds me a little of Jason Peters himself. Bell is a 7th round pick and was very raw coming out of college but he has superior athletic abilities just like Peters.  Whether that ability will translate to the football field and whether he will the opportunity to showcase his abilities are yet to be seen, but he is at least an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on.

Overall, the Bills may have some quality weapons under the hood, but they will only go as far as their wheels (i.e. O-line) take them.

Update – A closer look at how the Bills re-tooled O-line performed in the HOF preseason game against the Titans.

Trent: take some chances

If Edwards wants to take the next step in the NFL, he has to start taking some chances on the football field. Far too often he relegates to a check-down instead of throwing into some tight coverage. His strengths are accuracy and pocket-awareness, so I understand his tendency to wait for the receiver to get open, but he has to learn to anticipate those windows of opportunities or else he’ll be looking for a job next year. Not to mention, he will be subject to scolding sessions on the sideline by a certain wide receiver. Early reports from training camp are positive so far, and it seems as though Trent has been able to get on the same page as Evans and Owens earlier than usual.

Edwards is excellent at knowing just when to get rid of the football, and he’s certainly the anit-Losman when it comes to avoiding turnovers, but to take the next step he has to mentally get on the same page with NFL speed.

Update: Trent looked in command of the no-huddle and while the O-line played poorly, he showed some aggressiveness in his decision-making early on in the HOF preseason game.

Implement the “No-Huddle”

It seems almost every year around this time Bills fans hear about how the offense is sprinkling in some “no-huddle” work in offense and how they are working towards using that in games more often. And every off-season begins with the same complaints, one of them inevitably including the fact that the Bills, yet again, failed to use the “no-huddle” offense more than a handful of times.  At least this year they are being upfront about the fact that this will not be a return of the “K-gun”

The best way for the Bills offense to maximize its weapons and at the same time take the pressure off the inexperienced O-line would be to run a “no-huddle” offense once or twice a game.  “No-huddle” is not to be confused with a “hurry” offense. “No-huddle” simply means the offense will not huddle up in that series – so there won’t be any substitutions, and Trent will have to pick up the play-call thru his helmet and call it out as the offense lines up. But it’s not like the offense will be hurrying back to the line of scrimmage after every play. So think of it as a happy medium between a regular drive where the offense huddles up every play and the 2-minute drill where the offense rushes back to the line of scrimmage after every play.

Negatives of running the “no-huddle”:
No substitutions if the team doesn’t huddle-up (but this can be offset somewhat by putting in multi-talented players for that particular series. For e.g. use Lynch and Jackson in the backfield)
Trent has to effectively communicate the play to the rest of the offense from the line of scrimmage, so there could be times where that communication breaks down.
It puts more pressure on the offense to really know the playbook and the O-line to quickly remember their line calls based on the play.

Positives of running the “no-huddle”:
No substitutions for the opposing defense as well (which means if Schonert manages it right, someone like Fred Jackson or Steve Johnson would be covered by a linebacker).
Our inexperienced O-line matches up against a D-line that may be gassed after a few plays (and there is nothing that any offensive linemen in all of football loves more than to knock a big defensive tackle on his behind)
Defensive captains have to call out the play on the fly
O-line gets to get into a rhythm and is not being asked to block for an extended period of time which will help our pass protection.

Implementing the “no-huddle” is easier said than done because after all the biggest issue is going to be in-game communication – something the Bills have not done well in recent years and will not get any easier with a brand new offensive line. However, if the Bills can pull it off consistently, it should add about 3-7 pts per game or at least give our defense additional rest so that they can pull out a 3-and-out when they get on the field.

Update – No-huddle looked pretty good in the HOF preseason game, however the O-line really needs to get it together for it to work out well.

Good Play-calling

It seems almost common sense that you want to call the right plays in the right situation, but the Bills offensive staff has been terrible in recent years in that department. Sure there’s the inconsistent play at QB to blame, or maybe the O-line, or lack of a #2 WR, or no TE to throw to etc etc. But the bottom-line is that a good NFL coordinator should be able to call the plays that suits to his players’ strengths and minimizes exposure of their weaknesses. Turk Schonert showed us some flashes of good play-calling last year, but he has to get better at it and do it more consistently.

The biggest weakness on offense is our inexperienced O-line and I like the implementation of
the “no-huddle” into our offense because it minimizes exposure to the lack of experience on that unit.  However, the play-calling as a whole needs to get more creative and Trent needs to have more control at the line of scrimmage to audible out of a play after his initial defensive reads. Fred Jackson may be the most underutilized RB in the NFL and it’s a shame because he’s got great hands and speed to go with it. I hope to see more formations where Jackson and Lynch are in the backfield together. However, this needs to be balanced with the need to have a TE and/or a RB stay in to block and help out our young O-line.