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Bills fall short in red-zone offense

The Buffalo Bills’ offense has lost its finishing touch the past month. Buffalo has fallen from seventh to 25th in red-zone offense over the past four weeks. The Bills scored touchdowns on 61 percent of their trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line through seven games.

The past four games they have scored on just 29 percent – 5 of 17 possessions.

It’s one of the reasons the team lost competitive games at Houston, New England and Indianapolis.

“It’s hard to beat teams in this league if you’re getting field goals instead of touchdowns,” said Bills running back Fred Jackson. “We know that. It’s something we’re addressing. We have to stop leaving points down there.”

“We’ve got to avoid the negative plays,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “We get down there and we get a negative play. We get a negative run. We get a

missed assignment on a run.”

The best teams in the red zone generally either run the ball well near the goal line or have quality playmakers who can make things happen in tight areas.

Big-bodied receivers like New England’s Rob Gronkowski or Detroit’s Calvin Johnson are huge red-zone assets. Elite quarterbacks don’t hurt, either. New Orleans, with Drew Brees, is No. 1 in the red zone. New England, with Tom Brady, is No. 2. Green Bay, with Aaron Rodgers, is No. 4.

Quality running teams such as Tampa Bay, Houston and Baltimore are in the top 10 in red-zone efficiency.

The Bills have made 35 trips inside the red zone, right at the league average. However, the Bills rank 28th in rushing attempts in the red zone, at 2.6 a game. That’s despite the fact the Bills are averaging a league-best 3.59 yards a carry in the red zone, according to STATS LLC.

Gailey acknowledges Buffalo needs to run more when it gets to the opposition’s 20.

“We’re trying to be more balanced down there and not just be pass-happy,” he said. “We’ve been throwing the ball quite a bit, and we’re trying to become a little bit more balanced down there because we see some eight (defenders) dropping (into coverage) quite a bit.”

“We’re not able to execute some runs, so we’re getting negative plays,” Gailey said. “Or we get sacks. In Houston we got sacked a couple times in the red zone. That really hurt us. It’s not just one thing. There’s several things that are keeping us from being as productive as we need to be in the red zone.”

Getting away from the run hurt in the 20-13 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday. On the Bills’ first trip, they had a 1-yard loss on a C.J. Spiller run, threw incomplete on a receiver screen, then failed to convert on third and 11. On the second trip, after a 63-yard pass to Stevie Johnson, they threw two incomplete passes for Johnson and failed to convert a third-and-10 play.

The Bills settled for four field goals in the win over Miami, and third-and-short failures were the problem. Ryan Fitzpatrick failed to connect on third-and-3 and third-and-1 plays, as well as three goal-to-go passes at the end of the first half. A fourth drive stalled when Andy Levitre gave up a sack on a third-and-3 play.

The Bills scored TDs on 4 of 7 trips in New England, but a holding call, a Jackson fumble and a Fitzpatrick interception accounted for the three failures to reach the end zone.

In Houston, a false start hurt one scoring chance. Another field goal resulted after a 1-yard loss on a screen pass, a sack and a scramble.

“The windows aren’t as big down there for the passing game,” Jackson said. “To offset that, you’ve got to have a good running game down there. We have to take that on ourselves. Guys like me and C.J., we know that. One of the best things we can do is when we get down there and get our number called, we’ve got to make a play so that they have the confidence in us to continue to do so.”

The Bills have passed on 60 percent of plays inside the 20. The league average for all offensive plays is 58 percent passes.

Fitzpatrick is 21 of 38 in the red zone for 143 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception. His red-zone completion percentage (55.3) ranks 16th among NFL starters. His red-zone passer rating (92.4) ranks 18th.