Bills turn back clock to help LeSean McCoy flourish

By Nick Shook
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After two weeks, the Bills were on the brink of disaster. A house cleaning seemed to be an inevitability. The only thing left to be decided was when it would happen.

The first domino — offensive coordinator Greg Roman — fell less than 24 hours after Buffalo lost to the New York Jets on Thursday Night Football. Ryan put his time in Buffalo on the line with someone he trusted, Anthony Lynn, assistant head coach and running backs coach, and in turn shifted the focus to his running back, who should have been starring in a run-first approach.

Since then, the Bills have won four straight. LeSean McCoy‘s output nearly doubled in their first game with Lynn calling the plays, rushing for 110 yards and two touchdowns on just two additional carries (17) in a 33-18 win over Arizona. McCoy racked up another 150 yards two weeks later in a 30-19 win over Los Angeles.

Buffalo went from running the ball an average of 21.5 times in its first two games to 33.75 times in its next four. But McCoy’s carries have hovered between 15 and 20 per game for the entire season. So how is Buffalo suddenly churning up yards with Shady?

Let’s zero in on the Bills‘ 45-16 win over San Francisco in Week 6. When Roman was still holding the reigns, Buffalo ran the vast majority of its offensive plays out of the shotgun. We’re talking 85.4 percent of plays in Week 1, and 76 percent in Week 2, according to Next Gen Stats. After the switch to Lynn, that percentage dropped to 50.8 in Week 3 and has stayed below 60 percent in each of the games that followed.

Use of the pistol formation has seen a big boost in the last two weeks, jumping from less than 10 percent to 23.1 percent of plays in Week 5, and 17.3 percent in Week 6. McCoy scored his first touchdown Sunday out of the pistol on an option toss from Tyrod Taylor, and ripped off a 38-yard gain on his first carry of the next possession, also out of the pistol. Of McCoy’s 140 yards in Week 6, he gained 45 on four attempts out of the formation.

The pistol also leads us to an increased use of fullback Jerome Felton, who was often lined up to the left or right of Taylor in the formation. Buffalo went with a two-back personnel grouping in just nine plays combined between the first two games, but in Weeks 3 through 6, used two-back sets on 87 combined plays. Nothing helps like adding a veteran blocker to the backfield.

Combined with the fullback addition, Buffalo’s base rushing offense — which relies heavily on pulling guards, tackles and even occasionally, center Eric Wood — suddenly flourished, no matter the way they lined up. Exhibit A, with McCoy in the Wildcat and Felton leading the way, was a prime example (watch Wood pull left immediately after the snap).

With the Bills leading late, McCoy put the game on ice with a similar concept, but out of a more traditional formation. This time, Felton takes care of the outside linebacker Tank Carradine with an isolation block, while Richie Incognito pulls from the backside through the hole on what is called a wheel pull, working his way into the running lane to clear any obstacles. He meets and seals inside linebacker Nick Bellore as McCoy hits the hole and bursts to the end zone, hitting a top speed of 17.08 mph while breaking Eric Reid‘s tackle on the romp.

The Bills are 4-2 because they’ve reverted to strategies that have worked in the past. They’ve cut down on trying to be too creative with today’s trendiest schemes and instead are turning to a smashmouth approach that favors their star back. In many other scenarios, these plays weren’t as effective; often, linemen who pulled got lost in the shuffle. But on the big plays, it’s McCoy’s elusiveness, combined with additional blockers and a commitment to tougher, old-school football mixed with some formation variation that is working. The trust in Lynn is paying off for Ryan.

Other notes from this week in Next Gen Stats:

1. Brandin Cooks scored again from 85 yards out or more in Week 6. Those long touchdowns show off his sprinter speed, which landed him in the top five ballcarrier speeds in the league this season.

2. Surprise! It’s time to retire the Arizona blitz usage weekly check. The Cardinals weren’t among the top five teams; the Jets led the league, blitzing 65.7 percent of plays and failing to register a sack on blitzes.

3. Jay Ajayi had the game of his life in the Dolphins‘ win over the Steelers, becoming the first rusher to break 200 yards this season. His performance was also the fifth most-efficient among running backs, averaging 2.9 yards of distance for every rushing yard gained (in a three-way tie with the Raiders‘ DeAndre Washington and the Chiefs‘ Spencer Ware). Arizona’s David Johnson led the category with 2.7 yards of distance per rushing yard gained.

4. Wendell Smallwood‘s kick return touchdown was the first in the league this season. Smallwood topped out at 21.93 mph on the kick, which was the second fastest mark for a kick returner in 2016.

5. We had some wild performances for wide receivers (Odell Beckham Jr., Kenny Britt, Cameron Meredith) this week, which are worthy of these route charts.

6. Football is not a game that is played in a Receiver A vs. Cornerback X format. It’s too complex. We clear on that? Good. Now let’s look at some splits of Seahawks defenders not named Richard Shermanwhen covering Julio Jones.

Jones vs. Sherman: 25 plays, five targets, three catches, 40 yards, passer rating of 45.8.

Jones vs. everyone else: 12 plays, four targets, four catches, 99 yards, one touchdown, perfect passer rating of 158.3.

7. Chargers tight end Hunter Henry had a night to remember against Denver Thursday. San Diego helped the pass-catcher flourish by lining him up in the slot on 25 percent of pass plays, from which he caught four passes for 44 yards to lead his position group.

8. Kendall Wright got behind the Browns‘ defense on a 48-yard touchdown catch, in which he hit a top speed of 19.86 mph and included a diving grab. Here’s a look at his route chart.

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