The Bills were on top of the NFL two weeks ago. They were 6-1 with the league’s best point differential. Only three teams had scored more points through eight weeks, and none had allowed fewer. Josh Allen was the odds-on favorite to win MVP, and Buffalo had the best odds of winning the Super Bowl. The Bills even owned wins over the AFC’s other division leaders, including Kansas City and Baltimore. They had a nearly perfect start to the season.
A lot has changed over the past 14 days. The Bills have lost two games in a row, and that streak could have been three if the Packers had capitalized on Allen’s Week 8 mistakes. The Jets did punish the mistake-prone quarterback in a 20-17 win in Week 9, and the Vikings rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit to topple the Bills 33-30 in overtime on Sunday. The latter result was a total team failure on Buffalo’s part, but Allen had three ugly turnovers in high-leverage situations. With the QB now leading the league with 10 interceptions and nursing a somewhat mysterious elbow injury—and Kansas City and Miami suddenly ahead of the Bills in the conference standings—the vibes aren’t the best in Buffalo at the moment.
Even if the vibes are off, however, it’s not time to panic. The Bills are still the Vegas favorites to win the AFC East and still own the NFL’s best point differential (+99). In the AFC, only the Chiefs have better odds of earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. Buffalo is going to be just fine.
But the expectations for this year’s Bills are much higher than “just fine.” This is supposed to be the team that can bring the franchise its first Lombardi Trophy. The front office threw a bunch of money at Von Miller and some offensive line upgrades in the offseason. It acquired running back Nyheim Hines at the trade deadline after reportedly exploring a deal for Christian McCaffrey. And it seems to be part of the Odell Beckham Jr. sweepstakes that should be decided soon. There is understandably a sense of urgency in Buffalo with Allen’s cap hit set to balloon from $16.4 million in 2022 to $39.8 million in 2023. This will probably be the deepest roster that the Bills are able to construct around their star quarterback for the foreseeable future.
So let’s just check in on three major questions that have emerged over the past two weeks in Buffalo. The answers will ultimately determine whether these Bills are built to win it all.
What if Josh Allen isn’t an alien for the rest of the season?
Sunday’s loss to the Vikings will ultimately get filed in the “Bad Josh” folder, but Allen played good football outside of three slapstick turnovers. While those three plays cost the QB 14.6 EPA, he racked up 16.1 on his other 50 dropbacks; that works out to a 0.32 EPA per play average, according to RBSDM.com. Given the prominent concerns about Allen’s elbow injury, it was reassuring to see him play well when he wasn’t making gigantic mental errors. There were big scrambles, throws on the run, and the typical diet of throws from the pocket. For about 95 percent of his snaps, Allen looked like the best quarterback on the planet not named Patrick Mahomes.
If Buffalo hopes to make it to the Super Bowl, though, it needs Allen to be that quarterback all of the time. That means eliminating the silly interceptions, cutting down on the inaccurate passes caused by lazy mechanics, and learning—please, for the love of God—to slide. In other words, the Bills need their all-world quarterback to play like an adult. After the first month and a half of the season, it appeared Allen had matured into the type of player who could override his worst impulses. And then he did this …
Picked! (And a lateral) #GoPackGo @rd32_era— NFL (@NFL) October 31, 2022
: #GBvsBUF on NBC
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/c9RP6Gj8id pic.twitter.com/XnUFqj5nRD
… and this …
Picked! Jordan Whitehead said I’ll take that.— NFL (@NFL) November 6, 2022
: #BUFvsNYJ on CBS
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/pSFLuCQneJ pic.twitter.com/xhUpHhGJAV
… and this …
SAAAUUUUCCEEEE#BUFvsNYJ on CBS | @iamSauceGardner pic.twitter.com/cWkcIGtF3I— New York Jets (@nyjets) November 6, 2022
… and this …
Patrick Peterson with an end zone INT @P2— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2022
: #MINvsBUF on FOX
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/uRjde5F169 pic.twitter.com/ogxjoqI6gG
… and this …
VIKINGS TOUCHDOWN ON THE FUMBLED SNAP.— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2022
: #MINvsBUF on FOX
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/uRjde5F169 pic.twitter.com/klfPeKakJQ
Allen has that dog in him, and it’s liable to take over his decision-making every now and again. That’s not a good thing. I’d be willing to look past these mistakes if not for the UCL injury that could linger for the rest of the season, even if it hasn’t affected him in an observable way just yet. This is an injury that usually keeps MLB pitchers sidelined for a long time—and while it may not force Allen to miss games, it could zap his ability to push the ball downfield to create massive gains.
That ability has covered up several issues that have plagued an otherwise productive offense this season. If Allen’s injury hampers his effectiveness at creating those plays, his mental errors could become even more costly than they’ve already been.
Can Ken Dorsey solve the offense’s red zone problems?
While a dink-and-dunk passing offense is certainly not an ideal use of his talents, Allen has proved capable of succeeding with that approach if need be. In his fourth NFL season, he’s making sharper presnap reads and getting the ball out of his hand quicker than ever before. But dinking and dunking isn’t a viable plan for an offense that can’t finish off long drives in the red zone. That’s been an issue for Buffalo all year. The Bills rank 21st in red zone touchdown percentage after 10 weeks. Considering they led the league in that statistic in 2021, new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, who replaced Brian Daboll, is shouldering a lot of the blame.
