By Sal Maiorana - Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
ORCHARD PARK - For the majority of this season, there's been a red light in the red zone for the Buffalo Bills.
"We're just not making the plays we need to make, whether it be blocking, catching, throwing and running, it's a group effort," center Eric Wood said regarding Buffalo's struggles when it penetrates the opposition's 20-yard-line. "That's the best way to put it."
As usual, Wood cut right to the heart of the matter. It has been a group effort as plays have failed because of missed blocks, ineffective runs by the backs, poor reads by the inexperienced quarterbacks, and drops or bad routes by the receivers.
"It's ugly, man," wide receiver Stevie Johnson said.
The Bills have scored touchdowns on just 11 of 26 trips into the red zone, a success rate of 42.3 percent, which is second-lowest in the NFL, ahead of only the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the first two games, against New England and Carolina, the Bills cashed in four of five times, but in the seven games since, Buffalo is 7-for-21.
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The most visible failure occurred Sunday in the 23-13 loss to Kansas City
. The Bills had first-and-goal at the 1, but Fred Jackson was stuffed twice, and then Jeff Tuel threw the ill-fated third-down slant route to T.J. Graham that was picked off by Sean Smith and returned 100 yards for a game-changing touchdown.
"That's an opportunity that we relish," said Jackson, who for the most part has done his job, scoring five of Buffalo's short range TDs. "I pride myself in goal line situations and I didn't get the job done and in the end that could be what cost us the seven points. We haven't been consistent in what we've wanted to get done. Anytime you get into the red zone we need to score touchdowns. That's something we said we wanted to get done and we haven't done that. I'm sure we'll be focusing a lot on that this week, finishing those drives."
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Last year the Bills ranked 21st in red zone TD percentage at 50 percent; not great, but statistically better than this year. One of the reasons was the presence of a veteran quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was better equipped to make smarter decisions. Also, Andy Levitre was playing left guard rather than Colin Brown and Doug Legursky.
With three veritable rookies playing quarterback this year, it's not hard to understand why the Bills have been less efficient in an area of the field where it's tougher to score.
"It's different than when you're in the field," Jackson said, meaning the 60 yards between the 20's where the defense is more spread out. "It helps to have been there and seen it before. You can definitely say not having experience (at quarterback) can contribute to us not finishing drives, but that's on us as guys who have been out there and been in that situation to get the job done. We have guys who have been there; myself, C.J., Stevie, we know what it is that we've got to get done and that's what we have to do."
Coach Doug Marrone recognizes the need to improve in the red zone. He listed that, and turnovers, as the two biggest problems with the offense in the last two games. The Bills have committed six turnovers, and have scored TDs on just two of six forays into the red zone in losses to New Orleans and Kansas City.
"We're trying to go back and see if we can put them in better situations," he said. "That's the first thing you look at as a coach. We've gone around and looked at a bunch of things around the league. What's trending around the league with the teams that have been successful and then we just have to see if that suits what we can do and if we can do that. That's what we're looking at right now."
Johnson has an idea. Get the ball to him.
He was wide open in the end zone on the Tuel interception, and he admits he's been frustrated that the young quarterbacks - Tuel, EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis - haven't utilized him more.
"We had talks about it after this game, about red zone and third down," he said, referring to a conversation with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. "I just said maybe you've got to get off the strategy sometimes and let your guys work. The way I move, the way I work, the way I study defenses, I feel like just give me an extra second to work and then go to another read. We'll see if things change this game. I said win the game with me or lose the game, and I feel we'll win most of the time."