Turning around third down

Through the first quarter of the season it hasn?t been any secret that third down has been a troublesome down for the Bills offense. Buffalo has converted just 11 of their 47 third down plays thus far this season good for a success rate of just over 23 percent. The players know that figure has to increase sharply over the next couple of weeks if they?re to have any hope of sustaining drives and winning the time of possession let alone games.

This past week against the Dolphins the Bills converted a season-low one third down conversion out of 11.

?We unfortunately didn?t hit on a lot of plays and left our defense out there way too long,? said Trent Edwards. ?Looking at it on film it?s just little things and that?s what has kind of been the theme of the past couple of games. We?ve got to fix those things and try to take care of it on third down and try to keep our defense off the field.?

In Week 3 against New Orleans Buffalo experienced similar trouble going just 2-for-14 on third downs. Breaking down all 47 third down plays from the first four games this season there doesn?t appear to be a clear cut problem. There have been errant throws, dropped passes and plays that simply came up short of the first down marker.

On just two third down opportunities thus far this season has a converted third down been called back on penalty and both of those came in the season opener at New England. So though the team?s total penalty count was high through the first few games, it has not been a problem on third down. 

Third and longs are typically harder to convert and Buffalo is just 1-of-17 (6%) on third downs where the distance to the first down marker is 10 yards or more. But even in third and medium (3rd-and-3 to 3rd-and-6) the Bills have converted just 4-of-16 (25%).

?The ones that I can think of off the top of my head are a couple of runs that don?t hit in the right spot or a couple of missed assignments,? said Edwards of the more makeable third down opportunities. ?That?s kind of the bottom line. When you look at our stats that?s probably why they?re so low.?

The makeable third downs are where the Bills have the best chance of pulling their conversion percentage up closer to where it needs to be (around 40 percent). The current league average is 35.3 percent. Buffalo ranks 30th in the league in third down conversion percentage.
Head coach Dick Jauron believes just a few more conversions per game would be a big help.

?If we convert just three more of those third downs that?s nine more plays,? said Jauron. ?So it?s at least nine more plays that we have and nine less plays that they have in the course of the game and you don?t know how critical those things are, but you know they?re critical. We?ve got to get a lot better there.?

The Bills have been targeting the right people when trying to convert. Among Edwards? most frequent targets on third down have been Fred Jackson (8 targets), Terrell Owens (8), Lee Evans (5) and Josh Reed (5). The only other pass targets through the first four games have been Marshawn Lynch (3), Derek Fine (2) and Derek Schouman (2).

The big problem is Buffalo is finding itself in a lot of third and longs. Through the first four games more than third (36%) of their third down opportunities have been 3rd-and-10 or more. If you add in all of the offense?s 3rd-and-7 to 3rd-and-9 situations that percentage jumps up to 51 percent of their third down opportunities.

When defenses know the pass is coming they can get creative. That?s why four of the six sacks given up on third down this season have come on third and long. 

?I think that the defenses we?ve faced have done a good job on third down bringing pressure and disguising it and that?s put a lot of pressure on myself, the offensive line and the running backs,? said Edwards. ?Any time you?re facing that situation you?ve got to find a way to convert it and fix it. We?ve been noticing on third down we haven?t been getting it done and a lot is on me, a lot is on the o-line, a lot is on the running backs and the receivers.?

Buffalo may have an opportunity to improve on their third and longs should it come to that on Sunday. The Cleveland Browns sit in the middle of the pack when it comes to third down defense (18th) allowing opponents to convert almost 40 percent of the time. Ironically, the third down conversion percentage allowed by the Browns increases slightly on 3rd and longs (41.6%).

Cleveland has allowed conversions on five of the 12 long (3rd-and-10 plus) third down situations they?ve defended this season allowing gains of 13, 14, 18, 20 and 20 yards. Part of the reason is the Browns? pass rush has been lacking. They have just two sacks on 58 third down plays through four games.

Counting on the opponent however, is not what Jauron is planning on doing. He wants better execution from his own players when the three goes up on the down marker.

?It?s been the biggest problem in the last two games,? he said. ?You can see them in the course of Sundays that we?re not converting, but we?ve got to improve. Again it starts with me, but we?ve got to execute on the field and get the job done.?

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