The Buffalo Bills’ offense enjoyed great success during the 2015 season under new Offensive Coordinator, Greg Roman. With a first-time starter at the quarterback position along with new faces at wide receiver, tight end and the offensive line, Roman was able to put together the league’s No. 1 rushing attack and one of the most efficient passing games in the National Football League.
As the majority of offenses throughout the league have become more spread-oriented to tailor the pass game, Greg Roman regularly uses multiple backs and tight ends, even extra offensive linemen to operate his punishing brand of power football.
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, intended to 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—both as blockers and receivers.
Tyrod Taylor was extremely effective in his first year as a starting quarterback under Greg Roman, completing over 63% of his passes for 3,035 yards, 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions en route to a Pro Bowl nod. When you watch all the various formations, shifts and options within the Bills’ offense it would seem that it’d be an extremely difficult one to master.
However, Roman designed plays that worked to Taylor’s strengths, whether that be ½ field reads on bootlegs, play-action roll outs, pistol formations or simply spreading out a defense and attacking them vertically.
But no matter how many different personnel packages or formations the Bills would show a defense, the passing game relied on a small amount of route concepts that were able to be ran from those various packages.
Greg Roman’s system is derived from West Coast principles of the great Bill Walsh, who believed in a balanced, ball-control offense that utilized high percentage throws and timing patterns within the routes. The staple of the West Coast offense is the “triangle read” which uses three routes in one combination—typically a corner or post, a hitch and a flat that creates a 3-on-2 matchup against defenders. Walsh wanted to maintain a run-pass balance, so that he could get defenders to bite on play-action as well as using quick, short passes as an extension of the run game.
The most common route concept the Bills’ offense utilized was the Hi-Lo. It’s a pretty self-explanatory term, as they feature two in or out-breaking routes at different levels of the field. They work well against man coverage, as they test the leverage and technique of the defender, as well as testing the discipline and anticipation of defenders in zone coverage.
Here, the Bills are in “11” personnel- with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers in a 2×1 formation. The Bengals are showing a two-deep safety look in their base 4-3 defense. Buffalo motions the slot receiver inside, which forces the Bengals to show their hand, as the free safety walks down to follow him and the strong safety rotates to a single-high look. This typically means that the defense is going to be playing some sort of man or Cover 3 coverage.
At the snap, EJ Manuel uses a play-fake to the running back who releases into the flat. The middle linebacker runs with him to the flat in man coverage. The corners are playing outside leverage and the safety is still in the deep middle, so Manuel sees that it’s a Cover 3 zone—the two corners and safety are each responsible for a deep 1/3 of the field. Charles Clay runs a post route from the “Y” tight end position—the “Hi” read—while Robert Woods runs 5-7 yard in route, as the “Lo” read and the running back runs to the flat as the check-down option, creating a triangle read for the passer.
This route combination can create a natural “pick” on the defenders and allows the quarterback a relatively easy throw.
Clay gets on top of the linebackers and Woods has an easy in-break due to the deep zone the cornerback is running. The safety is late to react and Manuel delivers a pass right between the defenders for a 20-yard gain.
Adding to Hi-Lo Concepts
Greg Roman is an innovative coordinator and married different concepts into one in order to attack various coverages or operate out of different formations.
The “Smash” concept was a staple of his 49ers’ offense, in which the boundary wide out runs a hitch or a short curl and the slot receiver or tight end would run a deep corner (7) route.
The smash is another Hi-Lo read that tests the cornerback. If he plays the boundary receiver, throw to the deep corner, as the safety typically can’t cover enough ground to make a play. If the corner sinks to defend a vertical route, the read is to the hitch.
Greg Roman put his own window dressing on this concept in a 3×1 formation in the shotgun with “10” personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 TE).
The Bills have trips to the bottom of the formation, with Sammy Watkins in the slot. Kansas City is showing a double-A gap blitz with a deep single-high safety. This is a perfect man-coverage/Cover 1 beater. The boundary and the slot receiver both run in routes at different depths—a concept known as “Levels” while Watkins runs the deep corner route from the slot.
