It’s a new era of Buffalo Bills football as the franchise now has two of the most innovative minds in the game calling shots on offense and defense with new Head Coach Rex Ryan and Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman. Greg Roman, along with Jim Harbaugh, constructed an old-school, hit-‘em-in-the-mouth, offensive system that earned the San Francisco 49ers consecutive trips to the NFC Conference Championship Game and one Super Bowl appearance. Roman will now bring his run-heavy scheme to Buffalo, where he’ll integrate talented playmakers such as Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Percy Harvin, with the hopes of not only making a trip back to the Super Bowl, but actually winning it.
Roman’s offense is one of the most difficult to plan for throughout the league, as his run-heavy schemes operated out of endless formations that are topped off with a whirlwind of shifts and motions, disguise the relatively simple concepts that he’s executing. While the offense is centered around running the ball, the tight ends have a lot of responsibilities within the scheme.
Personnel Groupings, Multiple Formations and Shifting
While most teams throughout the NFL are spreading defenses out with three, four, or even five wide receiver sets, Greg Roman likes to incorporate multiple tight ends, fullbacks and even extra offensive linemen into his offense.
According to FootballOutsiders, the 2013 49ers’ offense was the only one in the entire league that utilized “11” personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) on under 30-percent of their offensive snaps—the league average is 51.2-percent. Furthermore, they were the only team to use four different personnel groupings for at least 15-percent of their offensive snaps.
Per FootballOutsiders’ charting, Roman’s 49ers offense came out in 12 (1 running back, 2 tight ends) or 22 (2 running backs, 2 tight ends) on 26-percent of their offensive snaps and were the only team to use seven offensive linemen on a regular basis (3.4-percent).
By utilizing these multiple tight end and two-back sets, Roman can exploit and attack opposing defenses nearly at will. Take the following play for example.
San Francisco comes out in a “Pistol” full house formation out of “22” personnel. There’s a running back behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a tight end to his right and a fullback to his left, while another tight end is attached to the line of scrimmage next to the left tackle.
Green Bay’s defense is showing a basic 3-4 look, with both safeties within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. San Francisco doesn’t have a numbers advantage, so Kaepernick signals a motion, flexing fullback Bruce Miller to the top of the screen as a wide receiver and running back Frank Gore into the slot to the right of the formation, while tight ends Vance McDonald and Derek Carrier split out to the left of the formation.
Now, the Packers are stretched out horizontally and forced to play man coverage across the board against the 49ers’ “empty” set. The outside receivers run straight, in order to clear out defenders, while the tight end Vance McDonald runs an easy in-route without a defender within five yards of him.
The use of motion forces a defenses hand, as it will often show whether they’re playing man or zone coverage, or whether they’re blitzing or not.
Motion isn’t just utilized to create mismatches in the passing game, though.
Roman will often line up in a formation like the one below in “22” personnel, but motion the fullback across the formation, run the “power” with a pulling guard and exploit a five-on-three matchup to the weakside.
On another given run play, Roman may motion the same man across the formation, only to have him pull back across and lead block for a sweep run, like the following play against Indianapolis that resulted in a 21-yard gain.
Tight Ends Crucial to Run & Pass Game
Now that we’ve emphasized how often a Greg Roman offense will field multiple tight ends, let’s take a look at how they’re used within the scheme in order to shed light onto why the Buffalo Bills were so keen on signing Charles Clay as a free agent.
When Roman joined the 49ers in 2011, they had a talented duo of tight ends in Delanie Walker (6’0” 245) and Vernon Davis, a 6’4” 255-pound athletic freak. Davis was the receiving threat- typically lining up on the line of scrimmage as a traditional “Y” tight end, while Walker would be moved all around—from a wing, to the slot, to a fullback or an H-Back position. Regardless of where either would line up at, they both were used as run blockers on roughly 50-percent of their snaps.
