Bills fans have witnessed it all too often. When a new coaching staff comes on the scene blending new schemes with new personnel usually takes time for everything to click. Despite knowing the NFL track record that such change often brings, it was overshadowed by high expectations after new offensive talent was added to the Buffalo roster to match the top talent on defense. Through seven games the results haven't met expectations even for the head coach.
"Some good and some not so good," said Rex Ryan in assessing his team. "Really that's where we are. We're a work in progress right now. We're not where we want to be, but in my opinion we've just got to keep getting better and better each week. I think if we do that at the end of the day we'll be where we want to be. We've had a lot of challenges. We've had a ton of injuries and that's kind of offset us a little bit. It'll be great to get a fully, healthy team together."
There is little debate that injuries have played a role in compromising the progress on offense, but on defense and special teams, a pair of top five units in the NFL last season, there have been some unexpected deficiencies.
In our midseason report we pinpoint, as coach Ryan himself described, the good and the not so good for each unit, taking a close look at league figures through the first seven weeks.
The good:big plays, points per game, run game
The not so good:negative plays, third down, penalties
With the Bills starting an inexperienced player at quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, the engine of Buffalo's offense was supposed to be LeSean McCoy. His hamstring injury in training camp however, stretched into the regular season and compromised his effectiveness. Still, the emergence of Karlos Williams, before a concussion in Week 4, helped to keep the Bills run game very productive.
Buffalo's ground attack managed to rank in the top 10 in rushing every week this season except this past week when they slipped to 11th. Knowing the Bills have not had both of their top backs fully healthy for any one of the first seven games, lends credence to the belief that the run game will only get better when Karlos Williams returns to join a now healthier McCoy in the offensive backfield as a dangerous one-two combination.
Helping to keep opposing defenses honest has been the big play ability of the offense through the first seven games. Buffalo is tied for third in the league with 33 plays of 20 yards or more. Marcus Easley's 58-yard touchdown catch was one of the latest examples in the comeback effort against Jacksonville.
Such plays are part of the reason Buffalo has one of their healthiest points per game averages at the midseason mark. Greg Roman's side is averaging 25.1 points per game, which is the highest scoring average for the Bills after seven games since the 2011 season (30.1).
Not counting the two defensive touchdowns scored by Buffalo this season their 162 offensive points rank sixth in the league. It's a pretty good output considering the changes at quarterback, running back and wide receiver due to injury. Add in the fact that the Bills offense has had to work with the league's eighth-worst starting field position, and what Roman has been able to manufacture is pretty solid.
What is holding Buffalo's attack back besides their injured playmakers are negative plays. The easy ones to spot are the sacks, and the Bills have surrendered 20 in the first seven games to rank 27th. But the run game as productive at it has been also has a dark side. The offense has a total of 25 carries for negative yardage, the highest figure in the NFL.
Those negative plays are a large contributor to why Buffalo's biggest struggle has been third down conversions. The Bills rank 26th in conversion percentage at less than 34 percent (33.7%). Negative plays lead to long down and distance. Evidence of that comes in the fact that almost two-thirds of Buffalo's third down plays have been 3rd-and-5 or more (64%).
Close to half of the offense's third down plays (44.5%) have been 3rd-and-8 or more. It's no secret that it's harder to get a conversion when the yard line to gain is further away. That's why after seven games no other offense in football has gone three-and-out as often as Buffalo (29%).
"We've got to go out there and start executing," said McCoy. "Simple as that."
Of course penalties have played a role in putting Buffalo in difficult down and distance situations as well. No one will debate that defense and special teams have had more of the foolish penalties thus far this season, but when it's come to total number of penalties the offense is out in front.
The offensive unit is responsible for 29 of the team's 72 assessed penalties this season, which is three more than the defense (26) and 13 more than special teams (16). In fairness, special teams is not out on the field nearly as much as the offense or defense, but the yellow flags against the offense have also hurt their ability to keep drives alive.
The good –run 'D', pass 'D', takeaways
The not so good –3rd quarter, pass rush, red zone, self-discipline
Rex Ryan set a high standard for his defense when he dismissed last year's ranking of fourth overall. His plan from the start was to be the number one defense in football. Buffalo will really have to lock it down in the second half of the season to get there. They currently rank 11th, but with a ton of talent and nine games to go there is enough time to make a run at it. Here's what has worked for the Bills defense to this point.
Buffalo's run defense was uncharacteristically poor over the last seven games of the 2014 season. They gave up 120 rushing yards a game and 4.6 per carry. Through the first seven games this season however, the team's run defense has locked up opposing ball carriers. The unit has ranked in the top 10 in run defense since the start of the season, and currently stands fifth allowing just under 92 yards per game (91.9).
