Chunk yardage in the passing game is too hard to come by for the Buffalo Bills this season.
The Bills move down the field in bits and pieces, not leaps and bounds, which is one reason why their offense has been not quite good enough.
Buffalo has 33 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the third fewest in the NFL.
“You’d like more chunk plays, obviously,” said Bills coach Chan Gailey. “Those make a difference in games.”
The biggest reasons have been bemoaned by Bills fans all season:
• Ryan Fitzpatrick does not throw the ball downfield like top quarterbacks.
• The Bills are “one weapon shy of a load” at receiver. They lack a big-play complement to their top wideout, Stevie Johnson.
Bills General Manager Buddy Nix addressed the shortcomings once again on his weekly WGR radio show Friday, reiterating that “the time is now” to draft a quarterback and that the team is “looking at wide receiver.”
The teams in the top five of big-play pass gainers all have “elite” or winning quarterbacks. Indianapolis, with rookie Andrew Luck, leads with 57. Next on the list are Denver’s Peyton Manning (53), Detroit’s Matt Stafford (53), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (52) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (52).
There are plenty of good offensive teams that rank near the middle of the pack in 20-plus pass plays. Atlanta is 16th with 40. Green Bay and Houston are tied for 17th with 39.
But of the bottom 10 teams in 20-plus pass plays, nine rank in the bottom 10 in the league on offense.
It has been a long-standing problem in Buffalo. The Bills haven’t ranked better than 20th in 20-plus pass plays in 10 years, since 2002.
Fitzpatrick has hit just seven passes this season that traveled more than 20 yards down field. He has hit just two that have gone more than 30 yards downfield. T.J. Graham caught a 51-yard pass two weeks ago against Jacksonville, and Stevie Johnson caught a deep pass for a 63-yard gain in Indianapolis.
Of course, “chunk” plays can come on catch-and-run plays, too. The Bills are not hitting enough of those, either.
While Gailey acknowledges the problem, he does not think it’s having a big impact on how opposing defensive coordinators are calling games against his team. He doesn’t think opposing teams are neglecting their deep coverage responsibilities.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think defenses respect the deep ball every day,” Gailey said. “The worst thing a corner can have done is for somebody to beat him deep. So I think they play the deep ball whether you throw 10 or whether you throw two. I think they respect it. If you throw one every two games, they’re gonna respect it.”
The Bills ranked 20th last season with 48 pass plays of 20-plus yards. They’re on pace for 39 this season.
Stevie Johnson has seven 20-plus catches this year. He had 13 last year. Donald Jones has four this season. David Nelson, who was lost for the season to injury, had seven last season.
The Bills’ plan going into the season was to move Johnson around a lot into different receiving spots.
After the injury to Nelson, it hasn’t worked out that way. Johnson has had to stay outside.
Nix mentioned the prospect of using Johnson more in the slot next season, contingent upon adding a starting-caliber wideout to the mix.
“We can still get 48,” Johnson said. “I just think the way games have played out. Some games we’ve thought have been manageable. We can get the ball running and maybe sneak out with a win or whatnot, so you’re just trying to get first downs. I think that’s pretty much why the big plays are down.”
“A lot of those games last year, we were out so bad we threw the ball down the field trying to make plays and we hit a few more,” Gailey said. “Whereas this year we’ve sort of been in almost every game and we’re trying to maybe be a little bit more careful, and we’re not getting any cheap ones.”
There’s truth to that statement. Nine of the 20-plus catches last year came in what could be considered fourth-quarter “garbage time.”
As for throwing deep, Gailey said: “What you are always continually evaluating is risk-reward. What is the risk to take that chunk throw and what is the reward possibility? What do you think the percentages are of risk-reward?”