ORCHARD PARK — Just about the time Tropical Storm Ophelia relented, James Cook finally found daylight.
The Buffalo Bills hammered the Washington Commanders defensive line all game. Running backs found a few yards here and a few yards there, but at times it seemed counterproductive.
In the past the Bills may have abandoned the run before the defense could break, but one of the quiet changes to the offense over the last two weeks has been sticking with the plan until it pays off. Early in the fourth quarter, the Bills managed 86 yards on 27 designed run calls, as only Josh Allen’s 46 yards on scrambles seemed to work.
But then Cook found a crevice in the Washington defense and bolted 34 yards. It was the dam breaking and the desired payoff Buffalo had hoped for by pounding the ball all game.
Cook had a similar 36-yard run against the Las Vegas Raiders during Week 2, giving punctuation to a new ball-control offense that has pummeled defenses stubbornly sticking to game plans designed to limit Allen’s big throws down the field.
And now it may be a primary weapon in stopping a Miami Dolphins offense that leads the NFL in total yards (550.3), passing (362), rushing (188.3) and points (43.3). Meanwhile, the Bills ranked third in the league in time of possession, holding the ball more than 35 minutes per game.
“It’s a high-powered offense, so you have to manage it,” Cook said. “That means you have to run the ball and spread it around just to get them off their game.”
The Bills running game certainly hasn’t been flashy, but it has been effective, more so as the game progresses. Buffalo has four runs of 10 yards or more in the last two halves, but two of them are Allen scrambles.
In the last two second halves, however, the Bills have six runs of more than 10 yards and only one is a scramble by Allen. Buffalo is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the second half, more than 1/2 yard more than the first half.
Cook, who ranks third in the NFL with 267 yards rushing on 6.1 yards per attempt, has been the main beneficiary of the Bills sticking with the run. Of his 221 yards over the last two games, 170 of them have come in the second halves and he’s averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
“You're gonna get 2 yards, 3 yards and then those are gonna turn into 6-7 yards and then you're gonna start breaking more and more,” Bills guard Connor McGovern said. “... You just keep thinking like just keep wearing down the defense and all of a sudden we start springing more like 8-10 yards and James, all of a sudden, breaks a couple and he's like 16-17 yards downfield and that just like makes up for everything at the beginning of the game.”
One of the faults of the Bills in the season-opening loss to the New York Jets was abandoning the run in the second half in favor of risky, and ultimately, unsuccessful throws downfield. Cook averaged 4.6 yards on eight attempts in the first half against the Jets, but ran four times in the second half, while the Bills handed off seven times total.
Part of staying patient against defenses attempting to limit big plays isn’t just Allen taking what’s given, it’s also offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey sticking with the run until 3 yards grow into bigger chunks.
“I think just being able to establish that run game and be two-dimensional, throw the ball, run the ball,” McGovern said. “We're just starting to click more as an offense together, like we just needed those live bullets together, all five of us (offensive linemen). Now things are slowly just starting to click more and more together.”
Running the ball has also helped the Bills unlock different ways to manipulate defenses, particularly through play-action passes. Buffalo showed more willingness to play under center against the Commanders and Allen completed three passes of more than 20 yards, with two 30-yard plays, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Davis.
The Bills also brought in guard David Edwards as a sixth offensive linemen six times, including on all three of the aforementioned passes. The Bills managed just 140 yards from running backs in two games against the Dolphins at Highmark Stadium last season, which played a role in both being close, high-scoring games.
“It allows you to give defenses different looks from an under-center-standpoint, then get in the gun and do some different things with that same personnel grouping,” Dorsey said. “It allows you to be multiple and change the picture for the defense. It’s something I think Josh is effective at, and Josh has done well throughout his career with the (play-action) game.”
NOTES: Bills OL Ryan Bates (ankle), DE Leonard Floyd (ankle), S Micah Hyde (hamstring), DB Siran Neal (ankle) and S Jordan Poyer (knee) did not participate in practice Wednesday, while CB Taron Johnson was limited with a hip injury. Dolphins OT Terron Armstead (back, ankle, knee), WR River Cracraft (shoulder), WR Erik Ezukanma (neck), LB Jaelan Phillips (oblique) and C Connor Williams (groin) did not practice Wednesday, while WR Jaylen Waddle practiced in full after missing Sunday’s game with a concussion. Bills linebacker Terrel Bernard was named AFC defensive player of the week after notching two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery against the Commanders.