The Buffalo Bills’ defense, to use a baseball analogy, is like a pitcher who gets a lot of strikeouts but can’t seem to finish a complete game.
Bills coach Doug Marrone framed the problem this week. “We lead the league in sacks, second in interceptions and first in tackles for a loss,” he said. “Pretty darn good. Then all of a sudden you look on first down, we’re giving up way too much yardage. Second down we’re doing a good job. Then you go to third down. Third and 4 to 7, we’re No. 1 in the NFL. Third and 8-plus, we’re No. 30.”
That’s one of the many “go figure” situations that has played out for the defense, which ranks 15th overall in yards allowed.
Take last week’s game in Tampa. The Bills held the Bucs to 2.4 yards a carry on their last 35 rushing attempts. But Tampa’s first went for 80 yards and a touchdown.
“You can’t take it away; that’s the problem,” said Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. “We can’t be bouncing between those extremes. You look at the second half and we gave up 30 yards of offense. We were good on third down. But that’s frustrating.”
“We’re not built, as a young team especially, to fall behind that quickly on the road, and that’s on us,” Pettine said of the defense. “It was 14-0 before we knew it, and I think that sends a bit of a shock wave through a young team, especially on the road.”
On the 80-yard run, linebacker Kiko Alonso over-pursued a bit and didn’t get into the proper gap. Still, it shouldn’t have been a touchdown. Two defensive backs miscommunicated on who had deep coverage. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd both broke too hard in the direction the play started and couldn’t recover on the cut-back.
On third downs, the Bills rank 16th, allowing 37.9 percent conversions. Lots of factors affect third down statistics. The Bills rank tied for second last in time of possession. The offense’s inefficiency keeps the defense on the field and creates more third down chances.
The Bills are holding foes to an impressive 23.6 percent on third-and-5 to third-and-7 situations. On third and 8 or more, however, they’re allowing 28.2 percent conversions.
“That’s been a little bit of a head-scratcher for us,” Pettine said. “We were almost joking, if we get ’em in third and 10, let’s jump offsides.”
Tampa was just 1 of 9 on third and long, but the one conversion was a 38-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson, who made a fine catch over Nickell Robey.
“The initial route we had covered great,” Pettine said. “They made a play. They threw it up for their guy. We ended up with Robey down the field on him, which obviously is not a good matchup.”
The week before, Atlanta was 4 of 8 on third and long, including an 11-yard TD pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez. The Bills were in zone coverage guarding against a pick play, and the Falcons called the perfect zone beater against cornerback Ron Brooks.
“I felt that was more scheme than putting it on Brooks’ plate,” Pettine said. “I’ll take the bullet for that one.”
For all the Bills’ good sacks and interceptions, they’re making just enough bad plays to get beat.
“It’s been a mixed bag,” Pettine said. “There isn’t really any one thing you can kind of put your hand on.”
Pettine said the coaches study the breakdowns between games and will do a thorough review after the season.
“Any time we give up a negative play we’ll study it and decide what happened,” he said. “Was it scheme? Was it technique? Was it talent? When all the smoke clears from that, you have a pretty good idea. What do we need to change schematically? What do we need to practice better? Who do we need to replace?”