Discussion: What’s Wrong With the Buffalo Bills Offense?

EJ Manuel and the Buffalo offense are struggling this season. (Photo: Charles LeClaire — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

The Buffalo Bills’ hopes of making the NFL playoffs in Doug Marrone’s first year as head coach have been all but eliminated after Buffalo fell to 3-7 with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and the poor play of the offense has been the biggest reason why. While the appearance that the unit is going nowhere fast became clear when the Buffalo offense mustered just three points and 147 yards of offense in the first 55 minutes of the 23-10 loss to Pittsburgh, the Bills have left many close games on the table this season thanks to their offensive failures.

Both sustaining drives and finishing drives has been a problem for the Bills, whose offenses has been one of the league’s least efficient. They rank 28th in the NFL by scoring on only 27.8 percent of their offensive drives, and 29th in the NFL with only 4.7 yards gained per offensive play, according to Pro Football Reference. They rank 30th in the NFL with touchdowns on only 42.9 percent of their red-zone opportunities, and 27th in the league in offensive touchdowns with 18 in 10 games, according to TeamRankings.com.

While the defense has had its ups and downs as well, it has held its own for the most part, allowing just 24 touchdowns in 10 games. While there have been 23 points scored against the Bills in each of their seven losses, there have only been more than 27 scored against the Bills twice. The defense’s worst performance came when it allowed five touchdowns to the New Orleans Saints in Week 8 — in two of those losses, against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills’ opponent scored multiple non-offensive touchdowns.

The defense is still developing, but it is playing well enough for the Bills to win football games. Buffalo’s offense is not getting the job done. To fix the problem, better sustaining drives and better taking advantage of scoring opportunities is easier said than done. The Bills have many problems on their offense, and they must fix the small issues to take care of the big-picture problems that are resulting in costly defeats.

What is the Bills’ biggest offensive issue? The candidates include:

EJ Manuel’s Struggles

Rookie quarterbacks are expected to have their ups and downs, but it has all downhill for the Bills’ No. 16 overall pick, EJ Manuel, since he suffered a sprained LCL against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5. After missing four weeks with that injury, Manuel came back in Week 10 to put up his worst performance of the season, completing just 22-of-39 passes for 155 yards, with more than half of those yards and his only touchdown pass coming on a garbage-time, 80-yard drive. Quarterback play is key to the success of any offense, and the Bills need better quarterback play from Manuel.

C.J. Spiller has not been able to get it going this season as he did during a breakout 2012 season. (Photo: Robert Deutsch — USA Today Sports)

C.J. Spiller’s Disappointment

Running back C.J. Spiller was expected to be the star of the Buffalo offense this season, but that simply has not been the case. Spiller is an outstanding athlete who is one of the NFL’s most dynamic offensive playmakers when healthy and at his best, but he has not been either this year, struggling through an ankle injury to just 587 yards on 129 total touches thus far this season. Buffalo has not had a star on its offense with Spiller not playing like one.

A Need for More Receiving Playmakers

Buffalo’s corps of wide receivers and tight ends have been unspectacular this season. Stevie Johnson has continued to look more like a secondary threat than a true No. 1 wideout, though he has caught 41 yards on 471 yards. The team’s second and third most productive receivers, tight end Scott Chandler and rookie wide receiver Robert Woods, have both had their ups and downs. The Bills are starting to get some more big-play capability out of rookie Marquise Goodwin, but the most glaring weakness among the receiving corps may be the lack of a big-time red-zone threat.

Offensive Line Struggles

Buffalo’s offensive line has allowed 31 sacks this season, tied for the fourth-most in the league, and they have not been overly powerful in run blocking either. The biggest problem area has been at left guard, where Colin Brown was replaced by Doug Legursky and eventually released after a horrid start to the season as the Bills’ starter, but outside of left tackle Cordy Glenn, the entire Buffalo offensive line has been somewhat of a question mark this season.


The reviews coming in thus far for first-year offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are certainly not glowing. While he has had to work with three different quarterbacks this season and does not have an offense loaded with experienced talent, he has not done the best job of utilizing the talent he does have. The Bills offense has been much more vanilla and less creative than expected. Questionable red-zone playcalling has played a factor in the team’s lack of success near the goal line. Perhaps most noticeably, Hackett has not consistently found ways to get Spiller the ball in space where he can best used his speed and ability to make defenders miss.

What do you think Buffalo’s biggest offensive problem is?

I asked BBD’s staff writers to chime in below:

Improvement for the Buffalo offense may lie in better play calling from coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

Ryan Talbot

Buffalo’s offense is too predictable. Teams are starting to dare Buffalo to pass the ball on first and second down, but the team is sticking with its game plan regardless of what it sees. Until EJ Manuel starts hitting some passes early in drives, defenses will stack the box against the Bills.

