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Buffalo Bills offense continues to struggle on third down

The Buffalo Bills' offense has been pretty bad in general, but they have been especially bad on third downs, missing golden opportunities to extend drives and score more points.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Earlier in the week, I put out the bag signal on Twitter asking people what they wanted to see for this week's Buffalo Bills All-22 breakdown. The vast majority wanted to know why the offense was struggling. Bills fans realize that the offense is holding this team back, and want to know what, exactly, the problem is. I took a sampling of three crucial third-down plays that the Bills failed to convert on during last week's win over Green Bay.

Their failures are not the result of scheme, but rather the offense as a whole failing to do their jobs. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and on every play there was a link in that chain letting the other 10 guys down. Here is a quick look at those three plays.

In the third quarter, the score was still 10-10 and the Bills were faced with a 3rd-and-5 at the Green Bay 33-yard line. You can see the Packers showing pressure up the middle here, and the Bills come out in a bunch formation left with a pretty good man-beater play call.


The Packers rush six. Fred Jackson, the league's best all-around third down back, does a great job in blitz pickup, and the Bills get Robert Woods open on the shallow cross across the middle. The throw from Kyle Orton, however, is a touch behind Woods, hitting him in the back shoulder, and the ball is dropped. Was this a perfect pass? Not at all, but it's still a catch that should be made. Buffalo's offensive line did a good job against pressure, and Orton makes the correct read. But the Bills have to settle for a field goal, something that has become all too common this year.


This next play comes after Bacarri Rambo has drawn first blood and picked off Aaron Rodgers for the first time. Buffalo led 16-10 in the third quarter, and they have 3rd-and-17 at the Packers' 36-yard line. The previous play had a first down negated by a Cordy Glenn penalty. Any kind of negative play here knocks the Bills out of field goal range, and the chance to make it a two-score game, while 5-10 yards makes it a much easier field goal for Dan Carpenter on a windy day at Ralph Wilson Stadium. This is a read down the middle of the field for Orton. He has the "pin" route combination here (post plus in), and also the shallow cross if he needs it. The Packers do not show pressure here, but do rush six; on third down, they were very aggressive in bringing pressure. (I would be, too, if I was game planning against the Bills.)


The slot corner ends up being the free rusher here, as there is a miscommunication somewhere in the protection. He might have been the "hot" read for Orton, in that he is responsible to throw quick if that defender blitzes and the protection does not account for him. The left guard came inside, and may have been responsible for that gap. Jackson was lined up to the right side of the formation, and it is quite tough and rare for backs in general to come across the formation and be responsible for a blitzer. Either way, there is a free rusher, and I took this screen shot just before Orton huddles up to protect the football. It is tough to complete any pass when a 200-pound man is running full speed at you trying to crush you - no matter how open Sammy Watkins is - let alone trying to complete a pass further downfield.


The final play I chose was the most requested play on Twitter: the Bills' last third down of the game (excluding kneel-downs). The Bills are up 19-13 in the fourth quarter, with 2:12 left in the game. They have 3rd-and-5 at the Green Bay 47. A first down here ends the game. The Bills have an empty backfield, and the Packers again show an aggressive look. A shallow cross is called again here (you'll notice it's open on all three plays), combined with Watkins running a wheel. The other side has a "spot" route combination out of the bunch to the right. The left side is a good man-coverage beater, while the right side is a good zone coverage beater. Green Bay in man coverage, so Orton correctly reads to the left. I just disagree with his chosen route to throw to; as you will see in the next picture, one guy is wide open, and one guy is covered well.


As you can see, Jackson uses the rub by Watkins to get wide open coming across the middle, while Watkins has a defensive back all over him. One thing you cannot say about Orton is that he won't give Watkins a chance to make plays. This was the third time he just threw a ball up to him. Once, Watkins made a great catch; once, it was intercepted; and this one was incomplete. In my opinion, there is a time and a place to throw one up to try and have your receiver make a play; this wasn't the correct time for it. Orton has good protection, but is just locked in on his receiver. (This was a common criticism of EJ Manuel earlier in the season.) For those wondering, Woods does come open on the right side on the hook, but the ball is long gone, and I think the presnap read is to the left side.


As you can see in these three crucial plays, the Bills failed to execute. Converting on any of these plays could have made this a much easier win for the Bills. Not making plays on third down and in the red zone has led to the Bills leaving a lot of points on the field. Those lost points have been a central theme to this Bills season, and might end up costing them a playoff berth.