The Buffalo Bills came into the 2020 NFL season with one of the best rosters in the league. The defense has been built up to be one of the most dominant units in the league and the past few seasons have seen the Bills accumulate skill-position talent on offense. The biggest question was whether the quarterback play would be good enough to make all of that matter.
Buffalo has focused its plan of the past two offseasons to get the most out of Josh Allen. That started with the hiring of Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator and in the past two offseasons brought in the additions of John Brown and Stefon Diggs at wide receiver.
Last season, the Bills helped Allen take a step forward but it wasn’t enough. Daboll constructed a more quarterback-friendly system that allowed Allen to take advantage of short and intermediate throws. With that, Allen was one of the most efficient quarterbacks when targeting the intermediate area of the field (11-19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage). Per Sports Info Solutions, Allen ranked 10th in EPA per attempt on intermediate throws outside the red zone.
But deep passing issues held the offense back. Among 29 quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts of 20 or more air yards, Allen ranked 22nd in on-target percentage and 28th in completion percentage (24.6%), per SIS. Too often those big plays were left on the field, which severely limited the ceiling of the offense.
Part of the plan to fix that deep accuracy issue was the trade for Diggs, who is arguably the best deep ball receiver in the league. Last season with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs had 421 receiving yards on just two routes: go’s and deep crossers. Only one other receiver was over 300 yards and just one other was over 200.
Through two weeks of the season, Buffalo has used its personnel — both individually and as a group — to help Allen get off to one of the best starts of any player in the league. Allen is currently first in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, second in DVOA, and fourth in QBR. He also leads the league in EPA with a positive play rate of 60% when throwing the ball. Last season, Allen had negative EPA and a 48.7% positive play rate.
Part of the improvement comes from Buffalo’s increased usage of 10 personnel with four wide receivers on the field. Over the first two weeks of the season, no team has used 10 personnel at a higher rate of their offensive plays than the Bills at 20%. Last season, the Bills ran four total plays in 10 personnel, which rounds to zero percent of their 2019 offense.
The personnel usage has made a big impact from the start of the season, quite literally. Buffalo opened their first offensive drive against the New York Jets in 10 personnel. The Bills didn’t use it to take shots, instead, it spread the defense out to create space and allowed Allen to get some throws in rhythm. He started with a three-yard pass to rookie Gabriel Davis then a five-yard pass to Diggs followed by a four-yard pass to Diggs for a first down.
It wasn’t the most efficient set of downs, but the Bills were able to convert the first down and got Allen a few easy throws to start the game. They kept the personnel grouping on the rest of the drive, which included a 12-yard quarterback draw but also a drive ending fumble on another designed quarterback run on 3rd and 1.
Overall, the 10 personnel didn’t take over the game. Allen finished with just 5.6 yards per attempt, though he completed 85.7% of his 14 pass attempts. However, just 66.7% of those attempts produced positive EPA.
Buffalo slightly scaled back the 10 personnel usage in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins, but those plays were far more effective. Allen went 6-of-9 in Week 2 for 97 yards (10.7 ypa) and while his positive play rate of 66.7% was identical to Week 1’s, that was the same as his completion percentage — no failed completions.
During the second drive of the game, Buffalo faced a third and 10 from their own 29-yard line. The Bills came out in 10 personnel and went empty. With a loaded defensive front and a single high safety, Allen was able to work the clear man coverage and wait for John Brown to beat his defender across the field as Cole Beasley cleared out the middle with his route.
Daboll has also gotten Allen on the move in the running game by taking advantage of the space created from the personnel grouping. On the play after the 15-yard completion to Brown, the Bills got another 16 yards from a quarterback draw with the same personnel on the field.
On the next play, the Bills stayed in 10 personnel but Allen went under center. Buffalo used play-action and got Beasley deep for a 26-yard gain on a crossing route from the slot — a spear concept (think Mesh but deeper crossers) the Cowboys have used successfully under Kellen Moore. The drive eventually ended in a touchdown.
Another thing Daboll and the Bills have done to help Allen is turn up the play-action to 11. Last season, Buffalo used play-action on just 24% of dropbacks, which ranked 19th in the league. Through two weeks, Allen has used play-action on 42.7% of his dropbacks. He currently has 37 play-action attempts, eight more than the next quarterback (Cam Newton), per SIS.
On play-action, Allen is averaging 11.6 yards per attempt, which is second only to Dak Prescott. Allen leads the league with four touchdown throws off play-action through two weeks and there’s a bigger gap between Allen and Prescott in total EPA off play-action than between Prescott and the sixth-ranked quarterback.
The addition of Diggs has allowed the Bills to take better advantage of spacing in the play-action game. Early in the fourth quarter with the Bills trailing 20-17, they came out in 11 personnel for a 1st and 10 from their own 25-yard line to start a drive. Diggs was isolated to the right with the other two receivers stacked to the left.
Beasley’s stem from the opposite side of the field, along with the play-action, froze the single-high safety. All Diggs had to do was beat his man deep and it turned into a 47-yard gain. The drive ended with the game-winning touchdown.
All of this has set up Allen to be more comfortable in the pocket. He’s spending more time in there this season — per NFL Next Gen Stats, his average time to throw is 2.95 seconds, up from 2.85 last season. So far the pass blocking has kept Allen clean. Per ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, the Bills are sixth through two weeks of the season. That time added to the spacing and improved talent in the receiving corps has lowered Allen’s rate of tight window throws from 15.4% last season to 13.6% this year.
That loops back to Allen and the deep ball. He’s 6-of-9 for 189 yards through the first two weeks of the season. By any standards, that’s a phenomenal start. The key for the Bills season will be how much that success continues. Picking apart the secondaries of the Jets and Dolphins is one thing and a big test is about to come in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Rams.
Right now Allen has been set up to succeed and he’s hitting what he’s needed to in order for the offense to take another step forward. If this continues, the Bills could find themselves as one of the most dangerous teams in the league. If not, it won’t be from a lack of support.