A change in personnel usage may help the Buffalo Bills offense recapture its elite form

2RYKC2F Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) reacts during an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in Orchard Park, NY. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)

• Steadying the ship: Despite their obvious turnover issues, the Bills still rank third in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play, behind only the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins. The offense has been effective yet inconsistent. One problem has been their personnel usage, and adjusting it may get them back on the right track.

• A switch to 11 personnel is the key: New offensive coordinator Joe Brady has a tough task taking over an offense with massive expectations. The offense isn't broken, though. The team just needs to utilize its talent properly. 11 personnel gives them the best chance to win, and increased usage of this group could transform them into an elite unit.

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The recent firing of Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has many wondering how the team can recapture its elite form on offense.

Despite their obvious turnover issues, the Bills still rank third in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play, behind only the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins. The offense has been effective yet inconsistent. One problem has been their personnel usage, and adjusting it may get them back on the right track.

The Bills entered the 2023 offseason with a plan to change their offense. Last season, Buffalo ran the fewest plays in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). But over the first seven weeks of the 2023 campaign, Buffalo ranked third in snaps played out of 12 personnel, behind only Atlanta and New England.

However, the execution of the offense wasn't at its usual elite level.

Buffalo Bills metrics in 12 personnel (through Week 7)
Metric   Rank
EPA/Play 0.041 12th
Rushing Grade 54.2 30th
Run Blocking Grade 53.8 26th
Receiving Grade 73.5 9th

While Josh Allen still earned a terrific 86.5 passing grade in the sets, the rest of the team didn't execute as expected. The struggles in the run game were especially concerning, given that incumbent starting tight end Dawson Knox has a long history of blocking well.

But then Knox’s injury left Dalton Kincaid as Buffalo's only threat at tight end. Naturally, the Bills had to revert to their previous strategy of using 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) — to rousing success.

From 2020 through 2022, Buffalo was the highest-graded offense in the NFL using 11 personnel. Their passing game is better with three receivers on the field, and 11 personnel also allows them to face lighter boxes in the run game, which they should consider extremely important.

Buffalo Bills: Team run-blocking grades 
Metric Grade Rank
Vs. light boxes (6 or less) 72.6 T-2nd
Vs. Standard Box (7) 56.6 T-24th
Vs. Loaded Box (8 or more) 59.5 17th

Furthermore, their success against light boxes is even greater when they are in 11 personnel. When Buffalo uses 11 personnel and faces light boxes, they rank in the top eight in every facet of offensive grading and even boast the league's best run-blocking grade at 75.1. It’s their ideal personnel grouping.

 Alignment and numbers games are great, but a team needs the right players to be successful. The two players who can make a difference for Buffalo are the aforementioned Dalton Kincaid and second-year slot receiver Khalil Shakir.

 As his first-round stature would suggest, Kincaid has the higher profile of the two, and Knox’s absence forced the Bills to use Kincaid in a more prominent role. He’s responded by becoming an integral part of their offense and performing incredibly well.

Dalton Kincaid: PFF receiving stats and rank among 32 qualifying tight ends since Week 7
Metric Total Rank
Receiving grade 75.4 9th
Receptions 28 2nd
Receiving yards 272 4th
Yards per route run 2.01 9th

Kincaid’s athleticism is a large part of his appeal. He can line up anywhere on the field, allowing him to act as a fourth receiver. Over the past four weeks, he’s lined up in 16 different spots on offense. This includes 80 snaps in the slot, the third-most among tight ends.

This is similar to the usage we see from players like Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews, whose flexibility is often a primary component of their offenses. If Buffalo can continue to incorporate Kincaid as such, he should continue to be a very dangerous weapon.

11 personnel also requires proficiency from a traditional slot receiver, something the Bills have been lacking over the last couple of years. The Bills currently rank dead last with 8.3 yards per reception from slot receivers. They have struggled to replace Cole Beasley’s prior production since his decline and subsequent departure.

If recent performance is any indication, they very well could have an in-house solution in Khalil Shakir. Though it’s across a small sample of 218 snaps, Shakir’s 77.3 slot receiving grade leads all Bills players since he was drafted last season.

He was featured early and often in Week 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All six of his catches came in the slot, four in the first quarter. His presence inside gave Buffalo balance in their passing game, allowing their outside threats, especially Gabe Davis, to work more freely.

Since then, Shakir has only seen six targets — including two in Monday’s game — that have resulted in just one catch for 24 yards. From Week 7 to Week 9, when Shakir was featured, the Bills ranked second behind Cincinnati in offensive grading in 11 personnel.

Shakir’s talents shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who watched him at Boise State. Over his final three seasons in college, his 92.1 overall grade ranked second among all wide receivers behind only DeVonta Smith. There were times when it looked like Shakir was the only player on the field at Boise State.

While he won’t dominate games like that in the NFL, he has shown enough flashes to earn a chance to be the Bills’ starting slot receiver.

Buffalo’s ideal offense primarily involves an 11 personnel group of Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Khalil Shakir, Dalton Kincaid, and James Cook. This alignment provides the necessary space to succeed in the run game while maximizing the talent of the team's pass-catchers. The presence of Kincaid and Shakir as movable weapons makes their offense substantially better.

New offensive coordinator Joe Brady has a tough task taking over an offense with massive expectations. The offense isn't broken, though. The team just needs to utilize its talent properly.

11 personnel gives them the best chance to win, and increased usage of this group could transform them into an elite unit.

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