John Maher

For the Bills offense to advance towards making the playoffs and beyond, they need a serious red zone target. They do have a big man in Chandler, but he has been underutilized in the red zone. If the Bills had a big target at wide receiver who could catch a well-placed fade out in the endzone, they would have the ability to score seven points instead of three.

Joe Marino

The Bills have started three quarterbacks over the past three weeks as EJ Manuel has missed time, which has stalled his and the offense’s development.

C.J. Spiller has struggled, showing egregious field vision and an unwillingness to hit holes consistently and take positive yards. It’s not that the coaching staff doesn’t like to see long explosive runs, it’s that every time Spiller bounces it outside for a loss of yardage while ignoring the hole and design of the play, it sets the team back and puts them in bad situations.

Buffalo’s receivers are not creating separation in their routes, and the Bills do not have a big-bodied receiver with a large catching radius who can catch balls when they are covered, which would help mightily with the team’s red-zone struggles.

Eric Samulski

The problem with the Bills offense is as simple as situational awareness. Hackett and Marrone haven’t shown much this season. The New Orleans Saints blitzed Buffalo like crazy in Week 8, but the Bills did not try to make them pay by utilizing any screen passes. The Steelers came into the Week 10 matchup allowing an average of 4.7 yards per carry, but the Bills only gave Spiller eight carries. The Bills continue to run Fred Jackson on first and second downs almost every time they are inside the 10-yard line, even though Jackson has been ineffective in that role.

I think it’s hard to blame Spiller for trying to bounce runs to the outside, that’s what he does best. However, the Bills seem to always give him carries up the middle out of the shotgun formation. How many times have they run a toss or a play designed to get him outside the tackles?

Want to join the discussion? Let us know what you think in the thread below!

You can also read more about Buffalo’s offensive struggles in my column from Sunday and in John Maher’s First Downs and Flags for Week 10.


Tags: C.J. Spiller, EJ Manuel, Losing, Nathaniel Hackett, Offensive Line, Offensive Struggles, Scott Chandler, Stevie Johnson

2 Responses to “Discussion: What’s Wrong With the Buffalo Bills Offense?”

  1. Tim West says:

    First off, I am in complete agreement with what Eric had to say. How many screen passes have the bills run this year so far? I honestly would like someone to tell me a number. Did Hackett suddenly forget who his rb’s are? Screen passes are absolutely crucial when you have two #1 rb’s such as Spiller and Jackson. Along with that, everyone seems to now be criticizing Spiller for bouncing runs outside. Um, hello people, the guy runs a 4.2, let him use his speed how he chooses because he can beat most players to the outside. And some of the runs he bounced outside he did because there was no hole to run through, duh. Also, regarding Eric’s analysis again, thank you SO much for noting how Hackett continues to run Spiller up the middle between the tackles, and always, always out of shotgun formation. If I see another shotgun formation run play with Spiller I could very well vomit, who knows. Honestly, I hope that sight makes you all just as sick, because even I know the best way to utilize a player like Spiller is to get him in open space and run him off tackle, tosses, jet sweeps, reverses, whatever the case may be. Heck, a few in between the tackle runs I would still use Spiller on, but not every single time he touches the ball, like come on its far from being rocket science. Its funny because I wanted Chan Gailey to get fired, but the one thing I couldn’t complain about regarding Gailey, was HOW he used Spiller. Sure, everyone said Gailey didn’t let Spiller touch the ball enough, and I am in complete agreement with that as well. However, no one can deny Gailey’s attempt to utilize Spiller like he should be utilized; by getting him in space. Oh yeah and one last thing, I think using a fullback might help here and there on run plays. Yeah we don’t have a pro bowl fullback in Frank Summers, but you can’t tell me using a fullback as a lead blocker wouldn’t also help Spiller when running the ball.

    Ah, thank you all for allowing me to vent some of my frustration. I know my whole rant was about Spiller as opposed to the rest of the offense. But we can talk about the rest of the offense for another day. Today, we needed to discuss the issue regarding the utilization of Spiller, because it needs to change asap.

    Tim West

    • Dan Hope says:

      Thanks for your reply, Tim. I tend to agree with you and Eric on the issue of Spiller and how the Bills are utilizing him. While I think Spiller can be faulted for failing to attack holes between the tackles aggressively — he is too hesitant behind the line of scrimmage when he has to find a hole up the middle — that simply is not the strength of his game.

      To take advantage of Spiller’s skill set — his speed, quickness, ability to make defenders miss — they need to find ways to get him out in space, whether that be running him around blockers to the outside or getting the ball to him outside on pitches or screen passes. Running him up the middle consistently as Hackett has been calling has limited his effectiveness.

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