The pass defense has been just as good. Since their Week 2 setback against New England, Buffalo's pass defense has been a top five unit allowing less than 220 passing yards per game. They've also allowed the third-lowest completion percentage over that span at just over 57 percent (57.3%). Rookie Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore have been instrumental in foiling opposing quarterbacks as they rank first and second in the league in pass breakups with 14 and 12 respectively.
"I can say every time out I want to play a perfect game to help our team win," said Gilmore. "I don't want to allow any catches and that's what you have to do."
In addition to pass breakups, Darby and Gilmore have combined for four interceptions, good for half the team's total, which is tied for the fourth-most so far this season. The team's 11 total takeaways are tied for seventh most in the NFL.
Where the Bills have had some struggles is coming out of the locker room after halftime. Buffalo is among the best defensive units in the NFL when it comes to holding teams off the scoreboard at the end of the half. They're first in the league in that category allowing just a field goal all season.
The problem is when they come back out on the field for the third quarter. Buffalo ranks 31st in points allowed on the opponent's first possession of the second half, giving up 26 points in seven games. That has served as a poor precursor for how the rest of the third quarter has played out for the Bills defense.
Only the New Orleans Saints (59) have given up more points than the 50 that Buffalo has surrendered to their opponents in the third quarter. It's been truly puzzling why halftime adjustments haven't allowed the Bills defense to post a lower points allowed figure in the third quarter. The second and third quarters of games for Rex Ryan's defense have been troublesome so far. It's where they've allowed almost two thirds of their points to opponents (62%).
Perhaps the biggest surprise this season is how inconsistent Buffalo's pass rush has been. Over the past two seasons no other NFL club had more sacks than the Bills who had 111. Through seven games this season however, their vaunted pass rush has netted just 11 quarterback takedowns.
Ryan has indicated that he intends to strip away some of the pre-snap complexities of the defensive scheme to allow his men up front to play fast and win matchups, but they'll need to be ultra-productive from here on out to match their sack totals of the last two seasons (57, 54).
Stopping opponents in the red zone has also proven difficult to this point. Buffalo's valiant goal line stand in Week 7 was impressive, but more often than not opposing offenses have been able to reach the end zone once they crack the Bills 20-yard line. Opponents are scoring touchdowns in the red zone against Buffalo more than 63 percent of the time. That leaves the Bills ranking in red zone defense a disappointing 25th.
Self-discipline was also an issue on defense early in the season. Of Buffalo's 17 personal foul/unsportsmanlike conduct penalties this season, the defense lays claim to 10 of them. Fortunately there have only been two such infractions over the last three games.
The good –kick coverage, punting
The not so good –field position, kick return, penalties
Danny Crossman's number two ranked unit from last season has found it tough to play as consistently as they did in 2014 through the first seven games. Some shuffling with the personnel at the kicker position took some getting used to and has ultimately shifted back to what it was at the outset of the season. Hopefully the specialists can tighten things up over the last nine games.
Where Buffalo's special teams were solid in the season's first half was in kickoff coverage. The Bills cover men picked up right where they left off last year as they currently rank second in the league in that category.
Opponents are averaging just 17.8 yards a return and kickoff specialist Jordan Gay, now back with the club, is tied for the seventh-most touchbacks on kickoffs despite being off the roster for two games.
Also encouraging has been the play of second-year punter Colton Schmidt. He stands fifth in the league in punting, is tied for the fourth-best gross punting average (48.6) and is tied for fifth in net punt average (43). Both his directional punting and hang time punts have allowed opponents to return just slightly more than half his punts this season (19) as he has forced nine fair catches and has just a single touchback.
Despite Schmidt's best efforts the average field position for opponents has been a problem. They've had an average starting field position of their own 30-yard line, which for Buffalo ranks 29th. In fact opponents have had 15 possessions start on the Bills half of the field through seven games. That's tied for third-worst in the NFL.
Conversely, Buffalo's own average starting field position of slightly better than their own 25 (25.4-yard line) is in the bottom third of the league.
One of the main culprits has been penalties. Buffalo's special teams units have committed 16 penalties that have compromised field position for their offense and defense, including three personal foul infractions.
ConclusionEven though Buffalo's 3-4 mark is disappointing and reduces the team's margin for error in the loss column, the general health of the team has improved coming out of the bye and more talent on the field should translate into more favorable matchups and hopefully more game-changing plays.
Self-discipline on the part of the players needs to continue its upward trend, but the critical component needed is consistent execution for 60 minutes in each of the nine games that remain. Posting a 7-2 mark in the season's second half seems daunting right now, but that's why Ryan is taking the one game at a time approach with his club.
"We expected better results right now. We haven't gotten them quite honestly. I know our fans deserve better than 3-4," Ryan said. "Nobody is going to quit on this team. We have guys that believe in each other and believe that we'll get it turned. It's all about one game. It's got to be the next one. That's the only way we're going to climb back into this."