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Pick a Feature Back

Bills coach Chan Gailey blamed himself for the sorry state of the running game in Sunday's opening loss to Miami. Gailey called only 14 running plays. If you ask me, he gave up on the running game too early, considering the sorry state of the passing game and the windy conditions at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Still, the running game is a concern. The Bills had just 50 yards on the ground. Rookie C.J. Spiller had 6 yards on seven carries. Counting pass receptions, Spiller had five negative plays out of 11 touches from scrimmage. Those plays put the Bills in these down-and-distance situations; third-and-12, third-and-14, second-and-11, third-and-2, third-and-14.

No offense can dig out of those holes on a regular basis. You need to make consistent yardage on first and second down to put yourself into manageable situations and keep defenses from teeing off on the quarterback. So the question is, which running back is best suited to run the ball inside on early downs and give the offense a chance to put together drives?

I say it's Fred Jackson, who proved himself as a feature back a year ago. Jackson had 1,062 yards and averaged 4.5 yards a carry, remarkable for such a weak offense. Jackson also had 46 catches for 371 yards. As a starter, he averaged about 120 combined yards from scrimmage.

Of course, the Bills didn't take Spiller ninth overall to sit him on the bench. But they can use him judiciously as a runner and receiver and get production from him. Based on Sunday's game, Spiller isn't ready to carry the load as a featured back. Gailey has to make a decision and give one of his backs the bulk of the carries. Jackson has always said he needs a lot of carries to get into a rhythm. All running backs say that. The Bills aren't going to establish any rhythm in the running game by spreading out the carries among Spiller, Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. There simply aren't that many carries to go around, especially if the offense continues to struggle in the passing game.

After the game, I asked Gailey if getting the running game going meant deciding on one main back.

"It means getting the running game going," Gailey said. "I think it has less to do with who's running it than us making sure we're blocking it right and getting the ball in the spots where we need to get it run. That's the biggest thing. And that's something we've got to get better at."

The Bills made a big investment in Spiller. He's their best breakaway threat. The team isn't going anywhere, so they have an incentive to give him a lot of playing time and allow him to develop. But that doesn't mean he's the best guy to carry the running load. If Gailey wants to give his team the best chance to win, he has to pick a lead back. Right now, that guy is still Fred Jackson.




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