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Analysis: Why is the Buffalo Bills offense horrible?

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Going into the gritty details of what makes Buffalo so lousy.

The Buffalo Bills offense is so bad, I was tempted to open up a thesaurus and start referencing some new terms to describe the ineptitude. Are you interested in knowing how the Bills offense is so bad? Whether it’s something that could be fixed with a draft pick, or a new coach? Let’s analyze the details of Buffalo’s offense and see what’s missing.

Overall numbers

  • 10.9 points per game (32nd in NFL) (Would be 3rd-worst since 2000)
  • 4.1 yards per play (32nd in NFL) (Would be bottom-ten since 2000)
  • 4.4 Net Yards per Pass Attempt (32nd in NFL) (Would be 12th-worst since 2000)
  • 3.7 Rush Yards per Attempt (30th in NFL)
  • 33 penalties by offense (1st/worst in NFL)
  • 19 presnap penalties by offense (1st/worst in NFL)

It’s bad. The Bills offense, by standard stats, is not “worst of all time”, but as you can see here (and as you surely already knew), this offense is offensive.

We’re going to break this down over a few different factors, in order to drill into the root symptoms of Buffalo’s bad offense. As a whole, the numbers are dreadful, but there is a very important, more narrow explanation for the output.

Red zone performance: Okay, when they get there

The Bills are actually a league-average team near the end zone, believe it or not. The issue is getting there.

Buffalo has run 51 plays in the red zone. They’ve scored six touchdowns, a rate of 11.7% that’s below average but not awful. They haven’t turned the ball over at all in the red zone.

From goal-to-go situations, the Bills are fine. They’ve scored four touchdowns on 18 plays from <= 10 yards out, a rate of 22.2 percent that’s nearly league-average.

The issue is that 18 plays in goal-to-go situations is the worst in the league, and less than half the league average play count. The Bills almost never have opportunities close to their opponent’s end zone, where 325 out of 624 touchdowns have happened this year.

Similarly, Buffalo’s 51 plays in the red zone is dead last in the league, by a large margin. In two games (including Monday night), the Bills have failed to run a single play in the red zone.

It’s all about the (lack of) success rate

The reason the Bills are so bad at scoring points, then, is that they’re incredibad when it comes to sustaining drives. As you hear coaches talk about football, they mention staying on schedule - essentially, gaining enough yards on each play to be closer to a new set of downs, such that a team can retain play call flexibility from play to play.

With football, we can wrap this up in a statistic called “Success Rate”. It measures the amount of distance toward the sticks covered on a play, relative to what it would take to stay “on schedule”. Think of it as football’s answer to On Base Percentage; a stat that tells you a team’s ability to methodically create opportunities for future scoring. From Football Study Hall:

Depending on a given down and distance, each play is deemed successful or non-successful:
First downs: gaining at least 50 percent of necessary yardage (usually 5 yards) is successful.
Second downs: gaining at least 70 percent of necessary yardage is successful.
Third or fourth downs: gaining at least 100 percent of necessary yardage is successful.

How do the Bills handle this stat? Well, they’re abysmal on pretty much any down/distance metric. Here’s how they compare to the other 31 teams in the NFL:

Success Rate, through first eight weeks

Situation Buffalo Rest of NFL
Situation Buffalo Rest of NFL
1st down 32.5 43.9
2nd down 29.6 42.5
3rd/4th down 28.2 41.3

The Bills succeed on more than 10 percent fewer plays than the NFL average. If you want to be pedantic, they’re actually 25% less successful than the average NFL team (a drop of 10 percentage points from 40 represents a 25 percent loss). The LA Rams, who lead the league in success rate, are successful on over 50 percent of their plays.

It’s all thanks to those negative plays that the Bills can’t seem to avoid. Remember, they lead the league in pre-snap penalties - it’s a lot harder to succeed on first and 15. On third down, they have the worst turnover rate in the league; at 6.4%, it’s more than triple the NFL average. They also lead the league with 14 sacks on third down.

Explosiveness: also missing

The other side of the coin, the analog to “slugging percentage” in our statistical journey, is a measure of big play potential. Metrics such as PPP (Points Per Play) and IsoPPP (Points per play on successful plays) exist, but are difficult to calculate without an easily-accessed data schema of play data. We can get a rough estimate by simply looking at plays with large gains.

The Bills have had three plays of 40+ yards. The NFL low is two, the average is five, the max is 10.

They’ve had 7 plays of 30+ yards. The NFL low is four, the average is 12, the max is 22.

They had 21 plays of 20+ yards. The NFL low is 14, the average is 32, the max is 49.

Most crucially, only one of Buffalo’s big plays has resulted in a touchdown (a 26-yard pass to Jason Croom against the Vikings). On 41% of 40+ yard plays, 30% of 30+ yard plays, and 18% of 20+ yard plays result in touchdowns, and that’s the other half of the scoring equation. For the Bills, it’s practically null.

There’s another team that we can compare against the Bills to understand why this matters. The New York Giants also have a lousy success rate, at 36 percent on all plays (32.6 percent on first down). However, they’re top ten for number of 20+ yard plays, and top three on 30+ and 40+ yard plays. Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham have the athletic ability to help their offense overcome negative plays.

Who can do that on the Bills? LeSean McCoy can, though this season his gamebreaking potential seems to be limited to designed passes in space. No one else has stepped up.

This is what makes Buffalo’s terrible success rate such a burden. It was crystal clear on Monday night what would happen if the Bills fell behind schedule on a single play. The next play would be a checkdown to try and make up some ground, then the team would have to choose between setting up a field goal or aiming for a big play that wouldn’t succeed. They don’t have receivers who can separate, they don’t have linemen who can open holes in the running game or protect for deeper passes, and their quarterbacks are either immobile, weak-armed, inaccurate, or struggling to diagnose coverage in less than three seconds (or some combination of the four).

