OK, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: The Buffalo Bills offense is awesome. They rank second in DVOA. They rank second in expected points added. And they rank second in points per drive (which is kinda crazy, given that they are 31st in turnovers per drive). If not for those pesky Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills would have the best offense in the NFL.
Now that we have established that: The Bills have a little bit of an offensive problem.
I know what you’re thinking: It can’t be too big of a problem, given how well the Bills offense has played this season—and you’d be right. We don’t want to make mountains out of molehills just because there are only eight teams remaining in the playoffs; just because members of the elite class of football are up against one another in a do-or-die tournament, and even the tiniest of weaknesses can be exploited and lead to defeat.
But the Bills have a little bit of an offensive problem. And with an extremely difficult divisional-round opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals on the docket this Sunday (and those pesky Chiefs a potential conference championship opponent next week), we’ve gotta talk about the Bills’ offensive problem, as little as it may be.
Over the last several weeks, the Bills offense has become extremely reliant on deep passes. These are passes that are difficult to complete, even for a quarterback as talented as Josh Allen (whose accurate throw rate on deep passes was tied for third-best in the league this year, per TruMedia). These are passes that take time to develop, which forces the quarterback to hang in the pocket longer. And these are passes that, because they are more difficult to complete, often put the offense behind the sticks when they fall incomplete.
Here is a graph of Josh Allen’s air yards per pass attempt in every game since the beginning of the 2020 season—that’s three years worth of data. By a rolling average of Allen’s 10 most recent games, Allen has never thrown the football further downfield than he is right now.
Of course, deep passes have a reward for all that risk. When they’re completed, they do more than just move the sticks—they carve huge chunks out of the defense, flipping field position, immediately putting the offense in scoring range, and even occasionally scoring. Explosive plays are the most valuable thing an offense can generate save for scores; it is tough to fault the Bills for hunting these plays.
However, the Bills’ offensive efficiency this season—again, second only to the Chiefs—is not benefitting from the aggressive downfield focus. It’s being hurt by it.
Here is a chart of Allen’s expected points added per dropback, again over the last three years of football, again with a rolling average of the last 10 games. Allen’s efficiency peaked at the end of the 2021 season and into the beginning of 2022, but has been on a decline this season. His rolling average is the lowest now that it has ever been over the last three seasons.
Before anybody freaks out, please revisit the top paragraph. A further reassurance: Allen’s EPA might be the lowest it’s been in a while, but it’s still around where it was for much of 2020 and into 2021. And, most critically, the offense isn’t bad—not at all! It’s just a little bit worse than it could and probably should be.
This apparent underachievement has led to some Bills fans voicing frustration with new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, who replaced Brian Daboll when Daboll left to become head coach of the Giants. It’s an understandable and easy connection to make: Dorsey is the new thing in the Bills offense, which largely carries many of the same offensive linemen, offensive weapons, and philosophy from last season. But as The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz pointed out this week, the Dorsey offense has actually been better than last year’s Daboll offense was—at least over the course of this season.
Compared to 2021, the Bills offense is better in...— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) January 16, 2023
Series success rate (converting a set of downs into first down)
While Allen's accuracy rate is way down, and he scrambled only 3 more times this year so it's not like he's creating more
We also cannot attribute the increase in downfield shots to Dorsey’s offense. By route density, the Bills are sending their receivers to the same general areas of the field with the same frequency. Compare these heat maps of routes run by the Bills offense over the last three seasons: Dorsey is getting a few more post routes dialed up to the deep middle of the field, but other than that, the Dorsey and Daboll offenses are pretty similar.
The onus for this downfield focus for the Bills offense, then, doesn’t fall on Dorsey: it falls on Allen. When you rip through the film of these last few months of Allen’s game, you see a player desperately hunting the deep shot, even when it is not ideal to do so. At no point has this been more apparent than last week’s Bills-Dolphins game, in which Allen averaged a depth of target north of 16 yards—the single highest mark of any game he’s played in the last three years. Again, the Bills are fine—they scored 34 points!—but they were almost very much not fine, and Allen’s reckless play is a big part of the reason why.
