If you’re like me, you enjoy putzing around on the wealth of stats sites available for the NFL. I’m talking PFF, Football Outsiders, NFL Team Stats, SB Nation’s advanced stats, and more. I can’t watch every game — I don’t want to watch every game, for goodness’ sake — so I rely on secondhand information to get a feel for the weekly lulls and swells of the NFL. That includes the film analysts I trust, as well as the sites that present player and team performances numerically. It’s like metal detecting on the beach: mostly, you get what you expect. But when you get something you didn’t expect, it’s uncharted, exciting, and worthy of investigation.
I’m wearing a deerstalker as we speak.
Here’s a great example: I haven’t been watching the Bills recently because…well, because they’re the Bills. And as such, I had no idea that this was a thing:
In both of the last two weeks (two of his best games) he has MASSIVELY led the league.
Wk 12: 18.3 (!!) – next closest was 11.8
Wk 13: 15.9 – next was 12.1
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) December 4, 2018
That piqued my interest immediately.
You don’t just start hitting absurdly high numbers in intended air yards without a concerted offensive effort to do so. Put another way: this can’t just be Josh Allen deciding to bomb every single pass, regardless of what his offensive coordinator Brian Daboll wants of him. No, this must have been a deliberate move; a decision between the head coach, the offensive coordinator, the QB coach, and the quarterback. We’re going to start pushing the ball deep. A lot.
But it’s even more than that!
NFL Rushing Leaders since Week 12
1. Phillip Lindsay – 267 rush yards
2. Lamar Miller – 265 rush yards
3. Josh Allen – 234 rush yards
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 4, 2018
Over the past two weeks, Josh Allen has ran for more yardage than all but two NFL running backs.
When it rains, it pours — and there’s no way these two drip-drops are unrelated. Against the Jaguars in Week 12, the Josh Allen-led Bills put up their second highest point total of the year with 24; and against a tough Dolphins defense in Week 13, 17 points — their highest in a loss this season.
Now, you could have counted me among the many Draft analysts firmly disbelieving in Josh Allen as a prospect — I had him ranked lower than any TDN scout. I was especially concerned with his Year 1 projection, as so much of his college game was embodied by chaos, improvisation, and physically outclassing his competition. Here we are in Year 1, and it is much as I expected: Allen’s best plays come as a result of chaos — often of his own authoring — and improvisation, and he saves himself with his impressive speed and unimaginable arm strength.
But credit goes to Brian Daboll, the first-year offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, who has found a way to strap his offense to Josh Allen’s back, throw on a cowboy hat, and ride the wild bull like a rodeo star.
How has he adjusted the offense to help Allen generate positive plays? The first answer is play-action.
Against the Jaguars in Week 12, 12 of Allen’s 27 dropbacks were play-action passes: that’s 44.4%, good for the best figure of the week. Borrowing heavily from some Sean McVay ideas — I said it! Sean McVay! — Daboll tightened up the splits of his offense drastically and put Allen under center to run these play-action ideas. That’s unlike anything Allen ever saw at Wyoming, where he ran a heavily pistol and shotgun, spread-style of offense.
But it makes sense for Allen’s strengths: he throws the ball as accurately on the move as he does from a stationary base, and it often simplifies the read to a half-field. Allen is often forced to throw the ball away under these circumstances, which will hurt his completion percentage — but he also has the opportunity to scramble, which has been a huge boost to the Bills’ offense.
But we’ll get to the scrambling bit later.
This is a sick wrinkle off of a typical levels concept, which would see the underneath whip route, the intermediate crosser from the opposite side of the field, and then the corner route deep from the slot receiver. Instead, it’s a corner-post route, which Allen hits by stopping his feet to throw across the field. Great design: with only one Bills receiver to the field at the snap, the Jaguars check to allow Jalen Ramsey to track that receiver in man coverage anywhere he goes — which is what opens the deep area of the field for Deionte Thompson’s corner-post.
Now, we gotta talk about the extra mustard Allen put on this zinger. This ball is on a rope from the 15 to the opposite 42 — almost 45 yards! The pace on this throw is unfathomable, and it speaks to the creativity you can indulge on the chalkboard because Allen has the heat to make this throw, on time, before the safety recovers. It’s a drop, yes, but a fantastic play design from top to bottom.
- Allen got to roll out, which protects him from one of his greatest weaknesses: pocket management
- Play-action and the tight splits forced the Jaguars into a predictable coverage
- Allen’s first read opened up into space against a safety
- It was a deep throw, which is Allen’s strength and is objectively more valuable for an offense
They hit paydirt on this one: 75 yards.
