Bills offense off to good start, but red zone woes must be corrected

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The lasting memory from Monday night in Nashville will be quarterback Josh Allen coming up just short on a fourth-down QB sneak, steps away from the end zone in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.

That was the moment the Buffalo Bills ran out of opportunities and lost 34-31 to the Tennessee Titans, falling to 4-2 heading into the bye week.

But the Bills lost in Week 6 for reasons beyond just one play. The defense played its worst game of the season, giving up a season-high 34 points. The team committed penalties at inopportune times and couldn't take an early lead as it had so often earlier in the season.

Against the Titans, the Bills finished 2-for-5 on scoring touchdowns on trips to the red zone, settling for short field goals twice and then the end-of-game loss of downs. The timing of the red zone shortcomings was part of the problem; two of the Bills’ first three drives ended with those short field goals. Instead of a potential 14-0 start, it was 6-0. A 76-yard run by Titans running back Derrick Henry quickly took away the lead.

“[We] try to make [an opposing] team one-dimensional. If you're up 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, you like where you're going,” coach Sean McDermott said. “But we didn't. We were up 6-0 ... I thought we controlled the first quarter, for the most part, but to only be up 6-0 at that point was not where we wanted to be.”

The Bills are second in the league in points per game (33.8), but their red zone offense is still holding them back -- especially against tougher opponents like the Titans. Buffalo leads the league in red zone drives (29). But only 55.2% of those drives have ended in touchdowns (26th in the NFL). The Bills have kicked three more red zone field goals (12) than any other team.

So, what’s going wrong this year? Can it be fixed? Why aren’t the Bills scoring a touchdown on 62% of red zone drives like last year?

One of the big differences is Allen is being blitzed less. Overall, Allen was blitzed on 36% of plays last year versus just 16% this year. In the red zone, his blitz rate has decreased from 37% to 22%, per ESPN Stats & Info. He had 12 passing touchdowns against the blitz in the red zone last year, but has only one so far this year. Defenses haven't needed to pressure him to create havoc. Instead, they are limiting the passing lanes.

“When you kind of have that feeling of being able to move the ball, and you kind of stall out there in the red zone, it’s never a good feeling,” Allen said. “We want to score points, that’s our job. Score touchdowns.”

The lack of blitzing has also meant Allen has a harder time rushing inside the red zone. Allen had six touchdowns on 18 designed rushes in the red zone last year. So far this year, he has one on 11 attempts.

“It's certainly an area we've got to improve. We're leaving potential points off the board,” McDermott said. “Even though quite a few of our wins have been lopsided wins, they could have been even more lopsided, right? In last night's game, too ... maybe that's a difference in the game, maybe it's not, who knows. ... We got to do a better job in the red zone execution-wise, there's points to be had there.”

Six of the seven teams that finished 2020 with the best red zone touchdown efficiency made the playoffs.

While what worked last year has not been as successful this season, there is still plenty of time to get it right. Allen could be better at finding open receivers, get the running backs more involved as receivers (only seven combined targets) and the offensive line could allow Allen more time to find weapons downfield.

“I got to be better for us in the red zone, so it's no secret, 2-of-5 against a team like this, it's not gonna win you a football game,” Allen said. “If we go 3 of 5, we win that game. ... You can't give them those opportunities and not convert when you got to put six on the board.”