By Sal Maiorana - Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
When it comes to statistics, you can bend them just about any way you want to convey the story that you're trying to tell.
The Buffalo Bills can look at the NFL stat sheet and pound their chest about ranking fifth in the league in rushing with 405 yards on 92 attempts, a healthy average of 135 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.
However, let's bend the stats a little, shall we, because a rather simple manipulation of those numbers reveals a darker truth: Take away two breakaway runs, a 46-yarder by C.J. Spiller against Carolina, and a 59-yarder by Fred Jackson against the Jets, and the Bills have 300 yards on 90 attempts, just 100 yards per game, and 3.3 per attempt.
Without those two runs, the Bills would rank 21st in rushing yards per game, and 26th in yards per carry.
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What's the point of this exercise? To show just how much Buffalo has lacked any measure of consistency when it has tried to run, a malady that is hindering the offense, especially when you factor in rookie quarterback EJ Manuel's early and expected struggles.
"I would disagree with the overall thing because they all count," coach Doug Marrone said, making the logical argument that, yes, you can't just take away plays to make a case. He then went on to add, "But you're right, we do have to be more consistent. We have to do a better job of running."
Taking into account standard rushing plays where the quarterback hands off to a running back - the meat and potatoes of most NFL offenses - the Bills have had far too many blown-up plays.
Spiller and Jackson have combined to carry 75 times, and on 38 of those plays - yes, just more than half - the net result was two yards or fewer.
Breaking those plays down, Spiller has been stuffed 25 times on his 43 carries, and those 25 carries have netted minus-four yards. Jackson has been stuffed on 13 of his 32 attempts and gained nine yards on those plays.
"It's kind of been like a roller coaster," said Spiller, who has been strangely inefficient thus far. "It hasn't been consistent and that's what you really want. We just have to take what they give us and don't force it."
The Bills took almost nothing that the Jets were giving them because the Jets really didn't give them anything. Thirteen of Buffalo's 25 rushing plays (counting those by Manuel and third-string back Tashard Choice) went for two yards or less. Without Jackson's 59-yard run - a great individual play, but also a play that the Jets had stopped and failed to finish him off - the Bills ran 24 times for 61 yards.
The primary reason for the lack of success has been that the opposing defenses in all three games - New England, Carolina and the Jets - cheated defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage specifically to shut down the Bills' running game and dare the rookie, Manuel, to beat them through the air.
As a result, there hasn't been much room to run, and there probably won't be until Manuel can prove he can connect on some downfield passes and force teams to leave their safeties back in coverage.
"We have to do a better job running against stacked boxes," said center Eric Wood, who knows it certainly won't get any easier Sunday against a Baltimore defense that hasn't allowed a rushing TD all season and ranks fourth against the run. "If they're going to load the box, someone's got to displace a guy. We just have to get better at that as a unit."
That said, Marrone, an offensive lineman at heart, isn't willing to pin all the blame on his big guys because so much has to be in unison to have a productive run game, with everyone on the same page pulling their weight.
"I think it's a combination of everything," he said. "I think we have to do a better job up front, I think we have to do a better job of running it, and I think we have to do a better job of putting them in situations, game-planning strategically."
Marrone said he has seen that occasionally, but in most cases, there's one thing that has gone wrong, which is just enough to sabotage a play.
"One play it may be that and the next play we might not get a push and the next play we might get beat," he said. "I think that's what is going on, the consistency of the run game, is that everybody has to win to a certain extent. If one person breaks down and everyone else is doing the right thing it's a negative play."