The Big LeadThe Big Lead

Turnovers Will Determine the Course of the Bills' Season

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 22: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Tre'Davious White #27 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates after making the game clinching interception in the final seconds of the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at New Era Field on September 22, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. Buffalo defeats Cincinnati 21-17. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

We may only be about three weeks through this NFL season, but there have already been a few emerging storylines that would have shocked your standard NFL fan before the year began. The Baltimore Ravens actually pass the ball more than they run, and have been astoundingly effective in doing so. The Denver Broncos have zero sacks through three games. Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Sam Darnold are all sidelined for different lengths of time with various maladies.

But one of the biggest surprises of all has been the Buffalo Bills. They're undefeated after their first three games, have averaged 390 yards of offense per contest, and Josh Allen looks a lot better than he did at this time one year ago. The defense was a top-five unit last year and picked up right where it left off. Of course, the true litmus test comes in the foreboding figure of the New England Patriots, slated to visit Buffalo in Week 4. This battle of unbeatens will show to Buffalo and the NFL how close the Bills really are to competing.

Looking at the numbers behind their first trio of victories, there's both reasons for optimism and pessimism if you're a Bills fan. The numbers that stand out the most come from the turnover department-- the defense has forced no less than seven turnovers in three short games. That's a high number, and a very large part of the reason Buffalo's record has remained unblemished. But the question must be posed: can they keep it up?

Consider this: Sean McDermott has been at the head of an NFL defense in some capacity every year since 2011, when he was named defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. McDermott-coached defenses have been in the top 10 for turnovers per game every year since 2015. Turnovers can be a wonky stat to place faith in and fluctuate year-to-year, because half of the turnovers in the NFL each year can be chalked up to good (or bad) luck more than anything. But still, five years in a row as a top 10 team in that stat isn't an anomaly, it's a pattern.

Last year, Buffalo averaged 1.7 turnovers per game, and this year, they're on pace to eclipse that mark at 2.3 per game. Two turnovers per game isn't an unreachable mark; in the past three years, five teams have reached the same number over a full season. Buffalo doesn't have that one transcendent defensive talent that defenses like the Bears, the most recent team to hit two turnovers a game, did. But for a squad locked in on getting the ball loose in some way, shape, or form, this level of success very well could be something they can continue.

Unfortunately, turnovers is also where things could go south quickly for Buffalo. As often as their defense gets their hands on the ball, Allen and the rest of the offense hand it right back. They have six turnovers through three games, and breaking out the calculator here, comes to an average of 2.3 turnovers a game (repeating, of course) across the length of a full season. Bad! Allen has three interceptions and four fumbles already, only one of which he was able to recover. As Bill Belichick is fond of saying, before teams figure out how to win, they have to figure out how not to lose. That starts by preventing turnovers.

Viewing Allen as the foundation of the Bills' hopes and dreams isn't exactly a hot take. They won't go far unless Allen continues to progress, and cutting down on turnovers is a big hurdle for the young quarterbacks of the NFL. In only his second year (and taking into account how much time he spends outside the pocket), it's no shock Allen is having a tough time hanging on to the ball early on. Buffalo's defense has been good enough to keep them undefeated, despite the turnovers. But if Buffalo wants to show they can enjoy sustain success, it'll start with turnovers, one way or the other.