Through the first eight games of the Buffalo Bills 2014 season, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has emerged as the whipping boy of fans looking to place blame for the team’s inconsistent offense. From vague spews of rage regarding play-calling to play-design, whenever things don’t go Buffalo’s way, Nathaniel Hackett has somehow been at fault in the minds of fans.
Now, this column isn’t intended to pin Hackett as some outstanding coordinator that’s getting the shaft from fans, because that’s not the case. But, I do think that the second-year coordinator deserves quite a bit more credit than he’s received, specifically for the passing game that he’s installed.
Heading into this season, the Bills made it clear that they wanted to be a run-first team, in order to ease the development of EJ Manuel, who was entering his second year in the NFL. The team added Chris Williams and Anthony Dixon in free agency, while trading for Bryce Brown and selecting Cyrus Kouandjio, Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson in the 2014 NFL Draft.
It didn’t take long to realize that Manuel would be unable to take a step forward in his development behind a young, inexperienced and ineffective offensive line, so the team went to Kyle Orton after the Houston Texans loss.
Orton is a veteran quarterback that can read coverages and get the ball out quickly with a collapsing pocket. While the lack of production from the rushing attack has been an issue, the guard play seems to be more at fault than when the plays have been called. What Hackett does have control over is play-design and when to call those plays. When the offensive line has held up, Hackett’s design in the passing game has almost always gotten a receiver open, particularly in the middle of the field.
Here, the Bills come out in a tight formation, with Sammy Watkins and C.J. Spiller to the bottom of the screen, and Robert Woods, Chris Hogan and Scott Chandler to the top. The Vikings are showing a Cover 3 look, meaning that the two boundary cornerbacks and the single-high safety are each responsible for a deep 1/3 of the field.
The concept of this route design takes the two defensive backs over Woods and Hogan deep while forcing the safety to freeze while Chandler’s route develops. At the bottom of the screen, Spiller runs vertical, taking the cornerback with him.
This leaves Sammy Watkins, who’s running an underneath crossing route in a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker. Watkins gets across the face of the defender, catching a pass from Orton in stride. Due to the vertical routes from Woods and Hogan, Watkins was able to gain about 10 yards after the catch for a first down.
In this play against the Detroit Lions, the Bills are in their “11” personnel package- one back, one tight end, three wide receivers. Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams are the boundary wideouts, with Chris Hogan in the slot.
The Lions are showing a Cover-2 look, with two deep safeties responsible for ½ of the field. Watkins, who is the split end, is essentially a decoy on this play, as he’s talented enough to require the free safety to provide help over the top of the cornerback from his vertical stem.
At the bottom of the screen, Mike Williams runs a deep curl route, while Chris Hogan runs an inside post. Scott Chandler takes the flat as part of the curl-flat concept. In this concept, Williams is the first read, and if he’s covered, Chandler would be the No. 2.
As the play develops, the “Mike’ linebacker stays in coverage with Fred Jackson, while the key defender—the strong safety is forced to decide between a. providing help over Mike Williams or b. taking Chris Hogan’s inside release. Chandler is covered by Deandre Levy in the flat, and Orton goes deep to Mike Williams, due to the safety biting down on Hogan. The pass falls incomplete, but the route design is magnificent, essentially creating a 3 vs. 2 matchup in favor of the Bills.
While the Bills’ offense has been frustrating to watch at times and it’s easy to point fingers, Nate Hackett has done an adequate job, considering the situation the team is in. A weak offensive line isn’t conducive to running the ball, but he’s using the short passing game as an extension of the run, and he’s calling plays that test defenses both vertically and horizontally.
As the year wears on and the offensive line continues to gel, we should see a bit more production out of the rushing attack, but for now, let’s judge players and coaches on things that they control.