The Buffalo Bills were in a tight battle with the New Orleans Saints midway through the second quarter Sunday.
The Bills trailed, 14-10, when they got the ball back with 3:43 left in the first half. The team went three and out, however, giving Drew Brees and Co. the ball back with 3:18 on the clock.
Brees directed a nine-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to give his team a 21-10 halftime lead.
That was the score when the Bills got the ball for their first possession of the second half. Again, it lasted only three plays before Brian Moorman punted the ball away.
And again, Brees engineered a six-play, 57-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown and a 28-10 lead, and the Bills couldn’t dig themselves out of that hole the rest of the way.
Those two three-and-out drives are symptomatic of a problem the Bills have had in their 3-5 start to the season. Buffalo has gone three and out, defined in this case a possession that fails to produce a first down and ends with a punt, on 28 of 109 total possessions. That’s 25.7 percent of the time, a percentage that ranks 13th most in the NFL, according to statistics compiled by the website sportingcharts.com.
However, the percentage rises to 27.2 taking out drives at either the end of the first half or regulation that result in kneeldowns, reducing the total number of possessions to 103.
“That’s the No. 1 thing we can’t do. When we go out on offense, we have to get the first down,” running back Fred Jackson said. “If you go three and out in an up-tempo offense, you’re putting your defense right back out there. That’s all we did. You give Drew Brees that many opportunities, he’s going to make you pay for it and that was the case. We’ve got to be better than that on offense.”
Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Bills were running a play every 22.69 seconds, according to data compiled by the website Football Outsiders. That’s the second-quickest pace in the NFL behind the Philadelphia Eagles (21.72 seconds).
By nature, the Bills aren’t going to win the time of possession in many games. Cutting down on the number of three and outs is the best way to improve that.
“We have to be able to string together long drives. It’s two-fold. One, if we don’t, we’re putting our defense out there and two, if we do, we keep the opposing team’s defense out there,” Jackson said. “We can take advantage of mismatches or whatever defensive personnel is in and things like that. That’s our advantage, and if we’re doing that we’re a more potent offense.”
Every drive won’t end in points, but limiting the number of three and outs at least helps to flip the field position. That was another area the Bills struggled against the Saints. Buffalo’s average drive start was its own 23-yard line, while New Orleans’ average was its own 39, a difference of 16 yards.
“Field position was a big thing,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “You can’t do that against a team that can score like they can.”
Marrone was particularly disappointed in the three and out at the end of the second quarter Sunday - which wasn’t the first time the Bills have struggled this year in that situation.
“We really needed to get a first down there. New Orleans was using their timeouts. ... At the time it was 14-10. It’s a battle,” he said. “Then we had to punt and I thought they did a nice job. They drove the ball downfield. That was probably ... the best drive against us.”
The Bills’ three-and-out percentage has increased with Thad Lewis at quarterback in place of the injured EJ Manuel. The Bills have gone three and out on 11 of 35 drives under Lewis (31.4 percent), compared to just 22.6 percent of the time under Manuel (14 of 62 drives). In Jeff Tuel’s six possessions against Cleveland, the team went three and out three times.
A low three-and-out total is not a guarantee of offensive success. The Houston Texans are have gone three and out a league-low 13.1 percent of the time, and are 2-5.
But none of the 10 teams who have the highest percentage of three and outs have a winning record, and are a combined 24-51.
The NFL trade deadline came and went Tuesday with the Bills standing pat.
The team did make one transaction, however, releasing defensive tackle Jay Ross from the 53-man roster.
Ross, 26, has played sparingly in five games for the Bills this season, registering just one tackle. His release leaves the Bills with an opening on their active roster.
The team did fill out its eight-player practice squad by signing wide receiver Cordell Roberson. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder attended Stephen F. Austin University. He finished as the school’s all-time leader in catches (221), receiving yards (3,191) and touchdown catches (39).
He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Cleveland, but was released prior to the start of the regular season, and also spent time on Carolina’s practice squad.