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Buffalo Bills' futility on third down contributes to losing ways

Sep. 17, 2010
 
Miami Dolphins' Karlos Dansby (58) sacks Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards (5) during the first quarter of Sunday's  game in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Dolphins won 15-10.
Miami Dolphins' Karlos Dansby (58) sacks Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards (5) during the first quarter of Sunday's game in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Dolphins won 15-10. / David Duprey/AP

Packers vs. Bills

Regular-season series

♦ Overall: Buffalo leads 7-3.
♦ At Lambeau Field: Packers lead 2-1.

Starting quarterbacks
♦ Packers: Aaron Rodgers (18-15 overall; 0-0 vs. Buffalo).
♦ Bills: Trent Edwards (14-17; 0-0 vs. Green Bay).

Once a Bill, now a Packer
♦ There are no former Bills on the Packers’ roster.

Once a Packer, now a Bill
♦ Tight end David Martin (2001-2006) is a former Packer. ♦ Quarterback Brian Brohm (2nd round, 2008) and offensive lineman Jamon Meredith (5th round, 2009) are former draft choices of the Packers.

Getting down on 3rd

Since 2009, teams with third-down conversions rates below 35 percent.

Pct. Team Record
25.5 Bills 6-11
26.5 Chiefs 5-12
28.3 49ers 8-9
29.1 Raiders 5-12
32.9 Browns 5-12
32.9 Rams 1-16
33.2 Buccaneers 4-13
33.9 Seahawks 6-11

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Third-down conversion rates aren’t as telling as some of the other statistics bandied about in football circles. But know this: teams that convert at a rate of less than 30 percent over the course of a season rarely emerge with a winning record.

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The Buffalo Bills were a prime example last year. Prime, because they ranked last in third-down efficiency (25.8 percent) which contributed to a 6-10 record and last place in the AFC East Division.

That the Bills fell to such a low is a bit unusual in and of itself. Of the nearly one thousand teams that have taken to the field since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only 32 have finished with a third-down conversion rate below 30 percent.

Last year, four clubs — the Bills, Chiefs, Raiders and 49ers — dipped that far, and only San Francisco (8-8) avoided a losing record. Since 1978, the 2005 Chicago Bears (11-5) and the 1978 Packers (8-7-1) have been the only two to post winning records.

The 1998 Seahawks and 1999 Ravens each went 8-8.

Buffalo’s play on third down could and did get ugly. The Bills and Chiefs were the only teams to go the entire season without hitting 50 percent in at least one game. Unlike Kansas City, Buffalo never bettered 40 percent.

The Bills converted a league-low 51 third downs. The next poorest team, the Chiefs, made good on 62.

Only four of Buffalo’s 25 touchdowns occurred on that key down. Not one came on the ground.

When the Bills did run, their quarterbacks converted more often than their running backs. Quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick (seven first downs) and Trent Edwards (two) were more successful than Fred Jackson (seven) and Marshawn Lynch (one) on third down.

Fitzpatrick (55.2 passer rating), Edwards (78.6) and Brian Brohm (42.4) did nothing special through the air. Their combined rating (63.9) on third down was well below what they accomplished on the other downs (75.2).

As the Bills demonstrated so aptly, an inability to move the chains can result in fewer plays and fewer yards. Buffalo had the fewest plays from scrimmage (911) of any team in 2009, and their offensive output (4,382 yards) was the third lowest behind Cleveland (4,163) and Oakland (4,258).

So, has anything changed in 2010? Judging by the Bills’ 15-10 loss to the Dolphins, the answer is no.

Edwards and the offense converted a meager three of 14 third downs (21.4 percent) in their season opener at home. Edwards made good with passes of 4 yards to tight end Shawn Nelson and 9 yards to wide receiver Lee Evans. Jackson ran 9 yards on the other successful attempt.

Buffalo produced just 10 net yards on 14 third-down plays. Their longest gain was 9 yards (twice) and Edwards (12.0 passer rating) was sacked three times for 23 yards in losses.

Hindering the Bills was the distance they had to travel. Eight times they faced third-and-10 or longer, and eight times they failed. Edwards’ throw to Evans on third-and-7 in the fourth quarter was the greatest distance they could overcome.

As was the case last year, Buffalo produced little offense. Its 166 yards were the fewest by any team in Week 1 and the 54 plays it ran were fifth fewest.

In other words, first-year coach Chan Gailey’s debut looked positively 2009-like.

Not since the season finale against the New England Patriots in 2008 have the Bills converted at a rate equal to or greater than 50 percent. That was a home game. Buffalo last hit or bettered 50 percent on the road when it went 5-for-9 in a 41-17 loss to the Cardinals in Arizona on Oct. 5, 2008.

Buffalo’s run of 13 straight road games with a third-down conversion rate below .500 is one of the longest in the league. It’s a streak the Packers easily could extend Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.

Eric Goska is a Press-Gazette correspondent, a Packers historian and the author of "Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness," a statistical history of the Packers. E-mail him at aegoska@sbcglobal.net.

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