RIVAL NEWSPAPER: Balanced attack lifts Bills’ midseason grades

Running back Fred Jackson is on pace to have the fourth most yards from scrimmage in NFL history (2,388).

Photo: Mark Mulville /Buffalo News

The Buffalo Bills’ offense carved out an interesting identity in the first half of the season.

The Bills are a spread offense that can run the ball with authority. Call it Chan Gailey’s “power spread.” If the Bills can stay reasonably close to their production of the first eight games, they should be in the playoff race going into the final weeks of the season.

The Bills, mired in the bottom eight of the NFL on offense the previous eight years, begin the second half of the season Sunday in Dallas with the 12th-ranked offense in the NFL in terms of yards gained.

The Bills are seventh in rushing, 15th in passing, and — more important — tied for fourth in scoring.

The Bills play out of a spread formation — with four or more players split out as receivers — on 47 percent of their plays, according to News figures. That’s among the most in the league. However, the Bills are the eighth most run-oriented team in the league. They run on 44.5 percent of their plays.

Gailey has done a great job of keeping defenses honest and utilizing running back Fred Jackson, who is an All-Pro candidate.

“You’ve got defenses today that are so big and strong and fast,” Gailey said. “You’re trying to spread the field out. That’s what people are trying to do, spread the field and make them cover areas of the field by expansion. If you expand the defense, you create a few more seams for your running game. You allow the quarterback to evaluate who’s blitzing and who’s not a little bit better.”

“You want to put what you feel are your best guys out there against what the defense is doing,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said. “So far we felt our best people have been in some of those spread formations. In saying that, we still feel we have a guy who’s a doggone good running back. The versatility of our receivers in being able to block has really helped us to be able to not be a so-called finesse spread team, because we’re not.”

Can the Bills’ offense keep it going?

The key, Gailey says, is protecting the ball better. The Bills made just five turnovers the first five games. They have made five in the past two.

Gailey said turnovers are his biggest concern. “We can’t turn the ball over.”

“We’ve got to cut down on the turnovers,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “That’s something that we have seen a spike in the last few weeks. That’s something I think is easily correctable, in terms of putting a focus on it. … That’s a point of emphasis for us, especially this week. As the season goes on, I think at times — myself in particular — have been a little more careless than I probably need to be. That’s something that I’ll address and look at.”

Here’s a position-by-position review of the team heading into the second half of the schedule:

Quarterback: Fitzpatrick’s ability to get the ball to the vulnerable spot of the defense has been exceptional. He’s completing a career-best 65.4 percent of his passes, fourth best in the league. His passer rating of 92.3 is ninth best. His pocket awareness helps the Bills lead the league in fewest sacks per pass attempt. He’s going to have to be accurate on deep throws against some of the better defenses, which will try to take away some of the underneath throws. Grade: A.

Running back: Jackson is on pace to have the fourth most yards from scrimmage in NFL history (2,388). His vision, power and yards after contact continue to amaze. He has been so good, he has closed out C.J. Spiller from the backfield. Spiller has just 17 carries and 30 touches overall. Gailey needs to find a way to work Spiller into the action more, especially against good defenses. Brad Smith has run the Wildcat formation on 18 plays, which have gained 84 yards (4.6 a carry). Smith has converted 5 of 7 “shorter-yardage” situations from the Wildcat. Like Spiller, maybe Smith can give the offense a bit more of a boost the second half. Grade: A.

Receivers: Stevie Johnson is on pace to repeat his breakout season of last year. He plays even bigger than his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame suggests. He’s shifty off the line of scrimmage. And he can get deep, as he proved against the Giants and against the Jets’ Darrelle Revis, whom he beat for a 52-yard catch. David Nelson is a playmaker in the slot. Gailey has faith in Donald Jones, who has shown good flashes. Now that he’s healthy, he needs to make some plays. Naaman Roosevelt has helped the attack weather the storm of losing Marcus Easley and Roscoe Parrish to injury. Tight end Scott Chandler has six TD catches and is a big part of the reason the Bills are tied for second in the league in red-zone efficiency. The Bills have played either three wide receivers or four true wide receivers on 82 percent of their plays. With three wide receivers on the field, regardless of the formation, Fitzpatrick is completing 71 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Grade: B.

Offensive line: A huge concern entering the season, the line has far exceeded expectations. The middle three have been exceptional. Eric Wood is an All-Pro candidate at center, but it’s arguable whether he or Andy Levitre is the MVP of the line so far. Levitre has been outstanding. Those two, along with guards Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart, have given Gailey just what he wanted, more power in the middle. Eric Pears has shored up a right tackle spot that has been a problem for years. At left tackle, Demetrius Bell started off strong, then hurt his shoulder. Rookie Chris Hairston played better than expected against the Eagles and Giants. Grade: B+.

Defensive line: Marcell Dareus has given the Bills exactly what they needed in rebuilding last year’s 32nd-ranked run defense. He’s a load in the middle, and he pushes the pocket. He was especially dominant against Oakland, the Giants and Washington. Dwan Edwards has come on the past four games after what seemed like a slow start. Alex Carrington played 42 plays against the Jets and had a sack, a bat-down and a couple of stout plays on the edge. With Kyle Williams out, it’s up to Carrington and Torell Troup to bolster the run defense. Troup played 16 plays against the Jets. The Bills hope his back troubles are behind him and he can play that much the rest of the way. Grade: B.

Linebacker: The big worry on the team is edge pass rushing. There isn’t much, and the problem isn’t going to be solved this season. Given Shawne Merriman’s inability to stay healthy, the Bills are relying on a committee of young guys to get some heat on the quarterback. If the run defense breaks down, the Bills are in deep trouble. The Bills desperately need Chris Kelsay to stay healthy to bolster the run front. Spencer Johnson is stout on the edge, which is important. But it’s asking a lot of a defensive tackle to be an edge rusher. If the run front holds up, then the blitzes will be more effective. Inside linebacker Nick Barnett is a strong replacement for Paul Posluszny. He’s around the ball and he makes plays. He has played a team-high 96 percent of the snaps. Rookie Kelvin Sheppard shows tons of promise inside. Grade: C-.

Defensive back: The Bills lead the league in interceptions with 15. Strong safety George Wilson leads the team in tackles and has four interceptions. Donte Who? Wilson is a Pro Bowl candidate. His goal-line pickoff of Tom Brady was one of the plays of the year. He and Jairus Byrd are a quality safety tandem. Nickel safety Bryan Scott plays about 55 percent of the snaps. Drayton Florence and Terrence McGee are consistent, if unspectacular, at the corners. Florence’s physical style and leadership are big assets. Leodis McKelvin, despite his physical ability, has not been able to unseat McGee. Since struggling in Cincinnati, McKelvin has been OK. Aaron Williams should be back soon, which bolsters a deep secondary. Grade: B.

Special teams: Opposing kickers keep booting kickoffs deep into the end zone. The Bills have the fewest kickoff returns in the league. They’re tied for the second fewest punt returns. Buffalo’s kickoff coverage has been great. Brian Moorman is fifth in gross punting, and the Bills are 17th in net punting yards. Grade: C.

Courtesy: Mark Gaughan | The Buffalo News

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