There are a number of shortcomings the Bills offense set out to tackle during their bye week practices, but at the top of the list and getting the most attention was converting on third down.
"Before we talk about red zone and all that other stuff, it's staying on the field and keeping our defense off the field and the third down stuff is a big deal just because every time you convert a third down you get three more plays," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "So if we get a couple of those third-and-two's, third-and-three's we're guaranteed at least three more plays on the series. That keeps our defense off the field and gives us more of a chance to get the ball in our guys' hands."
"Third down was definitely the key," said Lee Evans. "We left our defense out there for a lot of plays the last few weeks. If we can handle third down and we were in a lot of manageable situations last week, if we can handle third down we'll be a little bit better offensively."
Through eight games Buffalo ranks 30th in third down conversion percentage at 26 percent (27-104). That's a slight improvement from where they were a month ago, when they were converting just 23.4 percent of their third downs, but it's far from the league average of 38 percent.
What's particularly troubling is the Bills have been able to put themselves in what are considered manageable third down situations. Any distance on third down between one and five yards is considered makeable for an offense. There are more options in an offensive playbook to convert those situations, earn a new set of downs and keep a drive alive.
On 3rd-and-1 this season Buffalo has done well converting 60 percent of their plays (6-10). But on 3rd-and-2 to 3rd-and-5 the Bills have converted just 22.5 percent of the time (7-31). The biggest reasons for those failures have been incomplete passes and sacks.
On 25 pass attempts between 3rd-and-2 to 3rd-and-5 the Bills have 12 incompletions, five sacks and an interception as well. There's no question that protection has been an issue, as indicated by the sacks, but there have also been errant throws and dropped passes.
Last Sunday's game against Houston was a microcosm of that problem. In that game Buffalo's offense faced one 3rd-and-2 situation, four 3rd-and-3 situations and a 3rd-and-5. They failed to convert any of them surrendering a pair of sacks with three incompletions and a rush for no gain on the 3rd-and-2.
"When you look at first and second down, our third down situations (Sunday) were not insurmountable," said head coach Dick Jauron. "We just failed to convert them. I think we had five that were two or three yards and then there were fives and sixes and sevens. The longest was third and eight. So we're putting ourselves in situations where you'd think you'd succeed and we didn't succeed. First and second down are okay. You've just got to convert when you have the chance. You go through them and look at them all and it's always something. We've got to stop doing the somethings."
The Bills offensive staff and the players have taken a closer look at their successful third-and-short plays this season and those that were unsuccessful as a way of determining what schematically should be broadened and what should be thrown away.
"We're pretty bad at that," said Trent Edwards in reference to converting third-and-short. "We need to stay on the field. We're looking at the time of possession battle. We're not staying on the field because we're not converting on third and short situations. So now it's a matter of looking at what third and shorts we're converting, how we're converting them, and doing those again and trying to get some wrinkles off of that, too."
The Bills may also want to take a look at what they're doing on 3rd-and-medium to 3rd-and-long. For some reason they've been more successful converting third downs when they're between six and nine yards. Through the first eight games on third downs with distances of six to nine yards Buffalo has converted 36 percent of the time (12-33). Last week against Houston the team's only two third down conversions came on 3rd-and-6 and 3rd-and-8.
"We looked at ourselves obviously and we've done a self-analysis," said Jauron. "We look at our problem areas and we've got a lot of them. We've just got to keep doing a better job of the things that we like and then we'll look at some new things too."
Still as much as the coaching staff wants to analyze and assess what is and what is not working the players know ultimately it falls on their shoulders to simply improve their execution on the field.
"There's a lot of stuff that we need to look into but we have the guys on this team to be a good offense," said Fitzpatrick. "That's evident. They've done it before in their careers and it's just a matter of getting out there, breaking through our slump and doing it."