By Geoff Lowe
In an off-season dominated by defensive moves in both free agency and the draft, the key to the Buffalo Bills’ success in 2012 may actually fall on their offensive backfield.
Ten games into last season, Bills running back Fred Jackson was having an MVP-calibre season on a team that was in the thick of a playoff race.
Jackson had rushed for 934 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, and six touchdowns before a broken fibula forced the Coe College graduate out for the remainder of the season.
In stepped 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller.
The former Clemson standout made the most of his opportunity, racking up 659 total yards in seven games after Jackson’s season-ending injury.
Now Bills coach Chan Gailey faces a much different dilemma. He has to decide how to use both Jackson and Spiller effectively within the Bills offence.
The offensive-minded Gailey recognizes that building a unit around two high-quality backs can be tricky.
“You don’t want to do too much when they’re both in there because if you lose one of them then all of a sudden you’re without a big part of your package,” Gailey said after the Bills’ second week of Organized Team Activities kicked off on Tuesday.
“That’s a fine line that you walk creating offences to be able to take advantage of both good players.”
It’s a line the Bills are going to have to walk if the team hopes to achieve a more balanced and effective attack this season.
In 2011, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick attempted a career-high 596 pass attempts while the Bills backfield only rushed the ball 391 times. Fitzpatrick also threw a career-high 23 interceptions.
The Bills offence had to play from behind in many of their games in 2011, forcing Fitzpatrick and the Bills to rely on passing the ball.
This problem was the focus of the off-season with the signing of top free agent defensive end Mario Williams, the promotion of new defensive co-ordinator Dave Wannstedt and the reinstatement of the 4-3 defensive scheme.
With both Jackson and Spiller finally healthy and gaining confidence, the potential result excites Gailey.
“The great thing about it is we can put both of them anywhere,” he explained. “We can leave one of them in the backfield and put the other one out as a receiver or motion them out. They both can block well enough that they create problems for the defence, which is really right now a good thing for us to have.”
Had it not been for Jackson’s broken leg, suffered in Buffalo’s Week 11 loss to the Miami Dolphins, this “two-headed monster” approach to the Bills’ backfield may have never formed.
Jackson’s absence gave Spiller, who rushed for only 283 yards in his rookie season, the opportunity to prove that he can effectively produce at the pro level. Jackson says his absence, as discouraging as it was to Bills fans everywhere, was key to Spiller’s development as an NFL running back.
“I’ve always thought the more touches you get as a running back the better you get,” Jackson said after Tuesday’s practice. “To get that experience definitely was something that I think he needed. It was something that helped him grow as a running back. We got to see his potential.”
Buffalo’s running backs showed promise Tuesday’s during OTAs. Spiller’s speed was on full display, especially when he lined up as a receiver in the slot. Jackson was in fine form and didn’t appear to have lost a step in recovering from the fractured fibula.
Behind Jackson and Spiller on the depth chart are former Dallas Cowboy Tashard Choice, who enjoyed success with ‘America’s Team’ in 2008 and 2009 before injuries and a surplus of good backs made him expendable last season, and second-year player Johnny White, who had a couple of impressive runs during Tuesdays OTAs.
Choice will figure into the Bills plans as Jackson and Spiller are used more frequently.
The practice of sharing the load among two running backs, as opposed to one featured back, continues to become more prominent in the NFL. New Orleans, New England, Dallas, Houston and Carolina are among many teams that have adopted a two-back system with success.
As the Bills hope to take the next step forward this season, they will need balanced play from their offence, and specifically the effectiveness of its two-headed monster in Jackson and Spiller.
Will Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller coexisting in Buffalo equate to more wins?