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Bills Xs and Os: Counter Trey

The Bills are entering their bye week with a respectable 3-2 record, but they’re desperately in need of a jumpstart on offense. The absence of Jordan Matthews loomed large in the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but the in-game knee injury to TE Charles Clay is what really doomed the Bills. Without Clay to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally the passing game sputtered, and the offense largely stalled without the weapons to separate.

However, while the passing game struggled to move the ball, there were signs of life from the run game. Rick Dennison has slowly moved away from his background in outside zone stretch runs to return the Bills to what made them so dominant on the ground the last two years: namely, gap and power-based runs.

Watching the film from the Cincinnati game, the Bills utilized a very common gap run scheme play call, one that teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers utilize regularly, and one that was originally run under Joe Gibbs in Washington. This play is the counter trey.

Here’s the basic design, diagrammed below:

As you can see, the counter trey utilizes down blocks across the offensive line, where the lineman looks to drive the defender laterally along the line of scrimmage. The backside offensive guard will pull and lead, along with a fullback, H-back, wingback, or detached tight end, depending on the personnel and formation.

The running back takes what’s known as a “jab step”, starting to run away from the pullers to sell a run to that side before cutting back behind his lead blockers. Not only does it sell the run to the opposite side, but it also gives the blockers time to get out in front and lead for the back.

The quarterback will open to the backside, too, helping to sell a run to that side before turning and handing the ball to the RB going behind the OG and FB/TE/H-Back.

So let’s check out the Bills running this concept, something their offensive line and personnel are better suited for than the stretch runs from the preseason and first few weeks of the regular season.

Here, on the second offensive drive of the game the Bills come out with 21 personnel on the field (2 running backs, 1 tight end). Charles Clay (#85) is to the offensive right, and FB Patrick DiMarco (#42) is in an offset i-formation to the left with LeSean McCoy (#5) behind him. Tyrod Taylor (#5) is under center.

The offensive line will down block here, all of them turning and driving their men to the offensive left side. Taylor opens that way, and McCoy takes a jab step to help sell a run to the left. However, left guard Richie Incognito (#64) and DiMarco are both pulling around to lead block to the right side.

This play will go for four yards once McCoy takes the handoff and puts his head down up the middle. This was not an explosive run by any means, but on first down 4 yards is a great start.

Watch center Eric Wood (#70) on this play. He provides a great example of what the drive block should look like. He gets his hips inside of the DT and drives him away from the right side of the play. Additionally, LT Dion Dawkins (#73) pinches in to fill the gap left by Incognito pulling, and prevents any backside pursuit on the play.

Jordan Mills (#79) struggled to block a linebacker in space, and DiMarco looked to secure a double team with Clay, so there were two linebackers ready for McCoy in the hole to prevent a big gain. Overall, though, a solid play all around and a welcome sight for Bills fans.

One more example of them running counter (though I counted at least 4 iterations of it), this time with Mike Tolbert in the backfield. Late in the third quarter the Bills will run a similar play, pulling Richie Incognito and Patrick DiMarco to lead block from left to right.

This time, however, Incognito will be tasked with a trap block on the defensive end, Carlos Dunlap (#96), who is lined up in front of Nick O’Leary. O’Leary will leave Dunlap unblocked and climb to the second level, blocking the backside linebacker quite nicely. Incognito, then, will be tasked with running parallel to the line of scrimmage and blocking Dunlap out of the play.

Tolbert (#35) follows his blocks and sees a hole open up between Incognito’s trap and Jordan Mills’s down block. He picks his way forward for another 4 yard gain for Buffalo.

Finally, a strong running game means a strong play action game. I’ve written about that before, specifically after the Denver Broncos game. Well, immediately after the Bills ran the first counter play I outlined, they rolled out a play action counter bootleg play, as seen below.

The Bills fake a counter play going to the left, with Nick O’Leary (#84) and Vlad Ducasse (#62) pulling to that side, plus a play fake from McCoy (#25) and Taylor (#5). Once he fakes the run to the left, Taylor will boot out to his right, where the Bills set up a flood concept, one of their go-to passing plays. Zay Jones (#11) looks to be open over the middle, but Taylor dumps it to Charles Clay (#85), who turns the corner for a gain of 7 and a fresh set of downs.

It was certainly a tough loss for the Bills in Week 5, but the bye couldn’t have come at a better time. A week off should give the Bills’ receivers time to get healthy, which they desperately need. However, the biggest thing the bye could do for the Bills is help them transition more fully into a power run-based team. With counters like these already in the playbook, I’d be very excited for what the Bills’ run game could look like coming out of the bye.

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Ryan is a student-athlete at Haverford College, studying economics and statistics while playing varsity squash. He’s a life-long Bills fan from Buffalo, NY who loves to scout players, schemes and teams in both the NFL and NCAA. He can be found on twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm.

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