Third-down efficiency is not an automatic indicator of success in the NFL.
Heading into their Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants, the undefeated Minnesota Vikings ranked 28th in the NFL at moving the chains on third down, converting just 32.5 percent of the time.
But there’s no doubt it’s a prime culprit when a team has a bad offense. Far too often, that’ been the case for the Buffalo Bills. Just once in the decade prior to the 2016 season have the Bills finished in the top half of the league in third-down efficiency – a 13th-place finish in 2012.
This year, the team is near the bottom of the rankings, at 25th overall, converting exactly one-third of their opportunities (17 of 51). But there is reason to hope things are on the upswing after Sunday’s 16-0 victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
The Bills converted 7 of 15 third-down opportunities against the Patriots – easily their best performance of the season.
“You hit on it. It is a big thing for us,” coach Rex Ryan said Monday. “It’s a team stat, time of possession a lot of times is a team statistic, and we needed to improve drastically from the previous year offensively. I think we are headed in the right direction.
So how did the Bills move the chains Sunday? Here is a look at each of their conversions:
• Third and 7 from the New England 19-yard line, 7:31 left in the first quarter: Quarterback Tyrod Taylor hits Robert Woods for an 11-yard gain to the Patriots’ 8-yard line. Woods ran a great route to shake Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan and get open for an easy conversion.
• Third and goal from the New England 7-yard line, 5:35 left in the first quarter: Taylor hits running back LeSean McCoy for a touchdown. McCoy leaked out to the right flat, got a savvy block from Woods and beat Malcolm Butler.
• Third and 4 from the New England 48-yard line, 9:43 remaining in the second quarter: Taylor takes the shotgun snap and scrambles right after his receivers were covered. He dives right to the first-down marker.
• Third and 2 from the Buffalo 17-yard line, 3:43 remaining in the second quarter: McCoy lines up next to Taylor in the backfield, then runs to the left flat after the snap. Taylor checks down to him, and McCoy easily picks up the first down.
• Third and 10 from the New England 39-yard line, 9:15 remaining in the third quarter: Taylor gets good protection in the pocket, allowing him to step up and throw a strike to the outside to receiver Marquise Goodwin, who ran a good route to get open against Butler.
• Third and 1 from the Buffalo 39-yard line, 3:43 remaining in the third quarter: The Bills stack the line of scrimmage and fullback Jerome Felton plows ahead for a gain of 2 yards.
• Third and 10 from the Buffalo 27-yard line, 20:20 remaining in the fourth quarter: Taylor brilliantly avoids the rush of Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive end Chris Long, then finds receiver Walter Powell, who was lined up in a trips right formation.
“Part of that is staying in front of the sticks, your pass protection holds up,” Ryan said of the improved third-down performances. “We had an opportunity to win some battles, I think we (did) that.”
In two games under new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, the Bills are 11 of 28 on third down after going just 6 of 23 the first two weeks.
“When you have a player like Tyrod, you got a player like Shady McCoy, I think it gives you ‘you better try to stop them, if not we will just give the ball off to him and let him run for it,’ ” Ryan said. “It opens up your passing game a little bit and our guys, I think we are taking advantage of the talent that we have. I think our guys are doing a good job of that, Anthony in particular.”
If you watched Sunday’s game and felt like the Bills were in total control, even if the score was never more than a two-possession game, the third-down conversions played into that. Buffalo controlled the ball for more than 36 minutes. The Patriots weren’t doing much when they did get the ball, but they also didn’t have many chances.
“Just control the tempo, control the ball,” McCoy said. “We got first downs when we needed to get first downs. When we needed to get certain runs, we got them. … You want to stay on the field, convert on third downs and just control the game.”