Buffalo's passing game under Chan Gailey has been predicated on getting the ball out quickly and letting receivers get yards after the catch. Taking shots down the field usually number no more than four to six attempts per game, but with the Bills passing game currently ranked 29th in the league some big plays through the air are warranted.
"It's been very inconsistent all year," said Ryan Fitzpatrick of the passing game. "A lot of that falls on me and my play. I haven't started the year the way that I wanted to. The turnovers unfortunately were the issue in the passing game early in the year, but we were able to throw the ball effectively and get yards. The last few games we haven't been able to. It's just something that we've got to evaluate. It's something that we've got to get better at."
Fitzpatrick's completion percentage sits at just under 58 percent (57.9) good for 27th in the league among starting quarterbacks. In his defense his receivers have had 12 dropped passes, which is tied for 14th most in the league. Fitzpatrick is also 27th in yards per attempt (6.61) and 22nd in yards per completion (11.42).
Buffalo is tied for 23rd in the league in big pass play percentage with just nine of their pass plays this season covering 25 yards or more. Five of those plays went for touchdowns. Of those five only one of those passes traveled 25 yards or more in the air.
"First of all we haven't set up a ton of things to do that," said Gailey. "We've been more ball control type throwing, picking and choosing times to maybe throw it down the field. So we haven't set it up. Some of that is designed. We've been more hit the guy and let him run for it rather than throwing the ball down the field."
Gailey is right. Most of the time Buffalo's passing game gets the ball in the hands of the receivers quickly with the receiver responsible for getting yards after the catch. The Bills rank fourth in the league in yards after catch per reception (6.5) and 17th in total yards after the catch this season with 690. That's reinforced further with Buffalo's ranking of 31st in yards gained at the point of the catch (520), proving it's Buffalo's receivers that run for more of the yardage than Fitzpatrick provides with his arm.
But with Fitzpatrick's completion percentage down thus far this season, even those short passes with big gains have been fewer and further between.
Buffalo had just one last week (23 yards) against the Cardinals when Stevie Johnson running for 15 yards after an eight-yard throw from Ryan Fitzpatrick. The week prior against San Francisco the longest pass play covered 20 yards from Fitzpatrick to Scott Chandler.
"We've just got to continue to execute," said Stevie Johnson. "Consistency comes with execution, and that's what I have to do is execute our plays. It's there—the plays are there to be made. We've just got to be consistent in execution and keep helping out our quarterback so that we can be open for that big play."
As much as the passing game relies on receivers getting yards after the catch Gailey understands the value of going long with respect to the rest of the offensive approach. Knowing Buffalo's productive run game is what opponents are going to try to stop first they have to use their pass game to keep an opponent's safeties from creeping into the box as extra run defenders.
"We're going to take some shots. We have to. You have to keep the defense honest. We've got to hit the shots when we take them too," Gailey said. "Right now we haven't hit as many as we did last year and that's hurting us."
As much as deep pass game may be lacking it hasn't put the players in a panic just six games into the season.
"As a receiver it is always a concern when you are not getting the ball down the field, but every offense is going to have its struggles at some point in the season. Hopefully we can get it together," said Donald Jones. "We have to make the plays on both ends from the quarterback to the receivers."
The key as the players see it is balance. The run versus pass balance has been pretty even with 48 percent run and 52 percent pass, but Fitzpatrick wants to strike a bit better balance in efficient plays and big plays.
"There's got to be a happy medium there in terms of not going out there and trying to throw touchdowns on every play, and not being too conservative," Fitzpatrick said. "I think right now we're still trying to find ourselves in the passing game. I think a lot of that is me just playing more consistent. That's where we're at right now."