FOXBOROUGH — The Buffalo Bills offense that the Patriots will face on Sunday looks nothing like the unit New England held to six points in Week 8.
For the first time in his NFL career, Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen will battle Tom Brady as he introduces himself to a divisional matchup that has heavily favored the Patriots over the last two decades.
The Patriots didn’t face Allen in the game in Buffalo earlier this season with the rookie missing the game due to an elbow injury, but head coach Bill Belichick said that, schematically, their offense hasn’t changed much since Allen returned in Week 12.
“I think their offense is their offense. It’s a game-plan offense, so you’ll see different things from week to week,” Belichick told me at his Wednesday press conference.
However, Bills head coach Sean McDermott told reporters that the offense has begun to take on the identity of the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft.
“I think it evolves around the quarterback much like the offense in New England, right? What he brings to the table and then to me, an offense identity goes up front after that,” he said.
So what exactly does the former University of Wyoming star bring to the table?
McDermott answered that as well saying, “Young quarterback, naturally as you know, and with some of that there’s some good and there’s some bad and some areas for growth. I think what you see on probably TV the most is the competitiveness, the ability to make throws and a guy that – he’s taken some lumps, but at the same time, he’s been resilient in terms of his approach every week to try and better himself.”
When you turn on the tape, you can see how Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s play calling is designed to play to Allen’s strengths as a quarterback.
Over the last four weeks, the Bills have incorporated a heavy dosage of empty formations to make it easier for Allen to read coverages and use his legs as a runner on broken plays.
In all, Buffalo’s been in an empty formation on 29 percent of their passing plays since Week 12, and they average over eight yards per play out of those sets (8.2).
Plus, as a runner, Allen averages over 18 yards per rush when he’s alone in the backfield.
Daboll has also schemed shot plays for the big-armed Allen by using speedster Robert Foster on deep crossers, and as a result, Foster is averaging nearly 25 yards per reception this season.
And Belichick said those big plays are the most significant difference between the Buffalo offense now compared to the team the Patriots defense faced the first time around.
“I’d say all of the big plays, the big plays they have from the receivers and the quarterback. The quarterback is a big difference. That’s a big difference right there. But the receivers, no [Kelvin] Benjamin. Foster has emerged. They’re much different,” he said.
Below, we’ll go through some of Allen’s tape over the last few weeks to illustrate how the Bills’ coaching staff has shaped the offense around Allen’s skill set:
As noted above, the Bills’ success on offense over the last four games has mostly come out of empty formations where the coverage usually declares pre-snap, and Buffalo can control matchups.
Empty sets also allow the Bills to space the field to present large throwing windows for Allen and potential scramble opportunities if the defense is in man coverage.
Let’s start with a completion to the aforementioned Robert Foster. Before the snap, Allen reads that the Jets are in zone coverage with the outside corners at an angle looking into the backfield. The Bills stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally with three receivers releasing downfield on curls and two releasing into the flats to force the underneath defenders to cover the sidelines. The curl into the middle of the field by tight end Charles Clay makes the linebackers pinch inside, and there’s nobody underneath the outside receivers. Allen can now show off his arm to put the ball on Foster, and Daboll has created an enormous throwing lane leaving plenty of room for error for an inaccurate quarterback.
If the defense plays man coverage against these empty looks, they better account for the quarterback with a spy or a contained pass rush due to Allen’s mobility.
On this play, the Bills open the middle of the field with two underneath outs and a fade from the right slot. From a passing standpoint, the idea here is to create an intermediate throw to the receiver on the dig that fills the middle of the field with the two receivers going out. Although the Jets have good initial coverage and generate a pass rush, they have poor rush integrity, and without a spy, Allen escapes the pocket, throws a stiff arm on Leonard Williams, and breaks off a 31-yard run.
The Patriots will have to account for Allen’s legs at all times on passing downs.
During the draft process, Allen’s arm strength was widely considered the reason he was a top quarterback prospect.
Daboll has made it easier on Allen and his receivers to create separation downfield with deep crossing patterns, instead of relying on low percentage throws outside the numbers.
One of those schemes is a Yankee concept which the Patriots use and so do many other teams nowadays.
Here, Foster goes across the field on a deep over route against man coverage and wideout Zay Jones runs a clear out pattern into the middle of the field to create traffic for cornerback Mike Ford who’s tracking Foster. Jones gets in Ford’s way, and Foster uses that rub to run away from the coverage, and this is an easy throw for Allen who leads Foster to the end zone.
Although Allen and Foster had an easy one last week against Detroit, Allen’s raw talent shines when he’s stretching the defense vertically on deep throws.
Against the Jaguars, Allen made one of the throws of the season on a deep post to Foster.
This time, Allen is under center, and the Bills ran play-action to set up the shot to Foster. The Bills wideout ran a deep post against the Jaguars’ cover-3 coverage, and out-ran the post safety in the middle of the field. In the pocket, Allen somehow delivers a perfect pass with two defenders converging on him as he released the ball. In an interview after the game, Foster said that he and Allen discussed a landmark of the 40-yard line marker before the play and that he ran to that spot expecting the pass from Allen.
The ability to absorb the hit and deliver a dime 35 yards downfield is something that you simply cannot teach.
The box score stats don’t look pretty for Josh Allen in his first season at the helm of the Buffalo offense.
Out of 33 qualified quarterbacks, Allen ranks dead last in completion percentage (52.2) and passer rating (65.5).
However, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has done his best to bring out the best qualities in Allen’s game such as his arm strength and athleticism, and Allen’s tape is better than his stats.
Plus, there’s been real growth in Allen’s game since he got to Buffalo compared to his last season at the University of Wyoming.
The Bills’ coaching staff has refined Allen’s footwork, and his decision making has improved dramatically as he isn’t taking as many unnecessary chances with the ball as he did in college.
The Bills rookie might not be ready to beat Tom Brady this time around, but he has come a long way already from where he was at this point last season.
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