BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Buffalo Bills’ hopes of making the NFL playoffs in Doug Marrone’s first year as head coach have been all but eliminated after Buffalo fell to 3-7 with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and the poor play of the offense has been the biggest reason why. While the appearance that the unit is going nowhere fast became clear when the Buffalo offense mustered just three points and 147 yards of offense in the first 55 minutes of the 23-10 loss to Pittsburgh, the Bills have left many close games on the table this season thanks to their offensive failures.
Both sustaining drives and finishing drives has been a problem for the Bills, whose offenses has been one of the league’s least efficient. They rank 28th in the NFL by scoring on only 27.8 percent of their offensive drives, and 29th in the NFL with only 4.7 yards gained per offensive play, according to Pro Football Reference. They rank 30th in the NFL with touchdowns on only 42.9 percent of their red-zone opportunities, and 27th in the league in offensive touchdowns with 18 in 10 games, according to TeamRankings.com.
While the defense has had its ups and downs as well, it has held its own for the most part, allowing just 24 touchdowns in 10 games. While there have been 23 points scored against the Bills in each of their seven losses, there have only been more than 27 scored against the Bills twice. The defense’s worst performance came when it allowed five touchdowns to the New Orleans Saints in Week 8 — in two of those losses, against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills’ opponent scored multiple non-offensive touchdowns.
The defense is still developing, but it is playing well enough for the Bills to win football games. Buffalo’s offense is not getting the job done. To fix the problem, better sustaining drives and better taking advantage of scoring opportunities is easier said than done. The Bills have many problems on their offense, and they must fix the small issues to take care of the big-picture problems that are resulting in costly defeats.
What is the Bills’ biggest offensive issue? The candidates include:
EJ Manuel’s Struggles
Rookie quarterbacks are expected to have their ups and downs, but it has all downhill for the Bills’ No. 16 overall pick, EJ Manuel, since he suffered a sprained LCL against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5. After missing four weeks with that injury, Manuel came back in Week 10 to put up his worst performance of the season, completing just 22-of-39 passes for 155 yards, with more than half of those yards and his only touchdown pass coming on a garbage-time, 80-yard drive. Quarterback play is key to the success of any offense, and the Bills need better quarterback play from Manuel.
C.J. Spiller’s Disappointment
Running back C.J. Spiller was expected to be the star of the Buffalo offense this season, but that simply has not been the case. Spiller is an outstanding athlete who is one of the NFL’s most dynamic offensive playmakers when healthy and at his best, but he has not been either this year, struggling through an ankle injury to just 587 yards on 129 total touches thus far this season. Buffalo has not had a star on its offense with Spiller not playing like one.
A Need for More Receiving Playmakers
Buffalo’s corps of wide receivers and tight ends have been unspectacular this season. Stevie Johnson has continued to look more like a secondary threat than a true No. 1 wideout, though he has caught 41 yards on 471 yards. The team’s second and third most productive receivers, tight end Scott Chandler and rookie wide receiver Robert Woods, have both had their ups and downs. The Bills are starting to get some more big-play capability out of rookie Marquise Goodwin, but the most glaring weakness among the receiving corps may be the lack of a big-time red-zone threat.
Offensive Line Struggles
Buffalo’s offensive line has allowed 31 sacks this season, tied for the fourth-most in the league, and they have not been overly powerful in run blocking either. The biggest problem area has been at left guard, where Colin Brown was replaced by Doug Legursky and eventually released after a horrid start to the season as the Bills’ starter, but outside of left tackle Cordy Glenn, the entire Buffalo offensive line has been somewhat of a question mark this season.
The reviews coming in thus far for first-year offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are certainly not glowing. While he has had to work with three different quarterbacks this season and does not have an offense loaded with experienced talent, he has not done the best job of utilizing the talent he does have. The Bills offense has been much more vanilla and less creative than expected. Questionable red-zone playcalling has played a factor in the team’s lack of success near the goal line. Perhaps most noticeably, Hackett has not consistently found ways to get Spiller the ball in space where he can best used his speed and ability to make defenders miss.
What do you think Buffalo’s biggest offensive problem is?
I asked BBD’s staff writers to chime in below:
Buffalo’s offense is too predictable. Teams are starting to dare Buffalo to pass the ball on first and second down, but the team is sticking with its game plan regardless of what it sees. Until EJ Manuel starts hitting some passes early in drives, defenses will stack the box against the Bills.
For the Bills offense to advance towards making the playoffs and beyond, they need a serious red zone target. They do have a big man in Chandler, but he has been underutilized in the red zone. If the Bills had a big target at wide receiver who could catch a well-placed fade out in the endzone, they would have the ability to score seven points instead of three.
The Bills have started three quarterbacks over the past three weeks as EJ Manuel has missed time, which has stalled his and the offense’s development.
C.J. Spiller has struggled, showing egregious field vision and an unwillingness to hit holes consistently and take positive yards. It’s not that the coaching staff doesn’t like to see long explosive runs, it’s that every time Spiller bounces it outside for a loss of yardage while ignoring the hole and design of the play, it sets the team back and puts them in bad situations.
Buffalo’s receivers are not creating separation in their routes, and the Bills do not have a big-bodied receiver with a large catching radius who can catch balls when they are covered, which would help mightily with the team’s red-zone struggles.
The problem with the Bills offense is as simple as situational awareness. Hackett and Marrone haven’t shown much this season. The New Orleans Saints blitzed Buffalo like crazy in Week 8, but the Bills did not try to make them pay by utilizing any screen passes. The Steelers came into the Week 10 matchup allowing an average of 4.7 yards per carry, but the Bills only gave Spiller eight carries. The Bills continue to run Fred Jackson on first and second downs almost every time they are inside the 10-yard line, even though Jackson has been ineffective in that role.
I think it’s hard to blame Spiller for trying to bounce runs to the outside, that’s what he does best. However, the Bills seem to always give him carries up the middle out of the shotgun formation. How many times have they run a toss or a play designed to get him outside the tackles?
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