ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Before this season, few would have said that the Buffalo Bills' running game would be among their areas for improvement. With C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, they were set, right?
Through three games, the Bills are averaging 4.4 yards per rush, eighth-best in the NFL. When head coach Doug Marrone was asked Wednesday about the rushing attack being sub-par, he used that statistic to defend his team.
The rebuttal is that if you strip away Jackson's 59-yard run against the Jets, or Spiller's 46-yard run against the Panthers, you're left with less-desirable stats. That's true, but it's worth noting that the Bills have gained 15 or more yards on five of 92 carries, a 5.4 percent big-play average that ranks in the top third of the NFL.
So the disclaimer is, when you limit the statistics to runs under 15 yards, you're chopping off more in the Bills' case than most.
But what is left is still not ideal.
The Bills average 2.77 yards per carry on rushes under 15 yards, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. And that figure isn't low because the Bills are gaining first downs in short-yardage situations; of their 87 carries under 15 yards, only 16.1 percent have been for first downs, ranking them 20th in the NFL.
And here's the more troubling stat: Of their runs under 15 yards, Bills rushers gain just 0.84 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which ranks 32nd in the NFL.
Among all runs, not just those under 15 yards, the Bills rank 19th on first and second down, averaging 3.93 yards per carry.
Marrone was quick to point out Wednesday that those big plays "still count," and he's obviously right. But behind the scenes, Bills coaches know they aren't performing up to snuff with their ground game.
"We continue to stress that in our offensive meetings and just saying, 'Hey, we have to get this running game rolling and make it more consistent,'" quarterback EJ Manuel said Wednesday.
Ask CEO Russ Brandon, and you'll get the same response.
"We need to get our running game going. That's unquestioned," Brandon told WGR-AM 550 on Wednesday. "We've got to run the football. That's a big part of our offense. We have to find a way to get [Spiller] unleashed. I'm pretty confident that C.J. will get going here pretty soon."
And pressed further on the subject, Marrone admitted the same thing.
"We have to do a better job of running. I think it’s a combination of everything again," he said. "I think we have to do a better job up front, I think we have to do a better job of running it and I think we have to do a better job of putting in situations, game-planning strategically, getting more looks, getting more situations and running the ball more."
More than the offensive line, more than Jackson, and more than offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, the onus for improving the running game falls on Spiller. The Bills need to show that they weren't wasting their breath in pumping Spiller's abilities as an explosive, dangerous ball carrier.
Naturally, that has put weight on Spiller's shoulders, and through three games, he hasn't lived up to those expectations.
Asked Wednesday if he feels under pressure following comments from Brandon, Marrone, and Manuel on the need for the running game to improve, Spiller was blunt.
"No," he said, before turning away.