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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Third-and-short success key for Bills

The Buffalo Bills' offense has been good at keeping drives alive this season and great at converting third-and-manageable situations.

The Bills rank seventh in third-down offense overall, converting 42 percent of their chances.

The Bills are second in the league in third-and-5 or less, converting 65 percent. Only Dallas, at 66 percent, is better on third and 1 to 5.

It's a testament to LeSean McCoy's remarkable running ability, Tyrod Taylor's mobility, the offensive line's physical mentality and coordinator Rick Dennison's ability to scheme up short gains.

Third-down performance figures to be huge in Sunday's regular-season finale at Miami. The Dolphins' defense ranks eighth in preventing third-down conversions. The Bills got the better of Miami on third down two weeks ago, converting 7 of their first 12 third-down situations in the 24-16 victory.

"It's been a major focus and we've done a good job of it," said guard Richie Incognito. "We've preached all the time since coach McDermott has been here to keep it third and manageable. Any time you get third-and-7, third-and-7 or longer plays, you're playing in the defense's wheel-house. You limit your play calls and it increases the looks and ways the defense can disguise things."

So if the Bills are so good on third downs, why are they only 24th in scoring?

The reason is their station-to-station attack. They have to work methodically down the field. The Bills are 23rd in 20-plus pass plays, 28th in 40-plus pass plays and 28th in yards per pass play.

If the Bills weren't good on third downs, they'd almost never score.

Getting the ball to McCoy is always a good idea on third and short, via ground or air. He has converted 21 of 30 plays (70 percent) on third and 5 or shorter.

"I'm not surprised," Incognito said. "We know if we give him a little space, he's going to make us look good. He's got a lot of wiggle and can get stuff on his own. But if we can get him that initial first few yards, it gets him going and he can make people miss."

The Bills also give defenses a lot of formation and personnel variety.

"Our coaches do a great job of scheming it up, so that teams can't zone in and say hey, they're in near off-set, they're running this play," said fullback Patrick DiMarco, referring to a formation on which the fullback lines up near the strong side of the formation, toward the tight end. "We run four or five plays out of near off-set. So it makes it harder to get a bead on what we're doing."

Taylor has scrambled or run for 11 first downs. He ranks 11th among NFL QBs on conversion percentage when he throws on all third downs, at 41.5 percent. Philadelphia's Carson Wentz leads at 49.2 percent.

The 30,000-foot view: The Dolphins have a lot of work to do in the offseason, even if injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill bounces back with a good season in 2018. Tannehill counts $19.8 million against the cap next season but would count $4.6 million if cut. Given the battle at the top of the draft for QBs, Miami has to stick with Tannehill. The pass rush is toothless without blitzing, and the best edge rusher (Cameron Wake) will be 36. Top WR Jarvis Landry will be a free agent and will strike it rich, with Miami or someone else. The linebacking corps needs an overhaul. The offensive line could use at least one new stud.

Game-breaker: Kenyan Drake. The Dolphins' rookie running back is dangerous, as he showed on a 31-yard run against the Bills two weeks ago, when he outraced Tre White to the sideline. Drake is averaging 133.5 yards from scrimmage a game the past four weeks. Will the Dolphins stick to the run? In the loss to Kansas City Sunday, Drake ran for 57 yards. But Miami passed 38 times and ran 16. In the loss to the Bills, Miami passed 51 times and ran 21.

Miami ranks second last in the league in running percentage, throwing on 64 percent of its plays.

Weak link: Third downs. While Miami's defense is good on third down, the Dolphins' offense ranks last in the NFL at 31 percent conversions. It's a surprise because Miami has good receivers.

"I wish I had a great answer," Miami coach Adam Gase said. "It's frustrating because it's something different every time, whether we break down in protection, we don't have the right read, we drop a pass."

Ranking 28th in the NFL in rushing is part of Miami's problem.

"When we hit the offseason, we'll figure out where we were off track," Gase said. "Early in the season we were third-and-10 way too much. Once we did get to third and 6 or less we didn't convert as high a number as we'd like."

Blitz watch: Miami blitzed the Bills on 14 of 35 drop-backs two weeks ago, the highest percentage (40) of any team this season. Miami's blitzing at about the NFL average (28 percent) this season. We'll see how much they fear the Bills' downfield playmaking on Sunday.

Gase on Taylor: "He's done a great job where a lot of guys when they play our defensive front, they do panic. Where he's done a good job of staying in the pocket and when he does see a lane or he can get out of the pocket, he does it and really hurts us, whether he runs it or they scramble drill us and we don't stay tight on the receivers."

Not rocking: Hard Rock Stadium has the potential to be a morgue Sunday. Miami is out of the playoff race, and it's a late kickoff on New Year's Eve. The environment should not be hostile, especially if the Bills can get off to a fast start. Miami is 10-4 at home the past two seasons.

Stat for the road: Miami's defense has allowed the third most 20-plus passes in the NFL (56). Maybe the Bills can get a few chunk plays and put less pressure on their third-down offense.

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