The Buffalo Bills attributed their success against the Arizona Cardinals to their “tempo” offense. The Bills had switched offensive coordinators and they wanted to dictate the pace of a game where they didn’t have star wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
“It’s tempo,” Bills RB LeSean McCoy said when asked about the offensive efficiency. “I knew we would run the ball well because he’s [Rex Ryan] big on that. The urgency to get in and out of the huddle. Get up on the ball. There were some times where we would snap the ball when they were just kind of lining up and that helps out. Defenses can’t structure their blitzes how they want. They can’t see what formations we’re in so they can line up everything and get it correct.”
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recognized the changes in tempo for the Bills offense, if nothing else.
“It looks like it's pretty much the same,” Belichick said about the Bills offense under a new coordinator. “They're a little bit of a game plan team. They usually have a couple of new wrinkles in the running game, a couple of new wrinkles in the passing game, so those showed up against Arizona, but those kind of show up from week to week anyway.
“I'd say it just looked like overall they played maybe a little faster, a little more aggressively with the same plays. But they do a good job of scoring whatever it was - 30-something points against the Jets. They scored a lot of points again last week. They didn't have a high-scoring week against the Ravens but the last two weeks they've put a lot of points on the board.”
So despite the changes in coaching, the real difference for the Bills came with their increase in speed.
Tempo is a difficult statistic to measure because there are two clear ways to do it. First, you can simply divide the time of possession by the number of plays run. The issue is this means teams that throw a lot of incomplete passes will appear to have fantastic tempos. Second, you can average the time left on the play clock to see how quickly the play is getting off- but this number is not easily accessible.
Now there are issues with game script- teams with leads in the fourth quarter won’t be in any hurry to get the snap off- but we’ll address that later.
Using the first method, we can see the Bills offense getting faster, but we also see that the Bills were not too different from their week 2 performance.
Buffalo averaged 28.8 seconds per play (s/p) in 2015 and that increased to 33.2 s/p in week 1 against the Ravens. The Bills then averaged 24.5 s/p in both week 2 against the Jets and week 3 against the Cardinals. An increase in tempo isn’t linked to the new offensive coordinator under this model.
Football Outsiders has a metric called “situation neutral-pace” which focuses on game scenarios that eliminate blowouts and hurry-ups. So they look at the pace of teams outside of the two minute drill and when it’s a one score game in the second half. They look at a few other factors, but that’s the basic gist of the metric.
It turns out that the Bills have the slowest offensive rate in the NFL when it’s a one-score game (+/- 6 points), and the 27th slowest offense in the “situation-neutral” evaluation. Last year, the Bills ranked 27th and 23rd, respectively.
For comparison, the 2015 Patriots had the 11th fastest offense in a one-score game and the 2nd fastest offense in the “situation-neutral” setting. This year, the Patriots rank 30th and 19th respectively, which shows how much slower the offense moves without Tom Brady under center.
But Football Outsiders finds that the Bills have the 3rd fastest offense in the NFL this year when they hold a 7+ point lead, all of which came against the Cardinals. This is the tempo that the Bills felt and the Patriots witnessed in their film review. The 2015 Bills ranked 27th in the NFL tempo while having a 7+ point lead.
I tried to measure the play clock of the Bills, but the FOX broadcast didn’t have it visible for this past game against the Cardinals. Buffalo routinely snapped the ball against the Jets with an average of 11 seconds left on the play clock and, based on the snap times, it appeared to be a similar tempo against the Cardinals.
The Patriots are going to have to be prepared to take on a faster Bills defense, since this is how the Bills are compensating for having so many key players injured. Regardless of whether or not the Bills have had an increased tempo over the past two weeks, the Bills could be operating at one of the fastest rates in the NFL if the Cardinals game is any indication.
New England added another defensive tackle in John Hughes to help out with the rotation and the Patriots are going to have to make sure the defensive players stay fresh and ready at all times so the Bills can’t take advantage of any lapses late in the game.