Despite an injury to C.J. Spiller and an over-reliance on then-32-year-old Fred Jackson, Buffalo’s rushing attack produced the second most yardage of any team in the NFL in 2013. However they ran the ball more often than any team, so it’s hard to read too much into that ranking.
With that being said, heading into the 2014 season the Bills running game is still one of the biggest unknowns. It could be amazing or it could falter because while the Bills would love to air it out more with EJ Manuel, especially throwing it to Sammy Watkins, they will likely still depend heavily on the running game to produce offense.
Relying heavily on a somewhat fragile speed back with only one truly great season, a 33-year old between the tackles back whose age might catch up to him, a bruising back who has not gained over 100 yards rushing in any of the past three seasons and a career back-up with some amazing numbers in a limited sample size may seem like a terrible idea; however there is a famous quote by Aristotle that reads, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The running game of the Buffalo Bills is a perfect example. These four running backs are guys who on their own might be limited in certain capacities, but who together could make the Bills run game one of the most formidable in the NFL.
Spiller and Jackson are obviously the biggest two names. Spiller showed flashes of brilliance early in his career, but given a limited work load he never quite established himself as a premiere running back. In 2012 that all changed. He got the most carries of his career and produced the most yards, TDs and yards per carry of any of his seasons in the NFL. So coming off a season like that many Bills fans expected Spiller to take his game to a level where he was talked about in the top tier of running backs in the NFL.
Unfortunately it never happened thanks to a high ankle sprain that seemed to suck the speed right out of all his movements. He was again limited to the player who showed only flashes of what he could be, but couldn’t consistently perform. I think Spiller gets back to form in 2014, despite his “slight” build for an NFL RB and inability to successfully run between the tackles at times. I expect him to get 220 carries, 1,200 yards and 7 TDs. The reason I don’t expect more from Spiller is because the Bills don’t need to run him more than that. They’ll keep him fresher by allowing Jackson to do some of the dirty work.
With Spiller limited in 2013, Jackson capitalized on his increased role to the tune of a career high 9 TDs. Although Spiller had more yards than Jackson, Jackson was the one who found the end zone at a much better rate. He has always been consistently good at running between the tackles, although he no longer seems to have the elite speed necessary to break big runs to the outside. He is so talented in fact, he came as close as you can to making the Pro Bowl without actually making it back in 2011. All those factors are why for I expect somewhere around 150 carries, 700 yards and 6 TDs in 2014.
This offseason the Bills made two additions to their backfield that could also have big roles with this team. Anthony Dixon is a big bruising back who could be used as more of a FB in Buffalo’s system. Dixon could very easily turn into a goal line TD poacher and produce a stat line of 20 carries for 60 yards and 2 TDs. He’ll never wow you with speed or amazing runs, but he’ll get the job done in situations that matter the most when the team needs just a few yards. The second player new to the Buffalo backfield is Bryce Brown. Brown is a complete wild card in this situation. While I don’t see the Bills using him much in 2014, barring an injury to Spiller or Jackson, he does have enough talent to warrant some snaps. He excelled in a backup role in Philly and like Spiller in 2011, showed flashes of a brilliant rusher just waiting for an increased role. If he gets that chance in Buffalo, the running game could have even more success than anticipated.
Buffalo’s running backs might have limitations on their own, but together they could easily produce 2,000 yards and 15 TDs; especially with help from an upgraded offensive line. Together, they could make for one elite rushing attack and bring further validity to the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”