Did no-huddle three and outs hurt the Buffalo Bills defense?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Buffalo Bills offense was criticized for too many three-and-out drives in the no-huddle - but did those really hurt the team's defense?

When the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle offensive philosophy was revealed before the 2013 season began, the primary concern was what would happen if the offense went three and out too often. The three and outs could lead to the Bills having a serious time of possession disadvantage, and the defense would be overworked. The result might have outweighed the benefits of an up-tempo offense.

These concerns were justified. The 2013 Bills had the fifth most three and out drives in the NFL last season (52 total, 24.7% of all of their drives). The league average was a three and out in 22.4% of all drives. Six teams did it less than 20 percent of the time (San Diego, Denver, New England, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Kansas City).

The results of the three and outs weren’t devastating for the defense, however. Buffalo’s opponents scored just 1.62 points per drive after a Bills three and out. When you figure teams scored 1.81 points per drive in all situations and 1.73 points per drive after a punt, that’s pretty good.

Despite Buffalo’s successful recovery defense, the three and outs were blamed for two losses. The no-huddle offense was under fire after just the first game, when the Bills failed to get a first down late in the fourth quarter, up by just one point against the Patriots. New England got the ball with 4:31 left, used up the rest of the clock, and kicked a game-winning field goal. A first down would have helped their chances of starting the year 1-0, but it wasn’t really the fault of the no-huddle offense.

The Bills also lost after a three and out to Cincinnati in mid-October. Thad Lewis wasn’t able to engineer an overtime game-winning drive, and a great punt return (maybe shoddy punt coverage, and maybe an illegal block) set up the Bengals to kick a game winning 43-yard field goal.

But Buffalo’s defense also forced a lot of three and outs. 52 opponent drives lasted just three plays and ended with a punt, which was tied for fourth-most in 2013 (behind Cincinnati, Baltimore and Arizona, and tied with New Orleans). The Bills’ offense then went on to score a touchdown on 25% of the following drives.

Thanks to a quarter of those three and outs leading to Buffalo touchdowns, the Bills averaged 1.96 points per drive after an opponent went three and out. Given that the Bills and their opponents essentially traded off three and out drives (Bills’ offense committed 53 three and outs and the defense forced 52), the Bills actually netted 14 points on three and out drives.

It seems like the defense bailed out the Bills after short offensive possessions. That’s what a good defense does though, right? Why did the Bills go three and out so often, and will it be a problem again next year?

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