It’s no secret that the Buffalo Bills haven’t lived up to their standard in the red zone this season. Through 10 games in 2022, the Bills are ranked 21st in NFL team red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only) at 52.94%, which is not ideal. By contrast, for the 2021 season, the Bills were ranked first in this same statistic, at 66.28%. What’s the reason for the drastic regression in the red zone? Let’s take a deep dive into some red zone analysis to see if we can unearth any nuggets.
If you want to relive Buffalo’s latest red zone turnover blunders, click here. As Josh Rawdin states in that article, Buffalo currently leads the league (not in a good way) in turnover percentage on plays starting in the red zone—3.7%. Out of 135 plays in the red zone this season, the Bills have turned it over five times, with three interceptions and two fumbles. How does this compare to last season?
In the 2021 season, the Bills only had a 0.6% turnover percentage in the red zone, which was tied for the fourth-smallest percentage in the league. Considering the Bills ran a total of 326 plays in the red zone last year—the most in the NFL—and only had two turnovers is impressive. Those two turnovers were both interceptions.
Simply put, if the Bills were to take their five red zone turnovers this season and convert them into touchdowns, their red zone scoring percentage (TD only) would jump from a measly 52.94% to 67.65%, which would be even better than they were last year. “Stop turning the ball over in the red zone”—that sounds like a pretty easy solution to me.
What kind of plays are the Bills running when they get in the red zone?
The chart above shows the Bills are almost identical in pass play percentage versus run play percentage in the red zone in 2022 compared to 2021. They certainly love to pass the ball in these situations, and I don’t blame them for wanting to throw it. It doesn’t look like there’s a problem here, so let’s move on!
Part of being in the red zone is running plays in a “goal-to-go” situation; this is when the offense runs a play where they can no longer get a first down, only a touchdown. This usually means the plays are being run inside the 10-yard line. Naturally, the success rate of scoring a touchdown within the 10-yard line is much higher than anywhere else on the field, but it is an important indicator of red zone success.
In 2021, the Bills were tied for eighth in the NFL in goal-to-go scoring percentage (TD only) with a 75% success rate. Comparatively, the Bills only have a 60% goal-to-go (TD only) success rate, which is ranked tied for 25th in the NFL. For reference, the league average is 71.98%. Let's go a little deeper to see what the problem might be in this area of the field for the Bills.
We can see in the chart above there has been a shift in play calling for the Bills in goal-to-go situations. Last year they were more balanced with the run versus the pass, and this year they are still heavily favoring pass plays close to the goal line. Some things can skew this statistic—for example, if there is an offensive penalty that moves the offense back past the 10-yard line, they are more likely to pass the ball. But, should the Bills be running the ball more this close to the end zone? Based on their success last year, it would suggest so.
Josh Allen in the red zone
Buffalo’s offense goes as Josh Allen goes. He is the catalyst that makes the offensive engine run. One could conclude that the Bills' red zone performance should correlate with how Allen is playing. Let’s see if that’s the case.
Through nine games so far this season, Allen has 16 red zone rushes for 42 yards and three touchdowns. He’s completing 51% of his red zone passes with three turnovers. In 2021, Allen posted 32 rushes for 140 yards with six touchdowns in the red zone, and a completion percentage of 55.6% with just two turnovers.
It is hard to compare stats from half a season to stats compiled through an entire season, but we can pull a couple of things from this. First, Allen already has more interceptions this season in the red zone than he did all of last season. (In fact, he has more red zone interceptions in his last three games than he did in his first 67 games as a pro quarterback.) Second, his completion percentage is down. These are small issues that can compound quickly.
It’s tough to identify “play calling” as a problem, because so many different factors go into making a “successful” play. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey could have the “perfect” play call dialed up, but if the players don’t execute it properly, the play won’t be successful. Regardless, the Bills did have an offensive coordinator change this offseason after losing Brian Daboll to the New York Giants, and it’s hard not to wonder if that has had anything to do with the change in red zone success this season for the Bills. For fun, let's just take a quick peek at a few successful red zone plays that the Bills ran in 2021 with Daboll at the helm.
Using Dawson Knox
Here’s a novel idea: get tight end Dawson Knox the ball in the red zone. The Bills show play action, which I would like to see them do more of, and get Knox matched up one-on-one versus a safety. Watch Knox box the defender out and use his big body to make the catch.
Where has the “jet” motion gone? Slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie scored a touchdown on a jet sweep handoff versus the Green Bay Packers this season, but it doesn’t seem like the jet motion has been a big part of the offense this year. In this play, they use the jet motion to create some misdirection, and then pull two linemen to lead the run play the other way. Maybe the Bills can tap into more of these types of plays going forward.
The Bills take advantage of the Kansas City Chiefs’ goal-line zone defense on this play by running a flood-route concept. This concept overloads the short side of the field with receivers, and makes the defenders decide which ones to cover. The Bills run this play to perfection. Also to note, this is another play-action play with more misdirection with Knox running his route from the backside of the play.
The Bills are averaging two red zone touchdowns per game in 2022, which is a whole touchdown per game less than they averaged in the red zone in 2021. Insert the missing touchdown into all three of the Buffalo’s losses this year, and those turn into victories. A successful red zone offense is a sign of a healthy offense, and something is missing here for the Bills. A little bit of everything mentioned in this article may have something to do with their lack of success, but my vote for the biggest culprit is turnovers. Eliminate turnovers in the red zone, and it will change the tune of articles like this real quick.