Only one of the Chiefs’ inside linebackers blitzes, but the other stays in a shallow zone, only a few yards off the line of scrimmage. The in-routes create a Hi-Lo read for Tyrod over the middle of the field, while the cornerbackers are in a trail position from man coverage. This leaves Watkins one-on-one with a defensive back, as the free safety aligned 25-27 yards deep. Watkins breaks outside and Tyrod delivers a beautiful pass for a 30+ yard gain.
Another one of the more popular route concepts is the Curl/Flat. It means just as you’d expect, as one receiver runs a curl route while another runs to the flat on the same side of the field. This is designed to put a defender in conflict, as he’ll have to choose who to defend. In the case of the next play, the formation and tight splits of the wide receivers is all Greg Roman needs to provide conflict for a defender.
The Bills are in a “diamond” pistol formation in “21” personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end, 2 receivers) against the Titans’ base 3-4 defensive front. They’re showing a single high safety with another in the box, as Buffalo’s formation typically signals that a run is coming.
This curl/flat combo is known as the “Hank” concept, and it’s a mirrored play—meaning the same routes are ran on either side of the formation. The concept gives the quarterback a defined progression (high-to-low) while also creating both a horizontal and vertical stretch of the defense.
At the snap, the Titans roll to a basic Cover 2 zone, with two safeties responsible for their deep ½ of the field, while the boundary cornerbacks and two inside linebackers are each in a hook zone. The strong-side linebacker is the “conflict defender” they’re looking to attack with the quick-out. He drops into coverage and is forced to sit until Charles Clay declares his route, but by the time he cuts to the sideline it’s too late. The linebacker can’t get to the flat quick enough and it’s an easy throw and catch.
“Texas” and Angle Routes
Greg Roman got his running backs involved in the passing game too, especially against man coverage as we saw on Thursday Night Football against the New York Jets. The “Texas” route is another staple of the West Coast offense that’s designed to create space between the hashes with a receiver and use a running back on a delayed route to take advantage of it.
The Bills are in “22” personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends, 1 receiver) against the Jets’ base 3-4 front with a two-deep safety shell and are showing a blitz, signaling man-coverage. Tight end Charles Clay was aligned in the slot but motioned inside before the snap.
At the snap, Sammy Watkins runs a go-route to clear out Darrelle Revis and hopefully bring the safety with him. Muhammed Wilkerson jams Charles Clay at the line of scrimmage, but he’s able to release into his deep post route. Jerome Felton stays at home to pass protect, while Karlos Williams sells a route to the flat.
Assuming he’s the flat defender in man coverage, Demario Davis chases down Karlos Williams to the numbers. Clay runs the seam, causing the free safety to roll over the top, but breaks inside and causes the strong safety to break inside.
Karlos Williams cuts back inside, turning around Demario Davis and runs to the middle of the field that’s left wide open. The strong safety is out of position due to biting on Clay’s break, so he tries to recover. By then, it’s too late as Tyrod Taylor gets Williams the ball in a position to run after the catch and it’s an easy touchdown.
Shallow Cross/Drive Concept
Another staple pass concept from the West Coast Offense is the “Drive.” This is another Hi-Lo read, with one receiver running a shallow cross and the other running a “Dig” or an intermediate in-route on top of it. The play is shown below.
Greg Roman altered this concept a little bit, taking a page out of Bobby Petrino’s variation on it—with the crossing patterns coming from receivers on opposite sides of the formation, creating a “mesh” point over the middle.
Charles Clay runs the shallow cross from the left of the formation as LeSean McCoy gets out into the flat. Chris Hogan runs the dig from the slot. Sammy Watkins runs a corner route while Robert Woods runs a go-route to clear out space for Hogan over the middle.
The free safety rolls to double Sammy Watkins while the Chiefs’ linebackers pick up the crossing routes. Tyrod Taylor hits his high read—Chris Hogan—as the safety breaks on the ball. Hogan holds on and it’s a gain of about 15 yards.
Greg Roman incorporated multiple pass concepts into the Buffalo Bills’ offense that allowed Tyrod Taylor to have clearly defined reads, while creating space for his receivers to work with. Most of his concepts have been around for years, but he added various wrinkles to them in order to simplify things for Tyrod, while still keeping defenses guessing.
In the next post, I’ll go over Greg Roman’s multitude of run concepts that resulted in the Bills leading the league in rushing.