NFL teams are having more success going long this season.
The Buffalo Bills would like to jump on the bandwagon this week when they host the New York Jets.
Pass plays of 20 or more yards are up 9 percent leaguewide from last year. Pass plays of 40 or more yards are up 24 percent over last year -- from 105 to 130. Overall, pass plays of 20 or more, 30 or more and 40 or more yards all have reached 10-year highs through eight weeks of the season.
The Bills' pass offense ranks 28th in yards, so it's no surprise Buffalo is below average on pass completions of 20-plus yards so far. The Bills have 16, which is tied for 25th in the league. The league average for teams with seven games played is 20.3.
Nevertheless, Bills coach Mike Mularkey thinks the offense as a whole is showing signs of progress.
"I think it's coming along better and better offensively as we go," Mularkey said. "It's evident when we don't make the mistakes, that we are pretty potent."
Mularkey said Wednesday he thinks the offensive line is starting to develop more cohesiveness, even though the front five starters have played together only two full games.
"I think the line has kind of been interrupted in its play, and you can go all the way back to March," he said. "I think Ross Tucker has done a good job filling in at center. And as far as the O-line as a whole, I thought they've gotten better and better even without having the starting unit together for a long time."
The Bills have had promising rushing performances for three straight games. This week they expect to get starting center Trey Teague back in the lineup. Continued rushing success should create the opportunity for more downfield passing.
The Bills have the weapons to go deep in Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. But a combination of a sputtering running game, penalties and shoddy pass protection has prevented them from taking big advantage of their outside weapons.
Still, the Bills are doing better than last year at going downfield. Evans caught a 46-yard TD pass against the Jets a month ago. That's one of seven 30-plus pass plays for the Bills this year. Last year, the Bills managed only seven completions of 30 or more yards.
"I think Lee has an effect whether he catches the ball or not," Mularkey said. "I think he has a positive effect on some of the things that happen with Eric Moulds."
Evans has four 20-plus catches. Moulds has seven.
Players and coaches offer a variety of reasons for the upward trend leaguewide.
"They're more sensitive about us touching the receivers so I'm sure that has something to do with it," Bills safety Izell Reese said. "You can't reroute receivers and throw their timing off as much as in the past."
"No. 1, there's some good receivers in the league," Jets coach Herman Edwards said. "When the ball goes downfield now, you see a lot of receivers going up, jumping over guys and catching the ball. That's a tribute to the type of talent at receiver.
"I think a lot of teams are becoming more blitz-oriented. They're trying to run people at the quarterback to hit him. So you're getting a lot of one-on-one coverages at times."
"I think that the increase in blitz-oriented defenses is a leaguewide trend," said Minnesota offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, whose unit leads the NFL in passing. "You look at the top defense last year, Dallas, and they were very aggressive. Teams are looking to duplicate that."
The Bills managed to burn the Jets in the last meeting by timing a maximum-protection blocking scheme perfectly with an all-out blitz by New York. Evans scored on the play. But the Jets won the blitzing battle, with four sacks and plenty of hits on quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
"We had trouble slowing down their pass rush," Bledsoe said. "We had some plays set up early in the game for Lee but weren't able to do it. . . . They were blitzing us fairly heavily in that game, and he had more sight adjustments and we were throwing short. Finally we brought everybody in max protection and were able to find him."
GOING LONG IN THE NFL
This season has seen an increase in long pass plays. Numbers shown are completions through eight weeks over the past five years:
2004130 265 674
2003105 221 619
200298 232 628
2001103 222 643
2000108 232 630