Third-down defense really wasn't the problem, it was the symptom of the Buffalo Bills' struggles in their 41-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Arizona's quick passes on first and second down kept the Bills' defense on its heels all game and gave it less of a chance to contain the Cardinals on third downs.
The Bills entered the game No. 1 in the NFL on third downs, holding foes to just 19 percent conversions.
However, Buffalo almost never got the Cards in third-and-long. The Cards were 6 of 6 on third-down conversions in the first half, and five of those were on third-and-4 or fewer. Of the Cards' 15 third-down situations overall, 11 were third-and-7 or fewer.
The Bills could not get their pass rushers in a pin-their-ears-back mode.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner was 13 of 17 for 108 yards on first-down passes. He was 11 of 14 for 77 yards on second-down throws.
So it's obvious what the Bills' defense needs to study on its bye week.
"We need to work on the quick game," safety Donte Whitner said.
Not every team can execute the possession passing game like Warner and the Cardinals did. But the Bills can be sure other teams will try.
Warner said after the game he was able to handle the Bills' predominant coverage of two-deep safeties and man-to-man underneath.
"I always love having everybody out in a route because I'll get the ball to whomever is going to get it," Warner said. "We spread it out and they went [away] from what they normally do to get back to two safeties [deep] and cover our guys man underneath."
Whitner suggested the Bills might have to focus on being more physical with receivers against the possession passing game.
"You have to make them pay," Whitner said. "You have to be tremendously physical. That's when you get tipped balls. That's when you get a chance for them to put the ball on the ground."
Somehow, the Bills needed to get more pressure on Warner, even though he was using a lot of quick throws.
A review of the game tape showed that the Bills' defensive game plan was not blitz happy, but it was not vanilla, either.
The Bills blitzed -- sent more than four rushers at Warner -- on 11 of 41 plays, by The News' count.
Warner skewered those plays. He was 10 of 11 for 79 yards against the blitz.
The Bills did use some press coverage, but if they knew the Cards were going to focus on short passing they might have used more. The fact inexperienced Leodis McKelvin was on the field no doubt had some impact on the defensive thinking.
Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt said, in so many words, his team outschemed the Bills.
"We felt the package we came in with this week, because of the way they play their defense, was a good matchup for us," Whisenhunt said. "Obviously it worked out well."
On a handful of plays, defensive end Chris Kelsay lined up almost as a linebacker, off the line over the interior of the Cards' line. But he could not get to Warner on any of those plays.
Here were some examples of Warner beating the blitz:
*On first-and-10 from the Arizona 48 in the second quarter, Kawika Mitchell blitzed and put a big hit on Warner, cutting his chin. But Warner got the ball out for a 6-yard gain to Early Doucet.
*On third-and-13 from the Bills' 47, the Bills sent six. It was one of the key plays of the game, because the Bills were within 24-17. But the Cards called the perfect play, a slip screen to J.J. Arrington for a 13-yard gain.
*On second-and-goal from the Bills' 2 on the same third-quarter drive, the Bills sent seven at Warner. He read it, threw off his back foot just before getting hit by blitzing safety Bryan Scott, and hit Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown.
"They came with something we call blitz zero, which is strictly man coverage and they were bringing an extra guy we couldn't block. . . . I knew I wasn't going to have much time based on the protection, so I tried to buy enough time and then I just flipped it somewhere. I knew no one could get it except Fitzgerald. I didn't see the catch."
Run defense usually wasn't a problem for the Bills when all things were even from a down-and-distance standpoint. The Cardinals had 10 first-down running plays through three quarters, and they went for just 17 yards. And that included one 15-yard gain.
However, on two second-quarter runs that went for 17 and 15 yards, Mitchell appeared to get caught up in the flow of the play and could not fill the gap that the running back hit.