Today is September 23, and the Buffalo Bills are about to play their third game of the 2018 regular season. It is depressingly early in the NFL’s calendar year to be reading about your favorite team being in a re-building year, but after consecutive blowout losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers to start the season, that’s where we are today as Bills fans.
Even though the Bills are clearly going to be taking a step or two (or ten) backward after reaching the playoffs a season ago, that doesn’t mean that they have to have their asses handed to them every Sunday. Playing a competitive football game is certainly within this team’s grasp, and it can happen even in a minimal-expectations game like the one they’ll be playing this afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings, where they are widely expected to lose.
They just need to take care of the basics.
Even last year, when they snuck into the post-season for the first time in 17 years, the Bills were not a team that functioned well when playing from behind. That’s going to be doubly true this season, with a rookie quarterback under center.
If the Bills are going to start playing competitively, they’re going to have to completely change how they’ve been playing early in games so far this season. In the first quarter of the Ravens and Chargers games combined, the Bills were outscored 28-0. In the first halves of those two games combined, they were outscored 54-6.
Every team in the NFL wants to start hot in a given game, but for the Bills, it’s on their must-accomplish list if they’d like a shot at winning a game in the fourth quarter.
Win the turnover battle
Buffalo forced 25 turnovers and finished with a plus-9 turnover differential in the 2017 season, the latter figure being good for the seventh-best turnover differential in the league. This was a major factor in the 9-7 Bills’ playoff appearance.
Today, the Bills have a minus-3 turnover differential, with the team’s defense having forced just one turnover in the first two weeks of the season. There have been many opportunities for the Bills to capitalize on opponent mistakes, particularly in the realm of fumble recoveries, and they’ve not been able to close the deal. If the Bills are finally able to flip the script in this category, they’ll look a lot more like the Bills team we saw a year ago.
Through two games, the Bills have committed 16 penalties for 131 yards against themselves. They’re not the most-penalized team in the league at the moment, but their margin of error is so slim that averaging eight penalties per game is untenable.
By comparison, the Bills averaged six penalties per game during the 2017 season; a 25-percent increase in that figure is obviously not something the Bills should be happy with. If they’re going to continue to take penalties, it would be nice if a few of them didn’t negate big plays and first downs, as well.
Win field position
According to Football Outsiders’ drive stats, Buffalo’s offense has enjoyed an average starting field position of the 28.92-yard line so far in 2018, good for the 13th-best average drive start in the league. That may largely be the function of the Bills’ offense taking the ball after opponents score touchdowns, however.
It’s Buffalo’s defense that has been put at a massive disadvantage in this category. Through two weeks, Bills opponents have begun their offensive possessions, on average, at the 37.56-yard line. That’s the worst average starting field position for a defense in the NFL so far this season. Add in disadvantageous time of possession thanks to the offense’s inability to extend drives, and it’s no wonder that Buffalo’s defense has been massively disappointing so far this season: they’re not playing well, but they haven’t had any help from the rest of the team, either.
Run and stop the run
Playing from a deep hole on the scoreboard every week doesn’t help this stat, naturally, but Buffalo’s offense is averaging just 83.5 rushing yards per game through two weeks. That’s a huge departure from the last few years, when the Bills were consistently one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. The Bills have to find a way to run the ball more efficiently, a task that will be harder with LeSean McCoy operating at less than 100 percent (if he’s operating at all).
Defensively, the Bills are giving up 113 rushing yards per game. They have bigger fish to fry - namely, their pass defense - and the circumstances of the first two weeks have likely padded that statistic a bit. (The 113 yard average ranks 22nd in the NFL, but the 3.8 yards per rush allowed ranks 12th.) In a closer game, the Bills’ run defense might look significantly better than it has so far this year.
It doesn’t take much to play a competitive football game in the NFL, even when a team lacks the talent to do so consistently. If the Bills are able to knock out most or all of the basics from above, they’ll play with anyone - even in a so-called hopeless matchup like their game today in Minnesota.