Through five weeks of the season, the Buffalo Bills have gotten off to a 3-2 start to the season, which has shown they’re at least ahead of the generally accepted schedule both fans and media had of the team heading into the 2017 season.
As is the case for NFL teams through a bye week, it’s a time for reflection about what has happened, and what’s to come. With that said, what are the biggest questions for the Bills as the season continues? We’ll be counting down the top seven throughout the week.
No. 1: Can the Bills get star running back LeSean McCoy going once again?
For all of the successes and failures of this team through five weeks, the inability to have LeSean McCoy play a substantial role for the Bills for the last four weeks is just as big of a storyline as the one that outlines how well the defense has played this year. It’s one of the biggest — if not the biggest — reason why the Bills are 3-2 on the season as opposed to 4-1, or even 5-0.
McCoy is one of the most talented players on the team, and without question the best offensive player — regardless of position — they have in the building. He is a dynamic and electric talent, that has been quelled up to this point.
Some have wondered if it’s his age finally catching up to him. To borrow a tried and true phrase from Rubeus Hagrid, that’s a load of hogwash. Codswallop, if you will.
You still see the same acceleration in his legs when he finds a glimmer of an opening, only to have it ripped away from him by a missed block or a holding penalty that brings it all back. He’s still the same LeSean McCoy we saw last season, and certainly the same player we saw take over Week One against the New York Jets.
Over the past four weeks, though, McCoy has been taken away from the Bills. His stats, comparatively:
Week One - 22 rushes, 110 yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 5 receptions, 49 yards
Weeks Two through Five (four games) - 65 rushes, 168 yards, 2.6 yards per carry, 22 receptions, 140 yards
So, McCoy has effectively had his yards per carry average sliced in half, and his yards per reception slashed by a little over 35-percent. Why is all of this happening?
The rest of the offense is giving McCoy little to no help whatsoever. The offensive line, through the Carolina, Denver, and Atlanta games couldn’t get a good enough push going — whether the runs were designed to the outside or inside. Against the Bengals, the offensive line at least showed some signs of life when running up the middle, but designed stretch runs were essentially nonstarters for McCoy and company.
How can the Bills rectify this?
With the passing game not offering much upside, the Bills need to go all in on McCoy, the running game and to finding the five best run blockers on the roster to start along the offensive line. It seemed the Bills had some success up the middle with Vladimir Ducasse rather than John Miller at right guard — to which we have to see if that can continue. I remain confident that rookie left tackle Dion Dawkins is a solid run blocker to help the cause, and then it’s just a matter of figuring out the right tackle spot — to which they have options to improve.
And when they need to actually throw the ball, McCoy should be kept involved close to at all times. Even with the lack of skill players that they had against Cincinnati, the Bills were able to move the ball and spread out the defense a bit by lining McCoy up out wide near the end of the first half — just to give them a different look.
I liked that look a lot because it enabled the Bills to get McCoy into some open space and to freelance when Tyrod Taylor has to evade the pocket. With that being such a prominent part of Taylor’s game, having McCoy on the field to read the defense and to find a soft spot is a tremendous advantage for them. It’s just simple logic, really: on pass plays, McCoy doesn’t have to worry about running into an offensive or defensive lineman, and can instead make people miss with some space to work with.
After all, that’s all he really needs: just a little space. McCoy is really good, but he’s not a magician that can simply make defenders disappear into thin air.
So, if the Bills switch some things up on the offensive line, if they utilize him out wide a bit more, and perhaps if they get some skill receivers back from injury, there is hope yet.
Don’t give up on McCoy just yet. He gets paid attention to by opposing teams this heavily for a really good reason — because he is one of the best running backs in the league. He’s too good to be held down forever, and I expect we’ll see an uptick in production before too long.