One of Allen’s two interceptions last week was the result of this unnecessary aggression. On this play, the Bills are running a flood concept, in which they attack all three levels of one sideline. They’re in heavy personnel with wide receiver John Brown on the field running the deep clearout route, so this is a designed shot play look. Brown is technically in the progression for Allen, but only in the event that he has an immediate advantage—otherwise, Allen should be looking for the intermediate space created for tight end Dawson Knox on the corner route.
At this moment, when Allen is hitching up into the pocket and preparing to throw, Brown is clearly covered: the cornerback in man coverage over Brown has the perfect positioning to take away a deep bomb to the sideline. There is no chance that this route is going to open.
Meanwhile, there are multiple options available for Allen to check the football down underneath—and, if Allen is still feeling aggressive, the backside dig from FB Reggie Gilliam is unfolding into a tight window.
As the play runs, watch Allen refuse to take his eyes off of Brown, hitch up into pressure, and unleash a bomb that is eventually intercepted. This was a thoughtless play.
This is a particularly egregious decision, and an example of Allen just making a plain bad play. There are more examples, however, of plays that exist in a grayer area—and this is where the real improvement from Allen is achievable.
Here’s a first-and-10 play-action look for the Bills—at this point, the Dolphins had cut the lead to three with just under 11 minutes remaining. It would be excellent if the Bills could score, certainly—but even better would be scoring at the end of a long, methodical drive. The concept that Dorsey dials up hopes to create intermediate space for star WR Stefon Diggs on a crossing pattern, with multiple underneath routes pulling zone defenders toward the line of scrimmage, and a clearout route from WR Gabriel Davis pulling the corner and safety deep downfield.
This is exactly the look that Allen gets. Here’s the picture at the top of Allen’s drop:
Diggs is clearly about to break into space, while Davis is executing a little head fake on his go route. Allen has his eyes on Davis, to see if the double move will catch the corner sleeping and create separation for a downfield shot.
Davis gets some separation—certainly enough to justify throwing the football. But again, this throw has a high degree of difficulty, while the crosser to Diggs could not possibly be more open—and it also has big-play potential! Hit Diggs in stride and he can turn upfield and rip off a massive gain. But Allen heaves a throw to Davis, which is underthrown, and the pass is broken up. Second-and-10.
Allen might replay this in the film room and say, “Davis got enough separation that I liked the throw—and I still do. I just need to deliver a better ball.” And he isn’t wrong. Dorsey might say, “We love our huge-armed quarterback and our giant speed receiver in any vertical look against a man coverage corner.” And he wouldn’t be wrong. Bills fans might say, “We need Josh Allen to attempt these superhuman throws in order to beat Joe Burrow and the Bengals, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs”—and there’s a good chance they’re not wrong as well.
But quarterbacking in the NFL isn’t cut-and-dry. There isn’t just one correct choice amidst a myriad of wrong ones on any given play; there isn’t one play style that’s better than all the rest. Playing quarterback—especially at the highest level—is an exercise in small adjustments. In recognizing when to push, and recognizing when to let the offense work for you. In knowing when to be Superman, and when to be Clark Kent.
Allen’s recent stretch of play has been great among league quarterbacks overall—but it hasn’t been the best ball he can play, nor the best ball he has played, over the last few years. And paradoxically, the issue is that he’s playing every down like he’s back in the second half of that legendary shootout against the Chiefs in the AFC divisional round just one year ago. He’s playing in the same style—only he’s gone too far ’round the bend. He’s over-adjusted. It’s time to dial back.
I have every confidence that he can. Allen, while still generally an aggressive, risk-tolerant player, is also an extremely gifted quarterback. His offensive coordinator is the same man who was his quarterbacks coach over the last few years; the man who originally shepherded him into becoming this great quarterback, this contender to Mahomes and Burrow. But the time is now—not next week against Mahomes, not in the Super Bowl, but right now. The Bills may have escaped Skylar Thompson and the Dolphins, but further offensive performances as chaotic as the one in the wild-card round will leave the Bills right back where they were last season: thinking about just how close they came in a star-studded AFC field they can’t seem to beat.