Having reached triple digits in three of the last five games, Buffalo Bills rushers are ready to roll into December.
The glory days of the Buffalo Bills have long been defined by the antics of a strong game, more or less emulating the streaking buffalo that has graced their helmets since 1974. Wray Carlton and Cookie Gilchrist led the way during their AFL championship days, famously followed by O.J. Simpson, who sat in second place on the NFL’s all-time rushing upon his retirement. Thurman Thomas and Kenneth Davis then became reliable presciences during the AFC title streak. Even the dark times provided relief through the legs of Joe Cribbs, Fred Jackson, Travis Henry, and Willis McGahee.
As the Bills seek to form a new consistent brand of glory days, the run game is rising to the occasion.
Buffalo (8-3) enters their most hopeful December yet, one where they’re well on pace to earn their first division title since 1995. The team may be new to the AFC penthouse, but they’re well aware that they’ll have to be clicking on all cylinders to make some postseason noise and officially put the league on notice. Head coach Sean McDermott spoke about it in the earlier stages of the fall.
â€œMost coaches would say they want to hit their stride in November, December, when the leaves are coming off the trees,â€ McDermott said, per Mary Margaret Johnson of WIVB on November 3. â€œOverall, at the end of the day, youâ€™re trying to win one game. Rosters change week to week, lineups change week to week, challenges normally come, and with COVID, weâ€™re trying to find one week wins and do the best you can to put the best lineup out there.â€
One area where the Bills are starting to peak is the aforementioned run game.
Exciting as the idea of Josh Allen torching opponents with both his arms and feet may be, Buffalo sought to get their run game rolling. The unit appeared to be well set for the future with Devin Singletary set to return after a strong rookie season (775 yards, fourth amongst first-year rushers). Buffalo would also replace the Jets-bound Frank Gore by drafting Utah’s Zack Moss in the third round of the 2020 draft proceedings. Bills general manager Brandon Beane was hopeful was Singletary’s finesse and and Moss’ physicality would be the next step forward for an offense on the rise.
â€œDevin has that shiftiness. Zackâ€™s going to be more of that banging in there,â€ Beane said after the draft, per Alex Brasky of The Daily News (Batavia). â€œHeâ€™s going to lower that shoulder and try to, a little bit like Frank did at an older age for us. I see that role.â€
But with the blocking names in front of them changing more than those on the North Park Theater’s marquee, the Bills rushing attack had struggled in the early going. The team managed to get off to a strong start, but a challenging stretch, when the Bills lost two of three in October, coincided with the run game working on a streak of earning less than 100 yards.
The display was particularly scary during an October 19 loss to Kansas City, one of the two teams ahead of the Bills for AFC supremacy. As Clyde Edwards-Helaire broke loose for 161 yards, the Bills mustered only 84 on the ground as a team. Singletary struggled to the tune of 32 yards on 10 carries in defeat.
Keeping the pace of a strong rookie season proved to be a challenge for Singletary. He struggled to reach the 300-yard mark over his first seven games, averaging less than four yards a carry. He noted the big plays that came naturally in his debut failed to resurface in modern times.
“Making big plays, creating big plays. We haven’t been able to do that yet,” the struggling sophomore Singletary said after the game, per Jourdon LaBarber & Dante Lasting of BuffaloBills.com. “We’ve got to find a way to get that going.”
Singletary’s words, however, proved prophetic and he found a way to get things rolling again.
Two weeks after the Chiefs’ visit, the Bills battled the New England Patriots, often seen as a weekend for plenty of Western New York fans to skip due to an infamous streak of futility against the AFC East monopoly-holders. Singletary, helping co-author a new narrative in Orchard Park, came up big with a team-best 86 yards on 14 carries, 59 of that tally coming in the second half. Assistance came in the form of Moss, who tallied 81 yards on an equal number of carries, and he also punched in his first NFL touchdowns. They wound up being the difference in the 24-21 Buffalo victory.
“This is probably the most I felt like myself just from everything from top to bottom,” Moss remarked afterwards, per Jenna Callari of WKBW. “I was just happy I was able to come out and be ready to go in a game like this. I was really comfortable today and want to build off that going into the rest of the year.”
As the Buffalo run game continues to surge forward, they continue to fulfill Singletary’s prophecy. With a more balanced offense, the Bills are well positioned to make their first legitimate postseason run. That was on display during their most recent win, a game where three turnovers could’ve threatened to destroy what they were building.
Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers to wrap up the November slate could’ve been the type of trap game that caused Buffalo to fly off the rails, a game that might’ve left them uncomfortably sharing the top spot in the AFC East with Miami. But a strong attack from the run game helped them finish things off. There were no antics from Allen or Stefon Diggs necessary to close out the win. Even if Allen tallied a score on the ground, it was the running that kept things rolling, with Singletary and Moss uniting for 141 yards. Their magnum opus came on the final drive, when Moss opened things up with a 31-yard gain, followed by a 24-yard tally from Singletary that set Tyler Bass for a de facto game-winning field goal from 43 yards way.
— Bradley Gelber (@BradleyGelber) November 29, 2020
Things weren’t fully perfect just yet. A lost Singletary fumble led to a Los Angeles field goal. Moss was penalized 15 yards for taunting. But the Bills made sure that their offensive fate goes far beyond Allen. The quarterback (18-of-24, 157 yards, 2 total touchdowns, 1 INT) expressed his gratitude and hope for more after the game in Heather Prusak’s report for WIVB.
â€œOur guys did a great job, Zack and (Moss) carried the ball extremely well, they ran hard,” Allen said. “When my numberâ€™s called I gotta make some plays too but our guys did a good job blocking up front and you put the ball in your backsâ€™ hands and let them do things and they were great today.â€
Singletary explained that the success against the Chargers partially stemmed from an increased emphasis on the rushing attack in practice that week, mentioning that the team ran “an extra drill” leading into LA week.
“It wasnâ€™t even full speed, it was kind of like half speed but just seeing the guys get to their landmark,” Singletary said in Prusak’s report, mentioning how it helped the Bills prevaild in a physical game. “It helps us get to our landmark it just kind of helps the offensive line and the running backs get a feel for each other and it showed today.”
Singletary and Moss will look to carry on momentum in their next game on Monday night, as they battle the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale, Arizona (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags