Buffalo Bills fans are getting more for their money this year than in any season in their history.
We are not talking quality, since the Bills are 4-7. We’re talking quantity.
The Bills are on pace to set a team record for most plays in a season, offense and defense combined. Their offense has run the fourth most plays per game in the NFL this year, at 70.3 a game. Their defense has faced the seventh most plays per game, at 68.3 a game.
At this rate, Bills fans who follow to the end of every contest will wind up watching a game and a half more than in last year’s regular season, based on the number of plays run.
What does it all mean?
• The Bills remain committed to a no-huddle offense, which will be a good thing as long as EJ Manuel becomes a quality quarterback. The Bills rank only 21st in scoring this year. But top offenses that run more plays – like Denver, New England and New Orleans – generally score more points.
• The Bills are playing up-tempo, but they have backed off the frantic, fast-as-you-can-go tempo that they exhibited the first month of the season. One reason is backups Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel had to fill in when Manuel was injured. Another is the Bills are changing their personnel groupings more often between plays in recent weeks as a way to keep defenses off balance and exploit matchups. This causes the offense to slow down a bit, even in no-huddle mode.
• The fast pace puts more pressure on the Bills’ defense and inevitably hurts its yardage ranking. But if the defense is playing well on third downs, giving up a few more yards doesn’t matter. The Bills’ defense was terrible on third downs the first six games, allowing 40 percent conversions. It has improved to 33 percent, an excellent rate, the last five games.
Bills coach Doug Marrone said the pace of the offense is closely scrutinized by his staff.
“It’s going to be dictated by a couple things, and we’ve had discussions about it,” Marrone said this week. “A lot of it is going to be by how much we want to change up the personnel. I think that we’re going to have the ability to get a couple different tempos.”
Keep in mind, the Bills love the fact that running an up-tempo, no-huddle offense simplifies things for the quarterback. Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are trying as hard as they can to put Manuel in position to be successful. Running at a fast pace limits how many looks the defense can give the QB.
Personnel usage – whether the offense uses a fullback, or two tight ends, or three receivers – is a game-planning decision that varies from week to week.
In the victory over the Jets last Sunday, the Bills switched personnel a lot – five times on a 10-play field-goal drive and eight times on a 13-play touchdown drive.
Contrast that with the season opener against New England, when they used three receivers, a back and a tight end on all but six plays. The Bills averaged a play every 21.9 seconds of possession time against the Pats. It was a play per every 30.1 seconds vs. the Jets.
“I think you’re going to see it grow into a lot of different things,” Marrone said of the offense overall. “How fast that happens, I really can’t put a time frame on it. … A lot just has to do with the quarterback.”
“Has he arrived? Obviously I hope so,” Marrone said of Manuel. “But the proof in the pudding is going to be the consistency. Once the consistency starts to come, then you can see us doing a lot more different things.”
As Manuel gets more experience, it should allow the Bills to add more checks – switching of play calls at the line of scrimmage – to get in the best possible play. That’s a strength of New England’s Tom Brady, who has been running the same offensive system for 13 years.
Manuel said the Bills want to play up-tempo, but Hackett is not constantly pushing him to go faster.
“We really don’t think about it that much,” Manuel said. “Obviously we want to keep our tempo up. I think that gets us in a groove, and when we’re converting third downs, we’re obviously keeping the ball longer.”
The Bills rank only 25th on third-down conversions. As the offense develops and the players work together longer, that number should improve. The Bills were just 3 of 14 on third downs in Pittsburgh two weeks ago but were 8 of 19 against the Jets.
“If you have more touches it allows you to amp up the tempo,” Manuel said.
“I think it kind of depends on how the flow of the game is going,” said running back Fred Jackson. “There’s times we come to the sideline and we get with our offensive line, the receivers and the coaching staff and we say we want to pick the tempo up. If we sense that during the game, that’s when we really try to pick it up.… I think Eric Wood was the first one who noticed it against the Jets. He kind of echoed it to everybody and we started picking the tempo up.”
How much will the Bills vary personnel versus putting the pedal to the metal on the pace over the final month? Time will tell.
If the Bills’ defense has to work a little harder in order for the rookie quarterback to run a QB-friendly system, so be it.
Buffalo’s defense ranks 16th in yards allowed. It is 10th in yards allowed per play.
“You’re going to be up there in reps when your offensive system is what it is,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “To me that’s unavoidable. It comes with the territory, and it’s not an issue with us.”
What if the offense makes a quick three-and-out?
“Hey, more TV time for us,” Pettine said. The key, Pettine said, is getting off the field and giving the Bills’ offense more chances to score.
“When you looked at the early games, we were in the high 20s on third down,” Pettine said of the league ranking. “Now we’re below 15 in third-down defense. That’s to me the biggest thing. You control that. That’s what we tell our guys. … If we don’t get a turnover, the most we have to be out there is three plays.”
The team record for most plays in a season was set in Jim Kelly’s final year, 1996. There were 2,199 plays. The Bills are on pace for 2,218 this year.
The Bills’ offense is on pace for 1,093 plays. In each of Kelly’s final five seasons, ’91 to ’96, the Bills ran more than 1,050 plays.