Facing 2nd-and-1 from the Rams’ two-yard line, Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick faked a handoff, and floated as easy a pass as he’ll ever throw to TE Lee Smith for a touchdown.
The simplicity of that play, the only time the Bills found paydirt in a 15-12 loss, is exactly what should frustrate long-suffering Buffalo fans, because simple plays like that have come so seldom in the second half of the season.
The red zone is supposed to be a happy place, filled with opportunities for six points. For the Bills over the past two months, it has been a black hole. The red zone has represented failed chances, points left on the field and lingering “what ifs,” which won’t make another January sitting at home any easier.
In the first half of the season, Dave Wannstedt’s defense got the brunt of the blame for a poor record, and understandably so the way it had played. The “D” has stood tall, though, holding the last four opponents to fewer than 88 rushing yards, but they’re only 2-2 in those four games, scoring 13 points against the Colts and 12 on Sunday against the Rams.
The Week 14 loss, on a day in which the Bengals and Steelers both fell, opening the door for the final AFC wild-card spot, stings the most. The Bills led until the final minute, when the defense finally broke down, allowing the game-winning touchdown. After the game, the criticism went to a familiar place — C.J. Spiller’s snap count (30-of-58 snaps) and touches (seven carries, one reception). Spiller’s usage, or lack thereof, continues to be a hot-button topic in Western New York, but he is only part of the Bills’ inability to punch it in.
Since the bye, it’s as if the Bills’ offensive and defensive units have inverted. The run defense has drastically improved, but the red-zone offense has plummeted. Through the first seven games of the season, the Bills were seventh in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on 11-of-18 red-zone trips (61.1 percent). In their last six games, the Bills have gotten to the red zone 25 times, but scored only nine touchdowns — a rate of 36 percent, which, extrapolated for a whole season, would be among the league’s worst.
Execution, play-calling and personnel have all factored into keeping points off the board for Buffalo. Fred Jackson’s 11 red-zone carries have gained only 29 yards, and he lost a crucial fumble near the goal line against New England. C.J. Spiller has gained 4.8 yards per touch in the red zone, but on only 12 carries, tied for 41st in the NFL. Ryan Fitzpatrick has a solid 13-1 TD-to-interception ratio inside the 20, but has completed only 54.3 percent of his passes there.
The lack of touches for Spiller and Jackson near the goal line has been head-scratching from a play-calling perspective. All four of TE Scott Chandler’s red-zone catches have gone for touchdowns, but his eight targets in that area are tied for 22nd among tight ends.
Personnel-wise, the Bills are far from loaded at pass catcher, and they don’t have a prototypical bruising back. They also have been without WR David Nelson, who caught five touchdown passes in the red zone last season.
While Bills fans might be clamoring for the extra touches Spiller will get in the final three games with Jackson out (MCL sprain), that does not help the Bills’ offense. Has Spiller shown he can be a workhorse? Sure, but the offense is still better when Jackson takes his turn, and same goes for in the red zone.
With a 5-8 record, Gailey already conceded that the Bills’ playoff drought will continue, and what will be unfortunate for the offensive players, coaches and Gailey is to look at what could have been, and the points left on the gridiron. In the Bills’ last three losses since the bye — to the Patriots, Colts and Rams, by a combined 16 points — they scored touchdowns on 6-of-13 red-zone trips. A couple touchdowns instead of field goals, and all is well in Buffalo and a playoff trip is within reach.
Regret is a tough emotion to deal with. Another year without the playoffs could have been avoided by the Bills, and they will regret their missed chances in the red zone.