When the Miami Dolphins gained a last gasp opportunity to win the game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Bills fans held their collective breath. The Dolphins needed 15 yards for a long field goal attempt, or 60 yards for the touchdown. Instead they got neither and the Bills escaped with a 23-21 win, in large thanks to a Bills defense that has been taking a stouter shape these past few weeks.
The progress the defensive unit has been making is impressive to watch. Though there are times when the defense gets exposed, they have for the most part been able to stall drives with turnovers and sacks. But this week the defense started to consistently shut down the Dolphins in third down situations. In all, the Bills allowed three of 13 third down conversions to the Fins. The progression of third down stops has directly played a hand in two of the Bills wins this season.
Part of the improvement is from the play of certain players, some on players getting more familiar with the new defensive scheme, and the rest is attributed by healthy playmakers coming back. In sum, the defense is getting off the field quicker and giving the offense more opportunities.
As the weeks have progressed, the Bills have gone from a 55% 3rd down conversion rate in the opener to 43% (Carolina), 41% (New York), 18% (Baltimore), 38% (Cincinnati) and this past week a 23% conversion rate. Of the 114 third down attempts they have seen, the defense has yielded 43 first downs for a 37% rate. The key though is the downward trend as it needs to continue with a sputtering offense.
The return of top corner Stephon Gilmore, despite his clubbed hand, and Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd has helped. Though the two have been limited in their first two games of the year, they have made some impact, namely Byrd against Miami as he was a part of some key pass breakups in his first full game. Gilmore has seen the field only under certain scenarios due to his left hand being in a cast, but once that comes off, expect the pass defense to be much tougher in the second half of the season.
The Bills offense needs the defense to step up until EJ Manuel comes back at the end of November. With Thad Lewis at the helm the Bills are 1-1, but have only scored four offensive touchdowns in those two games. With an offense missing their general, the Bills defense needs to continue to win the turnover battle as well as the field position game.
Creating turnovers has been another welcomed increase from the defense this year. The unit currently leads the NFL in interceptions with 12 and has recovered another three fumbles. They have also amassed 23 sacks on the year giving them a three sack a game average. As the defense continues to figure out the scheme to stop teams on third down consistently, they need to keep this pace up.
If those numbers continue on their pace then the defense will continue to put the offense into great opportunities to score. And if the turnovers and sacks start to dry up, then the ability to stop drives and force punts and field goals will eventually yield greater returns for a defense, and a team, that is continuing to build their swagger.