Is It Time to Take the Buffalo Bills Seriously?
This has already been an interesting season for the Buffalo Bills. With Rex Ryan as the head coach and Rob Ryan on the coaching staff, the Bills were probably always going to be interesting in some way, but through six weeks, the team is on the positive side of that line.
After Week 2, the Bills fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman after an 0-2 start. At the time, it appeared to be a move by a head coach trying to deflect blame for the team’s struggles. But things have started to turn around for the Bills. Since that start, the Bills are 4-0, have the highest point differential in the league, and are fourth by our nERD rankings.
This leaves a few questions that need to be answered. Has there really been that much of a change from the first two weeks of the season? Are the Bills really one of the best teams in the league right now? Luckily you’ve come to such an article that is going to take a look at those answers.
When Roman was fired as offensive coordinator, there wasn’t much going wrong with the Bills’ offense, despite a sluggish start. Buffalo played an ugly game against the Baltimore Ravens, but all six opponents have played ugly games against the Ravens this season -- that’s just what they do. The Ravens have also turned out to have one of the best defenses in the league, per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, ranking fifth overall is Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Then Roman was fired after a 37-31 loss against the New York Jets in Week 2.
One of the reasons given was the desire to improve and increase the running game, and to that point, the move has succeeded. Through the first two games, the Bills had a combined team total of 151 rushing yards. In the four games since, only one single game has been below that mark, a 134-yard effort against the New England Patriots in Week 4. But that positive regression might have been coming anyway. Buffalo’s first two opponents, the Ravens and Jets, rank first and sixth in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play through the first six weeks of the season. The four opponents since rank 9th, 14th, 22nd and 26th.
While this improvement could have been expected, it shouldn’t be ignored. The Bills are playing incredibly well on the ground right now. Buffalo ranks second in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, behind only the Dallas Cowboys. LeSean McCoy has been a dominant force on the ground, and he ranks second among 29 backs with at least 50 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt. McCoy also has the third-highest Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- among that group of backs.
The improvement on the ground is partially schedule-related, but there’s also been better production by everyone on the field. There’s a 2015 Seattle Seahawks feel to the offensive line, where it struggles mightily in pass protection -- the Bills allow the second-most offensive pressures, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders -- but the line has been able to create holes of McCoy and the other backs. McCoy is also adding to that with the seventh-most broken tackles on the ground, per Sports Info Solutions.
While the running game has carried the offense, there’s still some concern through the air. Tyrod Taylor is just 21st in Passing NEP per drop-back, and he has the second-worst Success Rate among 31 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop-backs on the season. Taylor’s passes can be boom-or-bust, especially since he tends to favor downfield throws, but without Sammy Watkins in the offense, those throws are now going to Marquise Goodwin and Justin Hunter. The leading target-getter on this team through six weeks is Robert Woods, who is just 60th in Reception NEP per target among 90 wide receivers with at least 20 targets.
There is some promise, though. The passing offense ranks 12th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play due to the slate of pass defenses they have played and the relatively small amount they rely on throwing the ball. As Ryan hoped, the Bills have the third lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league through six weeks.
After a rough start to the season, the defense has also started to turn things around. The unit is now ranked ninth overall in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, and the improvement is coming all across the board.
The defense has created the third-highest percentage of pressure, per Sports Info Solutions, and that’s converted to the second-highest sack rate in the league. Lorenzo Alexander leads the league in sacks and Jerry Hughes is tied for the third most individual pass pressures per Sports Info Solutions. Thanks to the defensive line -- and linebackers such as Zach Brown -- the Bills also rank third in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.
But not all of Buffalo’s production is sustainable. The Bills are allowing touchdowns on just 1.5% of opposing pass attempts, which leads the league. It's unlikely that rate is going to hold for a full season. Last year, the Seahawks led the league when they allowed a touchdown on just 2.6% of pass attempts. The Denver Broncos, who had the best pass defense by Adjusted Passing NEP per play last season, were 4th at 3.3%.
The Bills are also tied for the 6th-highest interception rate in the league at 2.9%. Add in fumbles, and Buffalo's defense has the highest percentage of drives that end in turnovers at 19.3%. They need to rely on the pressure and turnovers, because they’re allowing the 11th-highest yards per attempt when opponents are able to get the pass off.
There’s certainly reasons to be excited about the Bills, but there’s also some reasons to be wary outside of some of the regression stated above. This is a team that still uses the Wildcat in 2016 and brings in E.J. Manuel on occasion for both run and pass plays, which sends Tyrod Taylor out wide. And while the team is just around the league average in penalties this season, they are still prone to silly errors. Just this past Sunday, the Bills opened the first play of the third quarter with 12 men on the field on offense.
It’s impossible, though, to ignore how well this team has played over the past four weeks. Sitting at 4-2, the Bills, per our models, have the seventh-highest playoff odds in the league right now (76.5%), which is the second-highest odds in the AFC behind the Patriors. We’ll likely find out more about this team in the three weeks leading up to their bye. Buffalo plays at the Miami Dolphins in Week 7, hosts New England in Week 8, and goes to Seattle for a Monday night game in Week 9.
Though it’s also a fairly easily schedule after the bye. Having those four wins in the bank certainly helps, especially in the AFC, which has one other non-division leader with four wins.
The Bills have done enough to be taken seriously for now, but the toughest tests might still be to come.