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Pro Football Focus

Third down has been unmanageable for Bills. What the numbers show

The Buffalo Bills suffered their third loss of the season, losing to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

The Bills' struggles to move the chains on third down were on full display and have been an underlying concern for much of the season.

On Sunday, the Bills converted a first down on 5 of 13 third-down opportunities, 38.5%. For the season, the Bills are converting at 37.2% of third-down situations, 20th in the league. The Bills have generated the sixth-lowest PFF grade on third downs as an offense (63.3) and have the league’s worst rushing grade at 39.3 in these situations.

After the loss to the Browns, coach Sean McDermott mentioned the Bills' inability to convert on third-and-manageable, generally defined as 6 yards or less. On Monday, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll noted, "the third-and-shorts were costly for us this game."

"We had plenty of opportunities," Daboll told reporters. "I’d say third and 2-to-5 last game. You’d like to skip third downs. It’s a tough down as it is. We need to do a better job, all of us; it starts with me, of converting in those situations."


In third-and-manageable situations, the Bills are the 26th-ranked offense in Pro Football Focus grade and are the NFL’s most penalized team in these situations with 11. Of 63 third-and-manageable situations, the Bills have converted only 26. That rate of 41.3% ranks 28th in the NFL, more than 10 percentage points below the league average of 52.6%.

Plays 1st downs Pct. PFF rank
Runs 18 8 44.4 30
Passes 45 18 40 22
Totals 63 26 41.3 26


Allen has graded as the 25th-best quarterback on third-and-manageable as a passer with a 60.8% completion rate, going 17 for 32 for 212 yards, two scores and one interception. On the ground, only Allen and Frank Gore have carried on third-and-6 or less this season.

Allen has converted seven first downs on 10 attempts, while Gore has generated only three first downs on nine attempts. Gore’s lack of conversion could be a result of below-average offensive line play as the group ranks just 19th in run-blocking during third-and-manageable situations.


On third-and-long (7 yards or more), the Bills are in a similar situation.

Buffalo ranks 24th in the league with a 60.7 overall grade on offense with the 23rd-ranked passing attack on third-and-long. In total, the Bills have called a predictable 55 passes on 61 third-down situations with 7 or more yards to go.

Of their 61 opportunities, they have moved the chain 19 times for a 31.1% conversion rate. That’s good enough for ninth in the NFL and three percentage points better than the NFL average (28.1%). That's remarkable considering Buffalo has generated only the 22nd best pass-blocking grade as an offensive line. As a unit, they’ve allowed 26 pressures on 55 pass-blocking snaps on third-and-long this season.

In 48 dropbacks, Allen has gone 23 for 36 for 319 yards, two scores and one interception for a 99.2 passer rating on third-and-7 or more. Respectable numbers on the surface, however, his PFF grade plummets as he ranks third in the NFL with four turnover-worthy plays and fourth in sacks taken with nine in these situations. He is 28th among quarterbacks with a 56.5 passing grade on third-and-long.

John Brown has been Allen’s receiver of choice on third-and-long and has impressed with a 91.5 receiving grade on his opportunities, first in the NFL among all pass-catchers, including running backs and tight ends. He’s turned 16 targets into 11 receptions for 218 yards and 10 first downs. Brown’s first-down total also ranks first among pass-catchers. Cole Beasley ranks second on the team with nine targets on third-and-long, hauling in six catches for 74 yards and four first downs.

Looking ahead

It’s clear the Bills will need to improve their consistency on third downs as we hit the home stretch of the NFL season. An uptick in conversion rate will do wonders for an offense that has been spinning its wheels. It could also offer more balance for a team that has relied so heavily on their above-average defense through Week 10.

Over the next seven weeks to close out the regular season, the Bills will face four defenses (New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers) that rank in the top 15 in PFF grade on third downs. The Patriots will be the biggest challenge, ranking second overall. In the area where the Bills have particularly struggled on third-and-manageable situations, six of their seven opponents have excelled by allowing a conversion rate of 55% or less.

With the playoffs still likely for the 6-3 Bills, turning third downs into first downs at a more consistent rate could be the difference of being one-and-done team or making a deep postseason run in January.

Pro Football Focus will be contributing to all season long.

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