Passing performance

Through eight games, the Bills passing offense is on pace for only six touchdowns against 26 interceptions. That’s an abysmal pace that would match up against the worst passing offenses in franchise history:

  • The 1973 Buffalo Bills, tag-teaming rookie Joe Ferguson and Dennis Shaw, ran 605 times against 213 passing attempts, with four passing touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
  • The 1968 Buffalo Bills, with a 50-50 run-pass split, landed seven touchdowns and 28 interceptions from a three-ring circus of Dan Darragh, Kay Stephenson, and Ed Rutkowski.
  • League-wide, these results would be down there with the 2000 Akili Smith Bengals, the 2006 Oakland Raiders (Andrew Walter and Aaron Brooks), and the 2010 Carolina Panthers (Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore).

The receiving corps, “led” by Kelvin Benjamin, is one of the chief problems here. Benjamin leads the team in targets, but only caught 36 percent of them. He’s supposed to be a contested catch wizard, but the man behind the curtain fades when challenged. One bright spot is Zay Jones, who’s come on of late as a possession receiver. Charles Clay has been a non-factor who can’t reliably separate, and no one else (aside from running back LeSean McCoy) is a factor.

But the other issue is the motley crew of passers. Derek Anderson and Nahan Peterman should not be starting football games. Josh Allen barely qualifies as ready to start a football game. Yet here we are.

When healthy, Allen vacillates between holding his own and looking like he can’t figure out how to ride the bicycle even with training wheels attached. It’s a good thing the injury took him off the field, because the game hasn’t slowed down for him. Some time on the sidelines, seeing the play get called and executed on the field, might help his processing.

Rushing performance

Yikes. The Bills fell over a cliff in the past two seasons, and this group is bad. I don’t want to say LeSean McCoy’s lost a step yet, but his feet aren’t matching what his eyes see as often as they used to. Working through a scrum of blockers, he doesn’t have enough elusiveness to escape linemen with regularity, and his offensive line rarely opens up holes to work with.

Chris Ivory is exactly what he was billed as. He’s a downhill runner with a little flexibility, and in Buffalo’s offense, that’s one of the few players who can keep the team on schedule. Over the last two weeks, he’s averaging more than five yards per carry.

Marcus Murphy was supposed to add an element of lightning to the roster after a great preseason, but he’s not trustworthy in pass protection.

Offensive coordinator

It’s a common refrain to hold the offensive coordinator accountable when an offense doesn’t execute, but count me in the camp that thinks Brian Daboll is doing a good job, given the personnel he’s working with. Or, at the very least, his playbook, playcalling, and situational awareness are some of the best Buffalo’s had in the last decade. Understanding if his actual coaching, in practice, is worthwhile? That’s not something we can observe.

Let’s be clear, first, that Daboll is world’s better than last year’s coordinator, Rick Dennison: infamous for starting nearly every game script with a play-action pass, for calling 75 percent of his plays as runs or passes for less than 10 yards, and for a zone blocking scheme that upended Buffalo’s dominant rushing attack.

Daboll doesn’t have the weapons gifted to Dennison, Anthony Lynn, Greg Roman, or Nate Hackett:

  • Instead of Tyrod Taylor, he has Nate Peterman, rookie Josh Allen, and Derek Anderson. And he’s had to call plays for each of those three at different times in the season.
  • Instead of Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, or an in-his-prime LeSean McCoy, Daboll has an unmotivated Kelvin Benjamin, a young Zay Jones, and two running backs pushing 30.
  • Three long-term starters on the offensive line departed in the offseason. Instead of Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, or Eric Wood up front, the only reliable piece is Dion Dawkins.

Daboll’s playbook is varied and creative. The Erhardt-Perkins base uses repeatable concepts that can be applied to varied formations, and Daboll takes advantage of that. He moves players into and out of the backfield to help identify coverage presnap. His motion gets favorable matchups, like a linebacker out wide against a tight end or running back. He calls plays with jet motion, run-pass options, and direct snaps in order to claim a numbers advantage to the playside. When calling plays, Daboll picks ones with simpler, half-field reads, to accommodate his young quarterbacks or players like Anderson, who haven’t had time to read the full playbook.

That is to say that, if the Bills can add some talent to this side of the ball, Daboll can work with it. Right now, his designs are obscured because his players aren’t executing on the simple stuff (blocking and catching, or reading the field).

Fixing this thing

One fix that would help this offense would be to start splitting the responsibilities of the runners like New England uses James White and Sony Michel. Use LeSean McCoy much more as a receiving back, where he averages 5.8 yards per target (and 8.8 yards per reception). Make Ivory the primary back between the tackles. I think both players would be better in these roles (though, obviously, you still want to mix and match them, both to break tendencies and to take advantage of the motion in Daboll’s offense).

Terrelle Pryor should be able to help the receiving group, once he’s settled. The team needed an athletic veteran and they added one. Zay Jones is growing each week, and that’s a plus.

Joe Buscaglia would love to see the Bills make an offensive line swap midseason. I think there’s an outside chance you see Wyatt Teller take over after the bye week, but I’m not convinced it’ll help this year’s performance at all.

Josh Allen must do a better job of reading the field when he returns. His inability to understand straightforward coverage is costly and leaves points on the board. He needs to be willing to take chances downfield again. And Allen also must return to the field in the first place - this offense goes nowhere without him. His athletic ability opens up the running game, and his arm talent opens up the passing game.

The playcalling is already pretty solid, but should incorporate more screens and designed “extended handoffs” in order to take advantage of McCoy and Clay in space.

In the long term, the Bills need a talent infusion from free agency and from the draft. We can talk about those details at a later point in the season.