An 0-8 start to the season can cast a pretty ugly looking shadow over everything the Bills have done thus far in the 2010 campaign. Looking inside the numbers however, there is legitimate progress being turned in by all three phases of the team. Most notable of late is Buffalo's third down conversion rate on offense, which has spiked dramatically in their last three games.
Buffalo's offense has converted an impressive 57 percent of their third down opportunities (32-56) from Weeks 7-9, including their 10-16 performance (63%) Sunday against Chicago's top ranked third down defense.
"We just take it as a challenge," said Steve Johnson, who is tied for second in the AFC with 14 third down receptions. "Every defense we go against we take it as a challenge. Knowing they were the number one defense as far as getting off the field, it was another challenge for us and I felt like we stepped up to the occasion and played very well against them."
"I think our guys have understood exactly what we're trying to get done," said head coach Chan Gailey. "We've seen the coverage's that we've expected and every week the receiving corps gains familiarity with the quarterback and the quarterback gains familiarity with the receiving corps. Two weeks ago we faced Baltimore and they were the number one team (in third down defense) I think when we faced them and they accepted the challenge. They accepted the challenge again (Sunday)."
Certainly credit needs to go to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has taken charge of what looked like a dysfunctional offense the first two weeks and turned it into a pretty reliable point producer. Buffalo is averaging better than 22 points per game in Fitzpatrick's six starts, and a big reason why is the offense has been far more effective in keeping drives alive with third down conversions.
Through the first five games of the season Buffalo performed well in 3rd-and-short situations (3rd-and-1 to 3rd-and-3) with a 63 percent conversion rate. But Gailey's offense has been even more effective in their last three games moving the chains 80 percent of the time (12-15) when they need three yards or less for a first down.
The situation is much the same for 3rd-and-medium (3rd-and-4 to 3rd-and-7). Buffalo was converting at a respectable 43 percent clip in the first five games (6-14), but the offense has demonstrated an even greater rate of success of late converting 58 percent of their chances (11-19).
The most impressive jump however, has been in third and long situations. When the distance to the first down marker is eight yards or more the percentages are rarely in any offense's favor to convert and earn a new set of downs. And in their first five games Buffalo reinforced that fact converting just two of their 32 third-and-long opportunities in the season's first five weeks (6%).
Since then the Bills passing game has caught fire and suddenly converting down and distances of 12 and even 14 yards on third down is happening at a much better rate for Buffalo than most of the league.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and company have moved the ball past the first down marker on third and long (3rd-and-8 or more) 41 percent of the time (9-22). The Bills quarterback credits improved protection as the reason for the recent success on the long down and distances.
"I think it starts up front," said Fitzpatrick. "The guys up front have done a great job in terms of their preparation and executing it on the field. Fred Jackson is probably the best chipping back in the league. He's done a great job of slowing down the rush on the edges.
"I'm just comfortable with the guys I'm throwing the ball to. The longer we go here, the more comfortable we're going to get in knowing where guys are. The timing aspect of it is so important, getting the ball out of my hands."
"I think more than anything we're giving Fitz time," said Jackson. "If we give him time he'll find an open receiver. We believe our receivers can get open against anybody. The most important thing is C.J. and I are hanging in there a little bit longer in pass protection and keeping him upright so he can make a pass play."
Although a 41 percent success rate for third and long is well above average, Johnson believes Buffalo's offensive unit is capable of more.
"That should be even better," he said. "It just goes with the confidence that we have with 14 back there. We still feel like that number should be way better than that, just because we have confidence in our talent. Forty-one percent is good, but it can always be better."
Still in all, the recent spike in third down efficiency has lifted the Bills from a 26.9 percent conversion rate after Week 2, to a 41.6 percent conversion rate entering Week 10. As a result Buffalo has jumped from a league ranking of 27th in third down conversion percentage to ninth best in football. They also rank seventh in the league in total conversions (47).
The ability to sustain drives has given Buffalo a better chance to win games. The Bills have been close of late losing each of their last three games by just three points. What has stopped the potential go ahead or game winning drive this season are second half turnovers.
The Bills have 11 total giveaways on offense through the first eight games this season and all of them have come in the second half. Five of Ryan Fitzpatrick's seven interceptions this year have come in the fourth quarter, often with the game still there for the taking.
"We're not good enough to overcome turnovers to win right now," said Gailey. "We have to be even or ahead in the turnover battle to give ourselves the best chance to win."
Buffalo has been ahead in the turnover battle just once this season against Jacksonville in Week 5, which still wound up being a 10-point loss (36-26). It's why the Bills are tied for 25th in turnover differential with a minus-7.
"We've still got to play through that," said Johnson. "It's a game of plays out there. It doesn't just go on one play. If (a turnover) happens, it happens. We've got to get back out there and make more plays."