Buffalo Bills punter Corey Bojorquez better be prepared for a busy day Sunday in Minneapolis. The Vikings are great at making opponents punt.
Not only did Minnesota lead the NFL in third-down defense last season, the Vikings posted the best percentage on third downs of any team in at least the last 42 years, since 1975.
Minnesota opponents converted just 25.2 percent of third-down opportunities last year. No other team held foes under 31 percent, and the league average on third downs was 38.3 percent.
The NFL has records on third-down success going back to 1972. The only teams to do better than last season’s Vikings were the 1975 Vikings (25.1) and the 1973 Los Angeles Rams (24.7).
Minnesota has all 11 defensive starters back from last year. The Bills face an epic challenge to keep drives alive in U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I can talk for the O-line as a group: We’ve got to help the defense,” said Bills guard Vlad Ducasse. “Whenever we’re there and out, we’re not giving ourselves a chance. It starts up front with the O-line.”
Making the challenge even harder: The Bills have put themselves in awful third-down situations the first two games.
Buffalo’s offense is 31st on third downs, converting just 24 percent. Of the Bills’ 29 third-down situations, 22 of them have been third-and-6 or more. The Bills simply aren’t giving themselves a chance on third down.
“No doubt, we need to be more efficient on first and second down,” said center Ryan Groy.
BEST NFL THIRD-DOWN DEFENSES
Year Team Pct. Record
1973 L.A. Rams 24.7 12-2
1975 Minnesota 25.1 12-2
2017 Minnesota 25.2 13-3
1991 New Orleans 26.1 11-5
1998 Oakland 26.3 8-8
“This league is hard when you get like that,” said fullback Patrick DiMarco. “These defenses are too good. Pass rushers and coordinators have too much in their bag once you get in third and six-plus. We need to get in third and manageable more.”
Ideally, the running of LeSean McCoy would be taking pressure off the Bills’ young quarterbacks.
In the first two games the Bills netted just 20 yards on 12 runs in the first half. On first downs overall, the Bills have 14 carries for 36 yards, a 2.6-yard average.
It might be hard to lean on the run game against the Vikings, who have two elite defensive tackles in 330-pound Linval Joseph and 300-pound Sheldon Richardson, who gave the Bills loads of problems as a member of the New York Jets from 2013 to 2016.
“It’s partially my fault and us not running the ball,” said DiMarco, being accountable even though he only has played nine snaps. “We’ve got to get ourselves in better situations. We have to give ourselves better opportunities this week. We have to get more positive runs. We need to get out of second and 7 second and 8. We need to get in second and 4 so our whole playbook is open. Whether it’s run game, quick game pass protecting, we’ve all got to play better.”
Of course, the Bills’ defense knows it must do its part, too. The defense has given up 54 first-half points the first two weeks, which puts the offense in a predictable catch-up mode.
“If we stop the guys from scoring, we still have a chance no matter what the offense is doing,” said Tre’Davious White.
The combination of great coverage and strong pass rush produces good third-down defense. The Vikings, led by All-Pro defensive backs Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, have both. Five of the Vikings’ back-seven coverage men in third-down situations have been playing together for more than three seasons. The Vikes' D is at 34.6 on third downs through two games.
While most teams stick to regular down and distance situations in Wednesday practices, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he starts work on third downs a day early.
“We work real hard on it,” said Zimmer. “We spend an extra day than most people do, I think, on third downs. … We’ll spend part of today with third downs, on some of the introduction of third-down routes and third-down pressures, so that we have a good feeling about it going into Thursday and Friday.”
“And we have good players,” Zimmer added.
Only six NFL teams since 2000 have been under 30 percent on third-down defense, and all made the playoffs.
The Bills’ defense never has held teams under 30 percent, dating to 1972. The Bills’ best defensive figure in a 16-game season was 33 percent, in the playoff campaign of 1981.