CJ Spiller averaged 10.2 yards per reception in 2012 and then 5.6 in 2013. The Buffalo running back had a down year, likely due to injury, but what gives? How much differently was he used in the passing game and did that also impact his production as a receiver?
In 2012, Chan Gailey put Spiller all over the field presnap. He was used in the slot, out wide, and in the backfield. The idea was to get Spiller free in space, hopefully with a blocker or two. Spiller caught fourteen balls (on twenty passes) for 181 yards when lined up outside the backfield in 2012. He was targeted more than five yards downfield in just five of those twenty passes. Lining him up wide was just another method to get a mismatch and exploit it.
Fast forward to 2013 and all of Spiller’s targets came on plays where he was in the backfield presnap. He was never targeted more than four yards downfield either. It seems like the plan in 2013 was to get Spiller the ball and then allow him to get free, never the other way around. The only problem with that plan was that Spiller’s average yards after the catch also decreased in 2013.
Spiller had the highest yards after the catch average in both seasons on screen passes (defined as plays to or behind the line of scrimmage with at least one lead blocker). He did catch one dump off pass against Cleveland in 2012 that led to twenty yards after the catch (where he was originally a blocker until Fitzpatrick needed to unload the ball or get sacked), but that was his only caught dump off in either season. His other dump off target in 2012 was this bullet to the back of his head. Thanks Fitz.
Screens allow Spiller to shine as a receiving back. He averaged 10.7 yards on his 35 screen play receptions. 42% of his targets in both seasons combined were screen passes and they accounted for 60% of his receiving yards, which speaks to the efficiency of Spiller in the screen game. He was particularly lethal on screens to the left in 2012, as the chart below depicts (the size of the bubbles indicate the yards gained on that reception).
78% of Spiller’s screens went to the left side of the field in 2012. That percentage dropped to 42% in 2013. His yards per screen pass reception also dropped, from 12.7 in 2012 to 7.1 in 2013. The main reason: Doug Legusky and Colin Brown weren’t Andy Levitre. The screens thrown behind Levitre averaged 14.4 yards per reception. Just one of Spiller’s 2013 screen receptions went longer than fourteen yards. Get that man a left guard!
Spiller’s drop in yards per reception was like due to a decreased percentage of screen passes. 47% of his targets in 2012 were screens. That dropped to 35% in 2013. Those screens targets were replaced with swing passes (throws to or behind the line of scrimmage, usually wide of numbers, without a lead blocker) in 2013. The table below compares Spiller’s swing pass performance in the two seasons.
The fourth year running back didn’t perform badly on those swing passes, but he rarely had enough space to shake a defender. Just one of his fourteen swing pass catches in the two seasons has gone for more than ten yards. Swing passes aren’t the key to breaking CJ Spiller loose.
And breaking CJ Spiller loose is the reason you have him on the team. He excels in space and can blow a small gain or loss into a huge play, if given the opportunity. The Bills didn’t give him as much of a chance to do that through the passing game in 2013, especially early in the season.
Spiller didn’t get two screen pass targets in a single game until the second Jets game in November (granted, Spiller’s playing time was limited by injury). For a team that threw so many passes shorter than five yards downfield, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t put their best short yardage receiving weapon to work more often.
Maybe understanding how to use Spiller takes time. Gailey had Spiller on his roster for three years and wasn’t able to fully exploit his talents until the very end of the second season. Maybe the 2014 Bills can get Spiller free in space more often and even line him up all over the field to create mismatches. It’d certainly help the EJ Manuel’s development, as he’d benefit from a huge chunk of yards gained after the catch.