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17 Dec 2004

Buffalo Stampedes to Second-Half Success

by Aaron Schatz

Last Sunday, the Buffalo Bills allowed the Cleveland Browns only 17 total net yards of offense. They sacked Cleveland quarterbacks eight times for 79 yards. While the defense smothered the Browns, the offense ran up 321 net yards on its own. At game's end, the scoreboard read Buffalo 37, Cleveland 7. Frankly it wasn't even that close.

The win put the Bills at 7-6, making them the most surprising of AFC playoff contenders. When Buffalo started the season 1-5, they never could have imagined that with three games remaining they would be just a game out of wild card position. The question now is whether Buffalo can continue to ride its improvement into the postseason.

A graph of the Bills' performance from week to week would resemble a graph of seismic activity immediately before California falls into the ocean. They have been the least consistent team in the NFL, mixing a crushing defeat at the hands of division rival New England with dominant victories over the feeble franchises of the NFC West -- Seattle, St. Louis, and Arizona. They've also played a few close games, in which they either played well but were narrowly defeated by strong opponents, or played extremely poorly against the AFC's lowliest teams, Miami and Oakland.

Because those dominant victories have come over the past four weeks, the man who receives the most credit for Buffalo's turnaround is the NFL schedule-maker. Even after taking the schedule into consideration, however, Buffalo has dramatically improved over the second half of the season. They haven't just been beating the easy teams on their schedule; they've been crushing them.

But despite the fact that Buffalo has scored at least 37 points in four straight games, the offense has not been the foundation of the resurgence. With the exception of an unexpected shootout with Miami, defense has been driving Buffalo's recent wins.

A single adjustment in the defensive lineup can have a huge impact on a team -- not because of that player's ability, per se, but because the change allows the rest of the defense to switch into roles where they have a better chance to succeed. Buffalo has a number of gifted defensive players, particularly in the front seven with linebackers London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes, as well as defensive lineman Sam Adams. But the pass rush dramatically improved after two moves: safety Lawyer Milloy returned after missing the season's first five games with a broken arm, and second-year defensive end Chris Kelsay was moved into the starting lineup for good after eight games.

During their 1–5 start, Buffalo had a middle of the road pass defense according to our DVOA ratings (explained here). But over the past seven games, Buffalo has had a top-five defense against both the pass and the run. Both sacks and turnovers have become more frequent, and Buffalo has really turned things around where defense is most important: preventing third down conversions.

Things are only getting stronger with the return of veteran cornerback Troy Vincent, who is moving into the free safety role after missing nine games with a knee injury. Last week, in his first game back, Vincent had a sack, a fumble recovery, and an interception.

What about the Buffalo offense? There has been some improvement, but not from the player that has gotten the most attention, running back Willis McGahee. In reality, McGahee has not been significantly better than previous starter Travis Henry. McGahee has averaged only 3.8 yards per carry (-3.5% DVOA) and has been successful on 45% of his runs according to our Running Back Success Rate metric (explained here); Henry averaged 3.5 yards per carry (-12.5% DVOA) and was successful on 43% of his runs. The fact that Henry was starting against tougher opponents early in the year, while McGahee has played against the recent string of softer opponents, is the primary reason for the difference between the two.

Instead, Buffalo's offense has succeeded or failed for the same reason that it succeeds or fails every season. The success of a Drew Bledsoe team always comes down to the question of the quarterback's protection. When Bledsoe has time to throw, and weapons to throw to, he wins. When Bledsoe has to hurry his throw under pressure, he loses focus and makes mistakes by the bucketful.

During Buffalo's strong second half, Bledsoe is getting much more time to throw. For the first six games of the season, he was sacked an average of four times a game. Since then, he's been sacked an average of once per game.

No discussion of Buffalo's strengths would be complete without a mention of special teams. Terrence McGee is second in the NFL with a 26.5-yard kick return average, and has returned three kicks for touchdowns. On punts, thanks to returner Nate Clements and punter Brian Moorman, Buffalo averages four yards of field position more than their opponents.

How can we say that Buffalo's defense and special teams, and not the offense, actually holds responsiblity for the recent rash of scoring? During Buffalo's 1-5 start, the team's average offensive drive began on their own 28.4 yard line. During the recent 6-1 run, the average offensive drive has started on Buffalo's 39.2 yard line. The offense doesn't have to improve much to score a lot more if it gets to start ten yards closer to the goalposts each time.

The question now is whether or not all this improvement will add up to a playoff berth. In the NFC, the answer would clearly be yes, but in the AFC Buffalo must battle 8–5 Baltimore, 8–5 Denver, and 7–6 Jacksonville for the second wild card. Even 6–7 Cincinnati still harbors wild card dreams, and Buffalo must travel to the Queen City this weekend to face a team whose offensive improvement over the season's second half is the mirror image of Buffalo's defensive progress.

Their penultimate game comes against the league's worst team, San Francisco, but even if they win both of these games, a poor conference record probably means that the Bills will have to beat Pittsburgh in the final week to make the postseason on a tiebreaker with another 10–6 team. Since the Steelers have not lost for three months, and will probably still need a win to guarantee home field advantage throughout the playoffs, that may be too much to ask.


BUFFALO DVOA W-L PASS
OFFENSE
RUSH
OFFENSE
PASS
DEFENSE
RUSH
DEFENSE
SPECIAL
TEAMS
TOTAL
DVOA
Weeks 1-7 1-5 -18.9% (25) -6.3% (21) 0.3% (15) -11.9% (7) 2.7% (11) -7.0% (19)
Weeks 8-14 6-1 -1.4% (18) -6.0% (22) -28.5% (4) -23.4% (3) 14.7% (1) 24.3% (6)
Rank among 32 teams in parentheses.  DVOA further explained here.
Remember, higher ratings mean more scoring, so defense is better when it is NEGATIVE.

This article originally appeared in Wednesday's edition of the New York Sun. It also originally had a few typos, which are discussed below in the comments. Honestly, this is the last time I type an article in at midnight. Don't hold it against me. Or the Bills, for that matter.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 17 Dec 2004

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