The Buffalo Bills ran the ball 33 plays on Sunday, generating an impressive 61% success rate and 36% first-down rate. On early downs, they ran the ball 28 times to a 61% success rate and 32% first-down rate — both higher than their early-down passing stats. The Bills ran 17 runs on first down and moved the chains on 70.6% of those series.
Saying that the Bills had a good day on the ground would be understating it. They annihilated the Chiefs in the run game. The Chiefs had almost no answers to the run game until the fourth quarter, where defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo just sent full-house run blitzes.
So, what happened?
How were the Bills consistently gashing the Chiefs on the ground? A lot of it has to do with two formation and personnel decisions. Let's start with formation:
Buffalo loves calling this dart concept against hte Chiefs. Tackle pull, it gives them answers vs different fronts (see Clip 2). pic.twitter.com/wVGYWXVyS8— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
One thing the Bills have mastered is their spread-to-run formations. With an improved offensive line, they can get to more runs than they used to, so a lot of their spread concepts generate light boxes that they can attack. They love putting three or four wide receivers on the same side of a formation, a tight end backside, which forces you to align.
If you push to the passing strength, they can attack you with the run.
Another repeat tendency for the Bills was their use of SRO (screen-run options) from their spread personnel, which gave the Chiefs problems. When the run defense wasn't working, Spags likes to blitz the nickel( and just in general for run fits purposes), and BUF found counters pic.twitter.com/UZuUib3GIq— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
This spread-to-run game is so deadly because of how proficient Buffalo is with run-pass options. To a fault, Buffalo has done run-pass options for years, but they're way more successful now because they have an actual running game. When the Chiefs would send their slot to blitz or be a part of the run fit, the Bills had easy answers by spreading plays out and throwing bubble screens to their wide receivers.
Spread-to-run formations — but with Josh Allen
And of course, as always with Josh Allen, you get the spread-to-run stuff. Often times, the Bills get into empty or motion into empty and attack a 5-6 man box. BUF puts a lot of stress on you in the run game pic.twitter.com/yaARdQfOJS— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
What makes these spread-to-run looks even more difficult is when the Bills get into Empty and run Josh Allen on designed carries. They will do this in any big spot in a big game, and it works almost every time.
The Bills love to shift into Empty, lighten the box and run Allen downhill. Teams have to respond with a five or six-man box with empty formations, which allows the Bills to block the four defensive linemen and the linebacker vacant. Even if you bring your centerfield safety down to help in the box, that player also has to be able to tackle Allen one-on-one in space.
You have to respect the pass and spread formation, but it leaves you with difficult choices when you're playing an even front with one linebacker. There just aren't enough gaps to get covered up. For years, the Chiefs have consistently struggled to find answers to Allen in the run game.
One personnel group, the Bills, have liked to employ this year is their jumbo six offensive linemen package. Backup guard David Edwards played 148 snaps this season in that role. Edwards gives the Bills an option to still get into some spread looks but still attack downhill with essentially an amazing blocking tight end.
What I'm writing about this week is how the Bills attacked the Chiefs run game, particularly out of jumbo personnel (6 OL, #76)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
It forced Spags to make personnel decisions. First, he started in base defense and moved Reid down, so BUF responded with a cool PA design pic.twitter.com/sIYrfTS5Co
The Bills had a plan to use this in a playoff game, and it forced the Chiefs into a lot of tough spots. To start, when the Bills did this, they did it out of 12 personnel (assuming Edwards as a second tight end). The Chiefs responded in their base defense and brought the safety down, so the Bills called a play-action play to attack this. With linebackers flowing downhill, no one can relay to the flat in time to pick up the running back.
(this is just a few clips)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
So, Spags went to more nickel, particularly when the Bills were in 11 personnel, but that TE being an extra OL. The Bills proceeded to beat the Chiefs lighter run defense, particularly attacking the DTs not named Chris Jones pic.twitter.com/cr5IFcZI74
This was another rep of Nickel vs jumbo, which the Bills have 11 personnel on the field for, but just with an extra OL pic.twitter.com/PVYlgHLzH5— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
When the Bills would have Edwards as the lone tight end (11 personnel), the Chiefs promptly responded with nickel personnel but were thoroughly destroyed in the run game in those spots. The Bills' six offensive linemen consistently did work to the Chiefs' defensive tackles, who had no answer for any down block.
Linebackers were poor at beating blocks as well, and it left the Chiefs' secondary trying to leak bad run fits upfront.
Even when the Chiefs went into base (mainly when the Bills would bring an extra TE/FB on the field), the Bills found opportunities to attack on the ground. Downhill runs, attacking Chiefs DT room, LBs struggling at POA pic.twitter.com/t613DSK0Xh— Nate Christensen (@natech32) January 23, 2024
When the Chiefs got 12 personnel, they went back into their base but still stayed in two-high coverages to help against the pass. The Bills promptly ran in those situations, mauling the Chiefs' poor defensive tackles with down blocks and beating linebackers who struggled to get off blocks.
Spagnuolo made a good adjustment in the fourth quarter to just run blitz his linebackers and play one-on-one, but that's not a great strategy. The Bills didn't decide to attack the Chiefs this way, but if they just ran a play-action with any type of crossing route, it would've been a massive explosive throw.
Either the Chiefs need to get very creative with their fronts to counter this issue, or the guys are just going to have to step up and stop the run.
The bottom line
The reason why I wrote this piece is that the Baltimore Ravens can replicate and improve upon every single way the Bills attacked the Chiefs' run defense. The Ravens like playing this way. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken loves playing spread-to-run, but he does it with 280-pound fullback, Patrick Ricard, who essentially is an extra offensive lineman.
Guess who is going to watch last week's film? Monken. The Chiefs have been a porous run defense all year, and Spagnuolo will attack it. Go light with Nickel to the Ravens 11 or 12 personnel? Want to put speed on the field vs. Lamar Jackson? We're just going to dominate you in the run game. We'll get physical, attack your defensive tackles and run down your throat.
So, Spagnuolo is going to have to adjust. Most of the adjustments are just players playing better, but Spagnuolo is going to have to be creative with his fronts, personnel decisions, and different run pressures he wants to get into. Asking the Chiefs' defensive tackles and linebackers to navigate blocks in light boxes isn't a solution; Spagnuolo will need to find one.
Make no mistake: if the Chiefs' run defense replicates their poor performance against the Bills against the Ravens, they will lose. They don't have the same margin of error offensively against this Ravens defense. They have to tighten that up and fast.