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All-22 analysis: Buffalo Bills’ third-down defense vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Spoiler: This was a positive

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills rebounded against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a fairly convincing victory in primetime for Thursday Night Football in Week 8. One statistic I love looking at is third-down conversions, and they tell quite the tale for this game. Why do I love them so? The number of third downs faced is a decent indicator of how often a team was held in check on first- and second downs. And the percentage of third downs gained then becomes a good metric for stops.

The Buccaneers had 15 third-down attempts, which is a little high but not crazy for a single game. That suggests some trouble on first- and second downs. They converted four of these, or 26.7%. Every team but the New York Jets converts more than 30% of the time. If you’re curious, Buffalo converts 49% of the time, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles at 50%. In this game, Buffalo converted seven of 13, or 53.8%.

We’re here to talk Buffalo’s defense though. They’re allowing conversions on 40% of tries this year, which is toward the lower end of the average cluster. So if you believed they did a better job than usual this game, you’d be right.

Play 1 — Early conversion

On this 3rd & 4 play, the Bills had tight coverage and were collapsing the pocket. Quarterback Baker Mayfield found a very narrow passing window and the Buccaneers converted. Later in the drive the Bucs were faced with 3rd & 15 due to flags and early success by Buffalo. Though Bills Mafia have dreaded 3rd & Long recently, safety Jordan Poyer easily read it and snuffed it out. Overall, Buffalo shut down situations like that throughout the evening.

Play 2 — Conversion due to penalty

As the GIF notes, safety Taylor Rapp was just a bit early and the Buccaneers were gifted a first down. It’s notable that of the four third-down conversions they had, it wasn’t exclusively besting Buffalo. Sometimes the Bills were their own worst enemy. Hold on to that thought.

Play 3 — Hold the Line, Part 1

On 3rd & 9 the Bills played that soft coverage a lot of fans like to complain about. At the pause you can see how many Bills were dropping back to cover the line to gain. Think of it strategically thusly; to beat Buffalo’s defense deeper, any route over nine yards has to develop for at least nine yards before the QB (Mayfield here) can even guess who will win their matchup. To contrast, if a corner jammed at the line and whiffed Mayfield would know right away if he had something coming open. That little bit of extra time can allow the pass rush to create magic.

On this exact play, Mayfield took an underneath throw as the Bills planned, which cornerback Christian Benford and safety Micah Hyde were there to shut down.

Play 4 — The Terrell Bernard factor

I’ll reiterate that I was worried about losing Tremaine Edmunds. Here’s further proof of linebacker Terrell Bernard continuing to alleviate concerns. Mayfield believed his receiver’s crossing route would develop too quickly for Bernard to change course and get back into the play. Mayfield was incorrect.

Play 5 — About that pass rush

On another 3rd & 9, the Buccaneeers tried to get receivers downfield faster in an attempt to beat the coverage. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips impacted the throw before the sideline route could fully develop. The result was a near-pick.

Play 6 — More pressure

This was a more manageable third down. Defensive end Greg Rousseau ended up behind Mayfield, but did so very quickly. That and some chaos in front of him made Mayfield jittery and quick to take off. It’s not a bad gamble by Mayfield to try and gain the five himself, but here, once again, was Bernard.

Play 7 — Hold the Line, Part 2

Feel free to re-read the narrative on Play 3 if you like. Just replace Benford and Hyde with “nearly the entire defense” as they swarmed to stop the conversion.

Play 8 — Jordan Poyer hybrid

You may have seen references this week to Jordan Poyer essentially playing linebacker against the Bucs. The Bills went with a heavy dime use, with Poyer becoming the player to rotate all over the field. Mayfield didn’t account for him perfectly here and Poyer jumped the route and nearly came away with the ball.

The Final Straw

What was reassuring in my Week 8 re-watch of the defense was the number of ways the Buffalo Bills were able to shut down drives by the Buccaneers. There was a healthy dose of smart scheme, plenty of individual efforts, and a smattering of players doing their 1/11 and remaining disciplined. It’s also intriguing that head Sean McDermott bucked early season trends and went with a lot of dime looks. This isn’t the first time the Bills have had to change schematically due to personnel changes (injuries this year). It’s good to see them doing so again as it gives hope that Buffalo can ride it out.

So what happened on the scoring drives? On the field goal the Bucs did pretty well, but only managed 36 yards. That forced a 57-yard field goal, which is no gimme. On the first touchdown it was only a two-play drive. Yes the defense allowed 23 yards in those two plays, which is pretty bad, but teams are often reeling a bit after a turnover.

On the final touchdown drive, Buffalo forced fourth-down three times. The first was negated by a flag on defensive back Taron Johnson. The second by a Jordan Phillips flag. Check out my thoughts on those plays in my weekly penalty recap. The third one was the touchdown itself, which if you recall ricocheted off Christian Benford’s helmet. Benford was in good coverage and the Buccaneers got a bit lucky. All told, the defense had a few gaffes but played fantastic. That’s especially true when considering the very short week the team had to prepare for a dangerous pair of receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.