Third and long is a situation in which no offense wants to find itself in the NFL. It makes an offense predictable, and there isn't the same number of options in comparison to 3rd-and-2. Simply put 3rd-and-long has been a disruption for Buffalo's up tempo offense through the first three games this season.
For the Bills third down is a play they can slice right down the middle through their first three outings this season when it comes to third down success. In 3rd-and-6 or less Buffalo is converting a very healthy 50 percent of the time (14-28). On 3rd-and-7 or more Buffalo does not have a single conversion (0-17).
"Offensively 3rd-and-4 to six we're doing extremely well. Third-and-one to two penalties have hurt us, breakdowns have hurt us, but third and long we're not doing well at all," said head coach Doug Marrone. "So with where our offense is we have to stay on track and that means getting the running game going. When you have a running game going and you have a young quarterback that makes things quite easy."
That obviously didn't happen last week when the Jets stymied Buffalo's ground game and forced EJ Manuel to try and throw the Bills to victory.
"I put him in some tough situations last week," said Marrone of Manuel. "I don't want to put him in those situations where we're throwing the ball 40 times right now. So we have to get our running game going. I've sat down and talked to him about how he can't let one game define him. But for anyone that's had a chance to sit down a talk to him, you know right away how competitive he is, so he's been working twice as hard to get everything right."
"We continue to stress that in our offensive meetings, just saying we've got to get this running game going and make it more consistent," said Manuel. "It's inconsistent. I think once that gets on the ball like everything else, we'll start to roll as an offense, we'll start to get more of those third down plays. Instead of it being a 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-9, it'll be 3rd-and-2 which is a lot more manageable. If we can get those early down runs, get four or five yards a pop, it will really help us."
On the defensive side of the ball Buffalo's third down problems defy logic. The Bills on 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-2 have allowed a conversion rate to their opponents of 50 percent (4-8), which is a respectable number on what is considered third-and-short.
From 3rd-and-4 to 3rd-and-6 Buffalo's defense is even better holding opposing offenses to a conversion rate of just 18 percent (2-11). Where the problems arise is on third and long. On 3rd-and-7 or more the Bills are surrendering first downs a surprising 52 percent of the time (13-25).
"Defensively we're getting people to third down," said Marrone in his weekly appearance on the Bills flagship station WGR Sportsradio 550. "We have the second-most or third-most snaps in getting people to third down, but we're not getting off the field. We're doing very well in the short yardage situations on third down, but we're not doing well in the third and longs and when you look at it on paper as a coach it doesn't make sense to me. (The odds) usually goes the other way."
In an effort to address the third down problems on both side of the ball Marrone played his first string offense against his first string defense in the hopes of exposing both to more realistic competition in preparation for Sunday.
"This week we did a lot of ones-versus-ones in those situations and my philosophy is this, we're having a problem in this so let's get the best players on offense and the best players on defense and let's work on this situation," he said. "We've worked on that quite a bit this week in terms of game plan and what we need to do to get that straight because we have to do a better job on third down."
On Sunday Buffalo faces a Baltimore team that ranks eighth in third down offense (44.4%) and 13th in third down defense (35.7%).