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NFL Draft

What’s Behind Josh Allen’s Slow Start?

  • The Draft Network
  • September 23, 2021
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Josh Allen became the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback as a rookie in 2018 and in every season since he has demonstrated incremental growth—expectations for the following season become even higher as a result. Coming off a 2020 campaign that saw Allen finish second in the NFL MVP voting and with the Bills offense returning 10 starters and under a fourth consecutive season with Brian Daboll as the offensive coordinator, a high bar for Allen and the Bills’ passing game was set. Factor in Allen signing a record-shattering six-year, $258 million contract with $150 million guaranteed before the season and the bar gets that much higher.

Allen is off to a slow start in 2021. He gained only 270 passing yards on 51 attempts in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game where the Bills’ offensive line struggled to protect and Allen had difficulty finding space to slot the football against a Pittsburgh defense that consistently dropped seven and eight defenders in coverage. Allen was better in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, a team he usually fares well against, but it’s still clear that he hasn’t recaptured his MVP-caliber form of 2020.

So what is different for Allen and the Bills’ offense so far in 2021 that is contributing to the lack of production and efficiency in the passing game? It’s not one thing but several variables that add up. Let’s examine.

A NEW VANTAGE POINT

Allen is playing from a completely different vantage point in 2021. The weight of the new contract combined with replicating what he accomplished in 2020 are contributing factors that are notable. Allen entered 2020 after unraveling in the Bills’ playoff loss to the Houston Texans with everything to prove. While he answered every question and silenced every critic with his elite play in 2020, he’s no longer a doubted quarterback but one that is expected to deliver high-level production while being the catalyst for Buffalo’s success, something he had no trouble doing in 2020.

Against Pittsburgh in Week 1, Allen missed some deep throws early in the contest and I believe he chased making up for it the entire game. He wanted those big plays to hit and instead of distributing the football with efficiency to his deep group of pass-catchers and keeping the offense on schedule, his eyes were down the field and Buffalo’s offensive line couldn’t hold up in pass protection. Uncharacteristic drops from Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders didn’t help the cause and Buffalo struggled to find a rhythm on offense.

Allen is ultra-competitive and has higher expectations for himself than any fan or pundit could ever place on him. He wanted that hot start, but a stout Steelers’ defense, inconsistent play-calling, poor pass protection, a capacity home crowd for the first time since 2019, and Allen’s own struggles prevented that. But the way Allen chose to attack the defense leads me to believe the weight of his contract and adapting to a new vantage point were meaningful variables in why his performance was lackluster.

ACCLIMATING EMMANUEL SANDERS

Allen has made a habit of helping wide receivers deliver the best season of their career when coming to Buffalo. It happened with John Brown, Cole Beasley, and Stefon Diggs over the last two seasons and Sanders was the newest veteran receiver to have the opportunity to work with Allen in Daboll’s spread offense. While it’s a stretch to think that Sanders at 34 years old in his 12th season would have a career-best campaign, he is expected to be a meaningful part of the offense. 

So far in 2021, Sanders has been targeted 14 times and has just six catches for a lowly 43% catch percentage when targeted. Considering Sanders has accounted for 17% of Allen’s total targets, the inefficiency is noteworthy.

The two aren’t yet on the same page and it has impacted Allen’s results throwing the football given the amount of market share Sanders has claimed. The chemistry between Allen and Sanders should continue to develop throughout the season but it’s not there yet. 

DIFFERENCES IN THE OFFENSE AND HOW ALLEN IS PLAYING 

Given only two games have been played, the sample size of data available for 2021 is still small but there are some noteworthy differences in what the Bills’ offense is running and how defenses have played Allen. 

So far, the Bills have used fewer play-action, screen, and RPO plays in 2021 compared to 2020. Those are plays Allen has historically fared well with but hasn’t had the opportunity to run them with the same level of frequency that he enjoyed last year. On a related note, Allen is facing a significantly lower blitz rate but a higher pressure rate. The reduced blitz frequency limits the screen game and defenses are choosing to flood coverage zones while simultaneously generating more pressure on the Allen.

Allen is throwing down the field more often and to his left with a significantly higher level of frequency. Deep throws in general are less efficient passes and throwing to his left has never been the area of the field Allen is most effective at challenging. While coverage could be dictating this, it’s a contributing factor in the lack of passing efficiency to this point for Allen.

Lastly, Allen is getting the ball out of his hands quicker. Some of that is due to the amount of pressure he has faced, but there have also been fewer off-script plays from Allen. Extending plays, hitting throws on the run, and getting outside the pocket are notable strengths of Allen’s game and where some of his most dynamic throws come, but it’s happening less so far in 2021. 

CHALLENGING OPPONENTS

Just like there is cause for caution with Sam Darnold’s hot start with the Carolina Panthers due to the opponents he has faced, the opposite is true for Allen. The Steelers have faced Allen in each of the past three seasons and despite the Bills winning two of those three games, the Pittsburgh defense has always been a challenge for Buffalo (like most teams). Allen has a career passer rating of 75.9 against the Steelers and 2021’s outing followed suit.

Allen and the Bills faced the Dolphins in Week 2, a division rival that has been trying to craft a defense and game plan to slow down Allen for multiple offseasons. And while the Bills won 35-0, Allen was hardly a catalyst for the team's success after completing 17-of-33 passes for 179 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception.

Playing two good defenses that are familiar foes wasn’t helpful for Allen to start the season hot. 

BOTTOM LINE

Allen will be the first to tell you he has to play better for the Bills to achieve their goals in 2021. The good news is that the defense is playing lights-out and the running game has notably improved. If the passing game gets on track, Buffalo will be a more complete team in 2021 than they were in 2020.

Everything outlined above is improvable. Allen should settle in and become accustomed to the new vantage point. There will be more time on task with Sanders and targets to him should become more fruitful. Daboll and Allen have consistently proven able to adjust the offense and overcome challenges. The schedule will become more favorable for Allen to produce.

There’s no reason to panic. Even in Allen’s MVP-caliber 2020 season there were lulls. The Bills’ passing game is close and when it clicks again, Buffalo will be a challenging team to knock off.

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