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Analysis: Offense picking defense up in red zone

The Buffalo Bills’ defensive performance in the red zone the last few games has coach Rex Ryan seeing, well, red.

A look at the numbers shows why.

The Bills led the NFL in red zone defense through the first seven weeks of the season, allowing just eight touchdowns to opponents in 22 trips inside the Buffalo 20-yard line.

But they’ve plummeted to 19th in the league in the five games since. Starting with a Week Eight loss to the Patriots, opponents have scored touchdowns on 11 of 12 trips in side the 20.

“Our red zone defense was the best, now we can’t stop anything, because we’re making mistakes,” Ryan said during Sunday’s victory speech in the locker room, which was posted to the team’s official website. “Come on guys, we have to play better.”

Jacksonville went 2 of 2 on trips inside the 20, as did Cincinnati in Week 11. The Seattle Seahawks were 4 of 4 in Week Nine, meaning the Bills haven’t made a single red-zone stop in their last three games.

“That is an area in particular we have got to get better at,” Ryan said Monday. “We already studied where we are failing in the red zone. We would actually I think be amongst the leaders in the league from around the 20 all the way down into the 5, but it’s inside the 5 they scored 12 times in 22 plays.”

Jacksonville got one of those touchdowns on its opening possession Sunday after it appeared the Bills might force a field-goal attempt. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles had a third-down pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage, but Jacksonville got another chance when cornerback Corey White was flagged for an obvious holding penalty against receiver Allen Robinson.

White’s holding penalty gave the Jaguars a first down. Through the first seven weeks, Buffalo allowed just one first down on 12 third-down plays inside the red zone.

On the next play, Jaguars running back Chris Ivory eluded the tackle attempt of safety James Ihedigbo and raced to the front-right pylon ahead of the rest of the Buffalo defense.

“Obviously that is a huge area of concern,” Ryan said.

The Bills’ defense is last in the NFL in goal-to-go situations, allowing touchdowns a staggering 92.3 percent of the time. Last season, Buffalo ranked tied for 13th in those situations, allowing touchdowns 66.7 percent of the time.

“Everybody runs the same call down there,” Ryan said. “We just got to get better playing down there. … That area right there is killing us, so we got to do some internal things down there that we have to get better at.”

Jacksonville’s second trip to the red zone lasted just one play, when Bortles connected with Allen Hurns on a 12-yard touchdown pass. With the Jaguars using a three-receiver set packed close to the line of scrimmage to Bortles’ left, Hurns turned and caught a screen pass, then raced to the front-left pylon. Bills linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Preston Brown were slow to react, while safety Corey Graham got picked up by a blocker.

“As players, we need to be more detailed. That’s not on the coaches, that’s on us,” cornerback Nickel Robey-Coleman told The Buffalo News after the game. “We have to hone in on the details of our assignments when we’re in the red zone. If you want to be a defense that bends and never breaks, that is a prime example of a defense that breaks. We can’t break. The first half of the season we bended but we never broke.”

The good news Sunday is that when the defense did break, the offense was there to pick up the pieces. For as tough of a time as the Bills are having offensively inside the 20-yard line, the offense is getting it done. Buffalo ranks fifth in red-zone touchdown percentage entering Monday Night Football, converting 66.7 percent of the time.

The Bills were a perfect 3 for 3 Sunday against Jacksonville inside the 20. The first trip came late in the second quarter, and was the most interesting. After Brandon Tate was stopped a yard short of a first down, the Jaguars called a timeout.

Ryan had kicker Dan Carpenter on the field, but given time to think it over, put the offense back out. Rookie running back Jonathan Williams made it look like a good decision when he ran for a first down behind the blocking of Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito.

On the next play, running back LeSean McCoy took an option pitch 7 yards for a touchdown off right tackle, with Jordan Mills and tight end Charles Clay supplying the key blocks.

“We’re running the ball down there effectively,” Ryan said, “and I think our quarterback comes alive.”

That was true on the offense’s second trip to the red zone. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor scrambled for a 7-yard touchdown run after Glenn whiffed on a block. It was a play that showed off his superior athleticism.

“Going into the game the plan wasn’t to run Tyrod as much, but running for first downs and touchdowns is OK,” Ryan said. “Down there it’s hard to defend, some of those runs you might go 11 on 11 football, because usually a defense can out number you, but when you run the ball with your quarterback, it balances it out.”

Lately, the same can be said of the offense’s red-zone production when compared to that of the defense.

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