The Buffalo Bills have been the plow, while their first and their first two 2022 opponents — the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans — have been the snow. Both were pushed up and down the field with great ease as the preseason Super Bowl favorites have looked like that assessment was well deserved.
Their pass rush brings pressure like student-loan debt collectors. Josh Allen is flinging the ball all over the field, and Stefon Diggs won’t ever let you forget overlooking him in favor of Justin Jefferson. He’s already caught 20 passes for 270 yards and four touchdowns — three of which were on Monday night against the Titans. Gabe Davis was impressive as the Bills’ No. 2 receiver in the season opener, and is “100 percent” sure that he will play Sunday against the Miami Dolphins after an ankle injury kept him out on Monday.
Then of course there is the 6-foot-5 Hulk in blue behind center who makes that offense go. If Allen and the Bills’ offense keep up their current pace, the star QB can expect to win his first MVP award. An embarrassment of riches litter the Bills’ roster, which makes finding a flaw like playing an advanced game of Where’s Waldo.
No person or roster is perfect, however, and the Bills are no exception. There is an aspect of football in which the Bills not only struggle, they have been the worst team in the league.
Late in the first quarter on Monday night, the Bills were on their way down the field looking for a second-consecutive touchdown to open the game. They had a third-and-1 on the Titans’ 31-yard line. As Buffalo lined up to run a play, Steve Levy said on the broadcast that the Bills were the worst team in the NFL last season on third-and-1 — only converting 57 percent of the time. Right on cue, Isaiah Cook was stopped short of the first down line.
On the next play, Allen faked the handoff to the running back and tried to take off himself, but there was no room. At the last minute he tried to throw the ball but he had already been corralled by the Titans’ defense. Also, none of his pass catchers had even started to run a route.
The Bills’ defense then held strong, and early in the second quarter, Buffalo was confronted with another third-and-1 in Titans territory. Allen missed a wide-open Jake Kumerow. On fourth down, the Bills were called for a false start and they ended up settling for a 49-yard field goal.
With a quarterback like Allen, third-and-1 would seem to be a gift for the Bills whenever they encounter that situation. And it’s not like the Bills struggled to run the ball in 2021. They were ninth in the NFL in rushing DVOA, but a problem like converting on third-and-short usually falls on the offensive line.
In 2021, Buffalo finished 23rd in run-block win rate. To try and improve in that area, the team signed two starters from a Tennessee Titans offensive line that was worse than theirs in 2021, and also matched the Chicago Bears’ restricted free-agent offer for guard Ryan Bates. One of the linemen that Buffalo brought in — David Quessenberry — hasn’t started in either of the Bills’ first two games. Currently, Buffalo’s offensive line is the worst in the NFL in pass-block win rate. That poor offensive line performance is affecting the entire running attack this season. The Bills’ are ranked 30th in the NFL in Rush DVOA.
Obviously, the year is 2022, not 1922. The passing game is the most effective way to move the football in the modern-day NFL. That being said, the running game still needs to be at least enough of a threat so play-action plays can be effective. If the Bills don’t get their running game as a whole together the offense is going to have a problem. And if that problem persists, it’s likely their failures on third-and-1 will become even more pronounced.
A regular season loaded with highlight plays and complete with the best record in the NFL won’t dissuade anyone who believes that the Bills are the best team in the NFL. But come playoff time, games against better competition, and at their winter-wonderland of a home stadium in Western New York, short yardage will be crucial. Striking out on a day of third-and-1s certainly could turn into a 20-17 home playoff loss.
The Bills can make the biggest plays, but to be champions they had better figure out how to make the smallest ones.