Another super sick wrinkle: typically you see this route combination of a deep curl underneath a deep over route on bootleg action, but instead Daboll pairs it with a double play-fake with the jet motion, and then the running back release into the flat. That back pulls down the flat defender — again, notice the Jaguars are in a Cover 3 shell against tight splits — and the deep curl route pulls in the deep third defender, which leaves space waay down the field for the deep over. Free safety Barry Church gets caught napping, and all 4.41 seconds of Robert Foster’s 40-yard dash slip right by him.
And how about Allen? Hitches into it, under duress, and just screams that thing in there. How little air he needs to put under this ball is astounding.
As you’d expect with any rookie quarterback — but especially with Allen — it isn’t all sunshine and daisies. As I mentioned above, Allen’s struggle manipulating the pocket remains a nasty thorn in the offense’s side. While he has great escapability and is willing to extend plays, Allen is always suckered in by space in front of him. If he sees green, he wants to run. That’s not inherently bad, in that it generates positive yardage because Allen is such a good runner; it just leaves some meat on the bone for your passing attack.
We see a very similar concept here to the first clip — looks like levels, smells like levels, pulls that opposite corner across the field and forces the deep safety to adjust. However, unlike the first play, Allen is asked to hang in the pocket to make this throw — and as you can see, he escapes to the opposite side of the deep post. Allen now fully enters scramble mode and picks up what he can.
But as you watch from the end zone angle, you can see that Allen’s reaction to the collapsing of the pocket was perhaps a bit overstated. By shifting his throwing base into the open area, but not fully opening his hips, separating his hands, and starting to run, Allen would have had plenty of time to deliver a ball to the deep post — we know he has the arm strength to do it.
Instead, Allen scrambles — and again, that’s not objectively bad. As a matter of fact, I would argue that the second prong of Daboll’s savvy maximization of Allen’s current skills has been exactly this: he designs plays to let Allen scramble.
As I said above, there’s no way a player’s depth of target increases that much, and his rushing yards become that astronomical, unless the coaching staff is on board with that style of offense. Allen’s depth of target and rushing yards have both ballooned because Allen’s legs have become his checkdown. When he sees green, he’s allowed to just go get it — just as Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold and Lamar Jackson are encouraged to “take the easy throw,” Allen gets to “take the easy run.”
This is a Ghost Screen idea, where the tight ends release like they might go block for the bubble screen, but then peel upfield into vertical routes. Alabama ran it a lot with O.J. Howard the year before Brain Daboll became their offensive coordinator.
But look at the backside: both isolated receivers run vertical routes as well. That’s irregular — you’d expect a crosser or a curl route as a potential checkdown for Allen in case the playside idea gets gobbled up by coverage. Sure, those one-on-one match-ups are good opportunities for Allen to use his cannon and try and grab a chunk play — but they also vacate all the space to the field.
Typically on any four verts idea, you have a checkdown swing pass to the back, or potentially an option route in the middle of the field. But Daboll leaves it completely vacant — no routes, one defender: Kiko Alonso, tasked with closing on Allen and making an in-space tackle from ten yards of depth.
That is a very, very tough ask. Allen is mighty fast and wicked strong — not many linebackers are winning this match-up.
Daboll regularly leaves the middle of the field wide open for Allen. It has the advantage of giving Allen half-field reads: they run flood concepts and spacing ideas to create triangle stretches and simplify the choices Allen has to make. But instead of bringing third or fourth progression ideas into the middle of the field, so his quarterback can work from frontside to backside, Daboll will pair concepts with almost exclusively out-breaking routes to crease big rushing lanes for Allen.
Again, there is one defender responsible for Allen: that’s Kiko Alonso, and he’s in a bad position from the jump. With the rest of the Dolphins in man coverage, nobody has eyes on Allen here, as he quickly escapes — and instead of extending and looking for a checkdown/improvisational route, Allen takes the green light and darts into the open field.
Allen is probably the scramble-heaviest quarterback playing in football right now — that includes fellow rookie Lamar Jackson, noted scamper king Russell Wilson, and any other dual-threat option you can think of. The Buffalo Bills offense has found life as a result: they stay ahead of the sticks, they force the defense to play disciplined against the threat of the run, and their young quarterback stays relatively confident and mistake-free.
It still feels a fair bit like Brian Daboll is making do with what he’s got: running a backyard offense heavily reliant on explosive plays and, frankly, insanity. I don’t think that success is predictable week-to-week, or even all that “successful” — 41 points across two games isn’t exactly a victory lap. But it’s the most productive we’ve ever seen an Allen-led offense — I mean, ever — and Daboll’s awareness of his options and ingenuity in capitalizing on them deserve a lot of the credit.