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The Evolution of the Buffalo Bills’ offense

Can we quantify the changes from last year to this one?

Hopefully you read the 2020 trends article that meshed data analysis and All-22 footage. If you did, I broke down some tendencies on offense and promised a deeper dive. Here’s that deeper dive. While the overall tendencies for 2020 were interesting, I ran across a few trends that were frankly shocking.

Audience: How shocking were they?

Me: They were so shocking that I had to compare them to 2019 data that showed drastic changes.

[Audience laughs uproariously}

Quick Refresher

In the trends article, I pointed out that the Buffalo Bills spend 93 percent of their time in either 11 (75 percent) or 10 (18 percent) personnel. Both feature one running back. There’s one tight end in 11 and none in 10. The remaining 7 percent is spread out around various specialty subpackages. Both of their primary groupings are generally considered pass oriented.

I even dipped into efficiency a bit citing that the Bills gain 8.94 yards per attempt on 1st-and-10 and convert into another first down 34.57 percent of the time. Put these facts together and I was suggesting to no fan’s surprise that the Bills are passing a lot and are pretty good at it.

Before we dig deeper, note that most of the numbers in this article and the previous one focus on 1st-and-10 play calling. This is partially a result of the higher sample size, which increases validity. The Bills have had 260 plays on 1st-and-10 for reference. That’s 41 percent of their 637 play total, but it’s also about how open the first-down playbook is for the offense. Think of it this way: If I want to know a person’s true tendencies I need to provide a scenario where every option is on the table. That’s 1st-and-10.

How successful are they on first down?

That 8.94 yards on first down and converting about 35 percent of the time when passing sounds good...but is it? Yes—very good. Data is courtesy of the NFL, but unfortunately they don’t rank this metric. But I will pat myself on the back for manually getting the data for every team and ranking it myself. For this chart, the Bills are our baseline in blue. Any cells shaded green are higher than the Bills, red is lower.

Only the Minnesota Vikings have a higher average gain when passing on 1st-and-10 and it’s baaaaaarely higher. The Vikings also convert a higher number of these plays into another first down. Remember though that no one has more passing attempts on 1st-and-10 than Buffalo’s 162. The Vikings are slightly more efficient but have 60 fewer attempts.

Leaning on a strength

It’s no secret that the Bills’ passing game has taken off, while the running game has become more of a crawling game. I won’t dive too far into the efficiency disparity here, but rather focus on the fact that this is also pretty obvious to the coaching staff.

On 1st-and-10 the Bills have 162 passing attempts and 98 rushing attempts. No one has passed the ball more than the Bills and only five teams have rushed fewer times than Buffalo. Further, no one has more first-down passing yards than the Bills at 1,448. Similarly no one has more first downs. On 1st-and-10 the Bills have gained another first down 56 times. Conversely the Bills have only 325 rushing yards on 1st-and-10, which is worst. Interestingly, they have 11 first downs, which is 20th in the league and suggests a bit of boom or bust. The average gain of 3.25 yards suggests a bit more bust.

Overall, the Bills are simply passing a lot more than they have in past seasons. Here’s how the distribution has changed in the Sean McDermott era.

Aggression, saving the best for last

Here’s where the change has become even more stunning, and what prompted a second trend article for just the offense. Check out other recent content from Buffalo Rumblings regarding aggression and let’s add one key indicator to the mix.

Play call based on score differential

Something many fans and pundits, myself included, have said is that the Buffalo Bills “turtle up” to protect a lead. Essentially when the Bills are ahead they rely on the running game to burn clock rather than putting their foot on the gas to drive a final nail in the coffin to contain the other team’s chance of winning. Well, that used to be true.

(NOTE: All percentages refer to 1st-and-10 play calling tendencies.)

In 2019 when the Bills were tied (baseline for aggression tendencies), they passed the ball 53 percent of the time. When up by a single score Buffalo’s pass percentage dipped to 42 percent. When Buffalo was up two scores they went full turtle and passed the ball only 25 percent of the time. That **** is glaring.

Fast forward to 2020 and our baseline is 58 percent passing when the game is tied. When Buffalo is up by one score this falls all the way to...57 percent passing. At two scores ahead the Bills fall all the way to 61 percent passing, which many math scholars would point out is actually higher than 58 percent. Essentially there is not shift in pass/run tendencies for the 2020 Bills when they’re leading. Here’s a chart with an even deeper dive.

Passing by quarter

I decided to look into one more thing because there’s just one insane stat the Bills can’t shake. They tend to suck in the third quarter. Specifically, Buffalo has only scored 30 points in the third. This is less than half of any other quarter and wait until you see the difference between the third and fourth quarter. I wondered if there was a difference in tendencies based on quarter. While the results don’t inherently prove a connection to the scoring woes, I’ll just plunk down the data and let you mull it over.