With a rookie quarterback and a new offensive system Buffalo's offense wasn't expected to light it up when it came to third down conversion percentage in 2013. Inexperienced signal callers often see the most exotic looks from opposing defenses on third down. Decoding the disguised looks and making quick, correct decisions is easier said than done.
EJ Manuel and the other Bills QBs that have played have worked to make progress in this area of the game through the course of the season. After 12 games it's clear that moving the chains has been more effectively accomplished in the first half of games.
Buffalo has a very respectable success rate of 43.1 percent on third downs this season in the first half of games (41-95). Come the second half however, that conversion percentage drops to 27.6 percent (26-94). There are a lot of factors that come into play in explaining those figures like down and distance, score and the effectiveness of the opposing defense.
Whatever the main cause might be it's a deficiency that has compromised Buffalo's chances in pulling out close games this year. And while it might not be the only shortcoming, it's certainly one that's on head coach Doug Marrone's radar.
"Why aren't we winning? Why aren't we getting ourselves over the top? It comes back to the same types of things. It comes back to turnovers, third down, and I think each game it's been something a little bit different. That's the consistency that we have to get better at."
After turnovers Marrone pointed to third downs as a main culprit in the team's inability to pull away from teams in the second half. In referencing last Sunday's loss to Atlanta specifically, Buffalo's head coach first pointed to the two late turnovers. After that his team's play on third down was spotlighted.
"Really the next thing is third down," said Marrone. "Offensively, we got off to a heck of a start third down-wise, but offensively we only had I believe one (conversion) in the second half."
Buffalo went 5-for-8 on third down conversions in the first half, but over the third and fourth quarter and overtime the Bills were 1-for-7 on third downs. They punted five times in the second half.
"Football is a game of making plays and we had the opportunity to make them (Sunday) and we just didn't handle those third down situations," said EJ Manuel. "We just didn't make enough plays."
"We come out in the second half we go three-and-out," said Marrone. "They come out and drive the field. There were a lot of times in that game where we had the ability to go up. We started out fast, which we wanted to do and we let them come back in. A lot of times we weren't able to answer when they started to come back and that's a key point."
A key point that's rooted in their third down struggles, particularly in the second half of games.
Over the final two quarters of their 12 games this season, the Bills have converted better than 25 percent of their third downs just five times.
The dichotomy between their first half third down success and their second half third down struggles have been especially noticeable over their last five games. In that span Buffalo has converted better than 47 percent of their third downs in the first half (18-38), but come the second half their conversion rate drops to just over 22 percent (8-36).
All NFL teams make halftime adjustments, and that can play a role. Almost a quarter of Buffalo's third downs this season have been 3rd-and-10 or more (24.3%), which doesn't help either. Still, to see a drop off where their success rate on third down is cut by more than half is unusual.
Their best second half third down effort this season was their Week 7 game at Miami. Buffalo went 5-for-10 on third down in the second half. Those conversions were instrumental in turning a 21-17 third quarter deficit into a 23-21 victory.
Buffalo's second half third down figures should improve over the final month of the season. Their next two opponents rank 20th and 29th in third down defense in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. Then they face the Miami team against which they posted their highest third down success rate this season (47.4%).
Playing at New England in the regular season finale might seem like a road block for third down success, but the Patriots rank 30th in the NFL in that category. Buffalo also converted over 42 percent of their second half third downs against the Patriots in the season opener (42.8%).