The Bills acknowledged from the start that they weren’t likely to dominate many time-of-possession battles while using their no-huddle, hurry-up style of offense. But this is getting ridiculous.
Three weeks into the season, Doug Marrone’s squad is 31st in the NFL in possession time at 24:48 per game. The only team whose offense is spending less time on the field is the Eagles, who are also employing a cutting-edge, uptempo attack under a first-year head coach – Chip Kelly.
Playing fast is great if you’re sustaining drives and stopping people. The Bills aren’t doing either, and it’s killing their defense, which has settled into its customary place near the bottom of the league stats.
They’re allowing 155 yards a game rushing, which is worse than last year’s yield and tied for 30th in the league. The Bills have finished 28th or worse against the run the last four seasons, and they haven’t finished above 21st in overall run defense or average per rush since 2004.
You can talk all you want about an attacking offense. It’s the Bills’ defense that is under siege. They’re stressing their own defense more than the opposition’s. The “D” has been on the field nearly 60 percent of the time. No defense can do that for long without getting worn out – and hurt.
“I think that what’s contributing to that is third down,” Marrone said Wednesday. “Third down from both sides.”
Marrone has a good point. He also had the numbers at his fingertips. The Bills are converting just 31 percent on third down, good for 28th in the league. The defense is getting beat on third down 46 percent of the time, which ranks 27th.
“That’s what equals the possession time and the amount of plays,” Marrone said.
Well, it accounts for a lot of it. And as Marrone and his players say, the wide disparity in possession time will even out some if the offense starts converting more third downs and if the defense stops getting roasted on third-and-long.
But their insistence on playing fast on offense is making a bad situation worse. The no-huddle is their identity, I get that. They want to play fast to wear down defenses and have opposing players dragging late in games. We saw it work in the final drive here against Carolina.
It’s not like me to make apologies for a defense that has underachieved for years. The Williams boys, Kyle and Mario, are two of the more overrated players in the NFL. But the offense is making them look worse.
They’re allowing 4.3 yards per rush this year. It’s well below average, but a lot better than in the three Chan Gailey years, when opposing runners averaged 4.8. per carry (2010), 4.8 (in 2011) and 5.0 a year ago after Super Mario came rushing to the rescue.
Of course, they’ve faced the most rushing attempts of any team in the league after three weeks. Evidently, it’s wearing on them late. The Bills have allowed 291 yards in the second half this season. There are a dozen NFL teams that have allowed fewer yards on the ground for all four quarters.
EJ Manuel admitted that as a quarterback and leader, he’s concerned about leaving the defense on the field too long.
“Definitely,” Manuel said. “Yeah, and I think it’s twofold. One, our offense, we move very fast. But it’s tough, because if you don’t get the first downs, if you’re going three-and-out, it definitely hurts the defense.”
Running back Fred Jackson agreed. The Bills’ running game has contributed to the problem. Take away a 59-yard run by Jackson and 46-yard dash by C.J. Spiller and they’re averaging 3.3 yards a carry. They’re not getting enough yards on early downs to consistently sustain drives.
“That’s definitely one of the things we’re worried about,” Jackson said. “We don’t want our defense getting worn out because we’re not doing our job and staying on the field. We have to put together some long drives and give our defense time to rest while we’re wearing out their defense.”
Better blocking would help. It would also be nice if Manuel stopped throwing the ball to the cheerleaders on third down. But the defense has some culpability, too. They’re the ones giving up big pass plays, not to mention career rushing games by the likes of Shane Vereen and Bilal Powell.
“EJ, I appreciate that, baby,” linebacker Manny Lawson said when informed of Manuel’s concern for the “D.” “But as far as the defense goes, we’ve had several third-and-long situations that we have to take ourselves off the field. We put that on us.”
Things don’t figure to get any easier on Sunday when the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens come to town. The Ravens got schooled for 49 points by Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the opener, but they’ve allowed a total of 15 points – and 7 for 27 on third downs – in two wins since.
It might be time for the new coaches to re-evaluate the way they play offense. They like being innovators. Eventually, Manuel might thrive in this offense and bring back memories of the old K-Gun. But if a rookie’s head is spinning, why play a style that makes it spin even faster?
Sure, a big improvement on third downs could make the issue go away. But if the offense continues to struggle and keeps the defense out there for 60 percent of the game, they’ll have to modify their attack.
“If that’s what it takes to win, absolutely,” Marrone said. He cautioned me not to assume that teams necessarily get killed on time of possession if they run a no-huddle. He used Denver as an example.
Senator, Manuel is no Peyton Manning. Good coaches don’t force schemes on their players. They adapt to circumstances. At some point, they ought to slow it down and allow Manuel to clear his head – and a beaten-down defense to catch its breath.