Delanie Walker spent two seasons under Roman’s tutelage, catching 40 passes for 548 yards and six touchdowns. A unique player and athlete, Walker was able to be used in a variety of roles and was almost like a blend between a fullback and a slot receiver due to his stocky stature, but solid route running ability. He had a limited role in the passing game as a receiver, but he had the ability to attack every level of the field.
In the passing game, Davis saw the majority of his targets over the middle of the field on underneath routes between 0-9 yards from the line of scrimmage, hauling in 77 of 96 targets for 720 yards (350 came after the catch) and scored six touchdowns between 2011 and 2014. However, from 2011 through 2013, Davis was targeted 64 times on deep routes (20+ yards downfield) more than any other tight end in the league. He caught 31 of the 64 targets for 1,073 yards and 11 touchdowns in that time span.
Due to Davis’ athleticism, Greg Roman made the “Smash” concept a staple of the 49ers offense. The Smash is one of the simplest passing concepts in the game and can be ran from a variety of formations and can be ran against multiple coverages.
The two components of the “Smash” are an inside receiver running a deep corner route and an outside receiver running a quick hitch. This is a progression Hi-Lo read with the corner being the #1, or “Hi” and the hitch being the #2 “Lo.” Essentially, if the cornerback sinks to defend the hitch, throw it high. If the cornerback defends the corner route, throw it low.
While the route combination for the Smash concept is simple, Greg Roman was able to dress it up by using Walker on routes to the flats or a drag that would put stress on the key defender by creating a three-on-two matchup.
The Bills don’t have a tight end of the caliber of Vernon Davis, but Charles Clay is an up-and-coming talent that possesses the type of skill-set that’s ideal for this offensive scheme. He’s big and strong enough to line up as a traditional tight end, but he’s quick, can block and is physical enough to move around in the backfield as well.
Clay is talented as both a blocker and a receiver, so defenses will have to decide whether to stay in base nickel on any given situation. He’ll will be an extremely important player to this offense, as his movements will typically dictate what matchups they’ll see from the defense.
The H-Back can be a major mismatch in the passing game, as you can see in the following play against the New York Jets. Tight end Delanie Walker motions across the formation, where a safety is showing blitz. The ball is snapped right as Walker meets his landmark and he’s able to get behind the cheating safety with ease. He runs an intermediate corner route and the single-high safety can’t cover enough ground in time to make a play on the ball and Walker picks up 20 yards.
In the following play against the Seahawks, Delanie Walker runs a wheel route from the wing. He quickly gets on top of the linebacker and is able to adjust to the pass and score a game-winning touchdown in the red-zone.
A quality H-Back gives a team so many options to work with, particularly for a power-based scheme like the Bills will run, where they’ll rely on the power, counter, trap and iso, while likely mixing in some inside/outside zone to complement it.
A power football team must have physicality by their tight end and fullback, especially in Roman’s offense where they’re expected to get out to the second level and destroy anything blocking their traffic.
An example of the level of physicality that’s needed is for the “Wham” run, a staple of the 49ers offense. The Wham is an inside run in which the defensive tackle is “trap” blocked by a fullback or H-Back.
The offense aligns the H-Back either as a wing or in the hole, in order to create an angle to block the defensive tackle from the side. The center will leave the defensive tackle unblocked and get out to the second level, and at that point, the defender will take an unexpected shot that allows a clear path for the running back to hit daylight.
Here’s Charles Clay pulling across the formation to lead block for Ryan Tanehill on an option run.
Greg Roman is one of the more innovative minds in the game when it comes to crafting successful offensive plays. His power run schemes have taken concepts that have been in the game since it’s inception, while continuously blending in new, modern theories on how to gain an advantage over opposing defenses and has simplified passing concepts that he runs out of multiple formations to disguise them. Regardless of the moving parts, it’s the tight ends that make the wheels of this offense spin, as they’re asked to block from a traditional tight end position, split out wide and run routes from the slot, flex back into a wing position and wham block a defensive tackle, or even sit back in pass protection. Obviously Roman will look to implement some new concepts that fit the current personnel on the Buffalo Bills’ roster, but this post should highlight some of the things we’ll see from the tight ends during the 2015 season.