Buffalo's offense has been among the best in the league for much of the season when it comes to converting touchdowns in the red zone. Their defense unfortunately has been a much different story, and that could pose a problem when the Bills host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. As good as Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo offense has been inside their opponent's 20-yard line, no other team in the league has been as good at the Titans.
Rookie head coach Mike Munchak has his offense at the top of the league in red zone touchdown percentage. The Titans have found the end zone on 17 of their 24 trips to their opponents' red zone this season good for a 71 percent success rate (70.8%). Buffalo's offense ranks eighth (58.3%).
"They've got the whole package down in the red zone and they're number one for a reason," said Danny Batten. "It's not just because they're running the ball. They're passing it too. They can get you either way. It's something we've got to deal with on defense."
In their last eight games the Titans have been even more efficient scoring touchdowns on 80 percent of their red zone possessions going 12-for-15.
What's not good for Buffalo heading into Sunday's matchup is their red zone defense has been especially poor of late. Since their shutout win over Washington in Week 8, Buffalo has kept their opponents out of the end zone just once in 14 tries. In fact the Cowboys, Dolphins and Jets went a combined 10-for-10 in the red zone the last three weeks. The Bills red zone defense ranks 31st in the league allowing touchdowns to their opponents more than two-thirds of the time (68.3%).
"If we could put our finger on the big issue down there it would've been immediately addressed," said Batten. "It's something we're trying to fix and it starts up front and goes right to the back. It's not one person, it's collective and that's how defense is played. We have to get pressure up front to take the heat off of our DBs, but it's not just one problem."
"The scheme is good and we're just not doing what we're supposed to do," said Nick Barnett. "I don't know what else to say. I know we have guys in this locker room ready to do it and we're not doing it."
Last week in particular there were several mental errors defensively that allowed the Jets to go 4-4 on their red zone possessions Sunday. With a defensive lineup that has turned over at four positions including the nickel corner, with rookies stepping in the continuity of the unit has been compromised.
"That's been a part of it, but you can't use that as an excuse," said Barnett. "The guys have all been here since training camp and have been playing the same plays and doing the same things. It's different when it's under the gun and you're out there."
Head coach Chan Gailey did admit that consistency of play is harder to achieve with young, inexperienced players.
"I don't want to say yes, but there's probably some communication issues that do go on and you have to rectify them," he said. "You can't do them fast enough in practice with as much on the line as they get in the game. As they learn they'll hopefully get better. We had way too many mental errors Sunday and we've got to rectify that."
Barnett believes a lot of the young players that have taken on larger roles defensively in recent weeks have benefited from the time on the field and will perform better down the stretch.
"The mistakes that were made were not physical," he said. "There were mental errors where as soon as they happened they knew what they did wrong. It's just repetition sometimes and with new guys in and moving parts at safety, corner, new nickels, new defensive linemen running in. We've just got to fix that stuff and go."
The majority of Tennessee's scoring plays in the red zone have come through the air. Of their 17 red zone touchdowns this season 14 have come via the pass with veteran signal caller Matt Hasselback responsible for 13 of them. Only three of their red zone touchdowns have come on the ground.
The Titans are likely to take a similar approach this week should they get inside Buffalo's 20 as they'll be eager to test rookie cornerbacks like Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers as well as rookie safety Da'Norris Searcy, should he make his third straight start for the injured George Wilson.
"That's the way it is," said Rogers. "If there's a rookie out there he's going to be challenged. Coach Catavolos tells us that all the time. If you're a rookie you should already know that the ball is coming your way. It's a battle between you and that receiver and that's every down and you want to win as many as you can."
Titans head coach Mike Munchak has also been aggressive when it comes to fourth down in the red zone and his team has rewarded him for staying on the attack. Tennessee has gone for it five of the 10 times he's faced fourth down in the red zone this season. The Titans offense has converted all five times including three touchdowns.
"They're trying to get in the playoffs just like we are and they're going to go for it," said Barnett. "They've got some good tools down there with one of the best running backs in the game in Chris Johnson, and a veteran quarterback that can still make plays. We've got to be better in the red zone especially against a team as good as they are down there."
Of course there's another way to dramatically curb Tennessee's red zone success this season.
"It'd be good if we just kept them out of the red zone period," said Barnett.