Buffalo remade its receiver depth chart behind Stefon Diggs and reworked its interior offensive line during the offseason, but otherwise its offensive foundation stayed relatively stable outside of the coordinator change. So it makes sense that attention turns to Dorsey when this unit gets bogged down. And it’s regularly getting stuck inside the 20s.
There are three main issues. The first and most pressing is that the interior offensive line is incapable of generating any push in the ground game. The Bills appeared to have found a solution early against Minnesota, as Devin Singletary picked up two first-quarter rushing touchdowns. But all of that production came on runs that bounced outside, away from the problem area for this offensive line. The Vikings adjusted shortly after by no longer asking their corners to set the edge, and the Bills run game fell apart. The low point came late in the second half with Buffalo deep in Minnesota territory needing only 2 yards to move the chains on third down. The Vikings put just six men in the box and kept two safeties back deep, daring Dorsey to call a run straight up the gut. He did, but Buffalo’s interior offensive line simply wasn’t up to the task.
have to be able to run against this box on third and short pic.twitter.com/37ntP2bLDA— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) November 14, 2022
Buffalo’s inability to create interior push was also evident when the Vikings pushed the Bills line back into Allen’s lap as he was trying to corral the snap on his ill-fated sneak at the end of regulation.
This feeds into the second major issue. Because defenses don’t feel obligated to load up the box against the Bills, they can throw double-teams at Diggs or put a spy on Allen in case he breaks out of the pocket. That creates spacing problems. On this third-and-short in the red zone, the Vikings use a backside safety to double an isolated Diggs. As a counter, Gabriel Davis runs a slant over the middle to clear out room for Isaiah McKenzie’s in-breaking route behind him. But Davis sees the double on Diggs and settles down in that open area, which creates a spacing issue that spooks Allen for just long enough to make him miss the throw.
I'm assuming this is on Davis for settling down into the space where Mckenzie is supposed to run his route. This is a common concept around the league on third and short and it was open. Bad execution. pic.twitter.com/fXdlU1nXfM— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) November 14, 2022
And that brings us to the third and final red zone issue. Dorsey has yet to play the “Josh Allen is bigger and faster than every player on your defense” card many times this season. Since he hasn’t deployed that trump card, defenses have maintained the upper hand. In a way, this reluctance on Dorsey’s part makes sense; the 2021 Bills waited until the stretch run to really unleash Allen as a runner in the red zone as a safety precaution. The big quarterback didn’t have his number called in the run game once Sunday, which presumably is a byproduct of his UCL injury.
So while I remain concerned about the interior offensive line, I don’t think it’s time to panic over the Bills’ red zone struggles just yet. But if they start running Allen inside the 20 and the issues still don’t get fixed, then we can start asking questions about Dorsey’s capacity to lead this offense to a title.
Can the defense overcome the rash of secondary injuries?
Here is the full list of Bills defensive backs that missed Sunday’s game against the Vikings: Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White, Kaiir Elam, and Micah Hyde, who’s out for the year with a neck injury. That’s a lot for a secondary to overcome, and it showed. Justin Jefferson dominated the banged-up Buffalo group to finish with 10 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown. Understandably, the concerns about this coverage unit aren’t going away.
Justin Jefferson is amazing, isn’t he? @JJettas2 pic.twitter.com/2HUGwE5dCi— NFL (@NFL) November 14, 2022
While Jefferson spent the afternoon dunking on any corner that had the misfortune of covering him, though, his highlights obscure the reality of how the undermanned Bills played. Take out the third- and fourth-down targets to Jefferson and Kirk Cousins finished Sunday’s game with a negative EPA on his other throws. And it was the tight coverage of the Bills secondary that made Jefferson’s highlight reel so impressive.
I don’t know if White (who should return any game now) or Poyer would have prevented Jefferson from making all of his biggest catches, but even stopping one would have spelled the difference between a win and a loss. Until White returns and is able to handle opposing star receivers on his own, head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could help their young corners out by sending dedicated double-teams at guys like Jefferson when the situation calls for it. Buffalo didn’t appear to do that once outside of the red zone Sunday, which seems like stubbornness given that Jefferson cooked the Bills in a number of high-leverage situations, including on the first Vikings’ third offensive play of the game.
White and Poyer will eventually make it back to the field, and these experiences should serve the young corners well when the games start to matter more and they’re not tasked with covering superstar receivers on their own. So this feels like another issue that could work itself out before January—and that’s all that really matters for a team that’s viewing this season as championship-or-bust.
The Bills are no longer the favorites to win the AFC, much less the Super Bowl. They’ve sunk to third place in a surprisingly competitive AFC East and would start the playoffs on the road if the season ended today. Allen’s elbow is a question mark and he can’t stop making mistakes. The offensive line is unreliable and the team can’t score in the red zone. The projected starting secondary from the preseason won’t play a snap together all year.
But as Bills fans have learned, things change in a hurry in the NFL. The past two weeks have laid bare the biggest obstacles for Buffalo to overcome. Now, it’s time to find answers.