The Buffalo Bills’ defense must find a way to defy the odds and get off the field Sunday against the New England Patriots.
New England’s offense ranks first in the NFL in both yards gained and points scored. The Bills’ defense ranks second last in both yards allowed and points allowed. The Pats are averaging 32.75 a game; the Bills are allowing 31 a game. New England scored 52 on the Bills six weeks ago.
Getting off the field has been a problem for the Bills all season. Buffalo is allowing opponents to convert 46.1 percent of third-down chances – the worst rate in the league.
“I think it is probably a little bit of everything,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said last week of the third-down defense. “Early in the season, I thought the coverage was a little soft. We are not getting as much rush as we need with the four-man rush. We need to get more pressure with the four-man rush. The other thing you have to do is stop the run where the third downs are not third-and-shorts. That is the one thing that kills you.”
“If you end up in third-and-less-than-7 on a regular basis, the odds of them making those go up tremendously,” Gailey said. “You have to do better in the run game so you do not end up with a bunch of third and shorts.”
The Bills’ players agree that as the run defense goes, so goes the third down defense. Buffalo is holding opponents to 14 percent conversions on third and 10 or more. Foes are converting 72 percent of third-down chances of third and 6 or shorter.
“You gotta stop the run,” said safety George Wilson. “At the end of the day you still have to try to make ‘em one dimensional. If we let them do what they did to us the first time, where they can run or pass, we can’t let that happen. It starts with their running game.”
The Bills held Houston to 4 of 11 third-down conversions (36 percent). The league average is 38.9 percent.
“I do think we took a positive step last week,” said safety Bryan Scott. “By no means was it enough. We’re not satisfied with it, not happy with it. But Houston normally puts on a lot of points, and they [were] No. 1 on third-down percentage. It wasn’t enough to win, but guys should start to understand we can do this. Hopefully we can build off of last week because we need to win, period. There’s nothing else to say.”
New England looms as a bigger challenge than Houston. The Patriots are more balanced than ever on offense. Their running game, which ranked 20th last year, is fourth this year. New lead back Stevan Ridley is on pace for 1,432 rushing yards.
That’s helping New England convert 48.7 percent of its third downs. Receiver Wes Welker has 614 catches over the past five and a half seasons. That’s 81 more than any other receiver in the league over that span. Welker is fourth in the NFL with 17 catches on third down.
“They move him around, they motion him, keep him off the line,” said Bills cornerback Justin Rogers, who will be covering Welker a good amount Sunday. “It’s a tough job getting hands on him. If you are able to get hands on him, I think you’d be able to do a decent job. But you listen to different teams week in and week out, and the challenge is you have to get a jam on him. But it’s easier said than done.”
Welker’s patented pattern is the “whip route,” in which he reads whether the defender is playing him with leverage inside or outside, then pivots in the opposite direction.
“Good eyes – you need to have eye control,” Scott said. “Once he makes his first break, you can’t look to the quarterback because he’ll move away from you. You have to stay on him and focus on what he’s doing. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”
Another option is to “bracket” Welker with two defenders.
“That’s when he does a good job of working away from you,” Scott said. “He’ll kind of work into the inside man, and when the inside man gets him, he’ll run back out away from the inside man. You have to pick and choose your spots however you try to cover him.”
BEST AND WORST
Third down offense: 1. Pittsburgh: Success rate, 51.3 percent
2. New England: Success rate, 48.7 percent
3. Denver and Atlanta (tied): 47.1 percent
Third Down Defense: 32. Buffalo: opp. success rate, 46.1 percent
31. Tennessee: 45.4 percent
30. NY Jets: 45.0 percent