Mafia MVP: The Meteoric Rise of Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills’ Passing Attack

By Danny Blumenthal

It’s a good time to be a member of Bills Mafia. Buffalo won its first division title since 1995, has a star quarterback in Josh Allen, and has earned a spot in the AFC Championship Game. But expectations weren’t always this high. While some pundits predicted that the Bills could compete for the division title, most thought the Bills would end up around 9-7 or 10-6. And advanced models were even less confident in the Bills – FiveThirtyEight’s traditional Elo forecast saw Buffalo as the 17th-best team in the NFL heading into the year, and projected the team to finish with an 8-8 record.

Over the course of the year though, the Bills have proven their doubters wrong. Buffalo has shot up FiveThirtyEight’s rankings, and at the end of the regular season, sat 4th in the NFL. Buffalo’s jump from their preseason rating of 1511 (just above the average rating of 1500), to their 1693 rating heading into the postseason is one of the best in recent years. In fact, only four teams this decade have seen a faster rise than Buffalo’s 182-point jump.

And this chart doesn’t even account for the Bills’ playoff success. After winning back-to-back playoff games, Buffalo’s traditional Elo now stands at 1720 – the highest in franchise history. But how did the Bills get to this point? Here are a few reasons why Buffalo, and in particular its passing attack, has emerged as one of the best in the NFL this season.

Deep Receiving Corps

Offseason acquisition Stefon Diggs has made a major difference in boosting the Bills’ passing game. In leading the NFL in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535), Diggs has spearheaded the receiving corps in his first year in Buffalo. But the Bills’ passing offense is much more than Diggs. Buffalo’s receiving corps is quite deep, and the team tied an NFL record with 13 different players hauling in touchdowns this year.

One newcomer who has flown under the radar this year is rookie Gabriel Davis. The fourth-round pick wasn’t expected to play much this year, but with John Brown’s injuries, he was thrust into a leading role. Davis filled in admirably, serving as Buffalo’s top deep threat. In fact, Davis ranked third in the NFL in touchdowns on deep passes (20+ yards in the air), and was in the top 15 among all players in deep-pass receiving yards.

With the additions of Diggs and Davis (as well as Brown, Cole Beasley, and Isaiah McKenzie), the Bills boast a formidable receiving corps. This depth has enabled them to consistently trot out four-receiver sets, doing so 134 times in 2020 – the second-highest rate in the NFL. This was a marked change from 2019, in which the Bills only ran four plays out of this formation. Plays with four or more receivers were a boon to the Bills’ offense this year, as the spread formation enabled Josh Allen to diagnose coverages and identify easy throws.

The above play, from the Bills’ shootout victory over Seattle, illustrates this concept well. Allen is able to identify that the Seahawks are playing Cover 3, and knows that unless the deep safety is able to range over to his right quickly, Isaiah McKenzie’s crossing route will succeed. By stacking the right side of the formation with several receivers, Allen makes the deep safety cheat to that side of the field and pulls him out of position. In turn, McKenzie gets even better position on the crossing route, and Allen finds him for an easy score.

Putting Players in Motion

Another way to spread the field and create simple completions is to put players in motion. As Seth Walder detailed for ESPN, pre-snap motion can significantly boost an NFL offense. Pre-snap motion (especially against man coverage) forces defenders to quickly adapt and try to coordinate with their teammates about switching assignments. This can lead to miscommunication and blown coverages, or at least a favorable matchup against a weaker defender. On top of these advantages, motion at the snap can also get fast receivers in better position against flat-footed defenders.

A year ago, Buffalo used pre-snap motion on 25% of its plays (ranking 31st in the NFL), but they have increased their motion usage to 43% this year. As a result, Josh Allen has gotten many more easy completions, such as on the following play. As the ball is snapped, Isaiah McKenzie comes across the formation, confusing the 49ers defenders who are playing man coverage. McKenzie has a full head of steam, and after Gabriel Davis picks the defender, McKenzie is wide open for the touchdown.

Putting players in motion facilitates easy throws for a quarterback, as in the above play. Firstly, it helps the quarterback identify coverages. When a defender tracks with the player in motion, they reveal that the defense is playing man coverage. This additional information simplifies the decision process for a young quarterback and can dictate where to go with the ball. Once Allen saw that the 49ers were playing man coverage, he knew that McKenzie would be in position to score.

By drawing the defense’s attention with players in motion, other players can get open effortlessly. Even if the 49ers’ defense was able to overcome the motion and pick and was able to stay with McKenzie, Allen still had an open receiver underneath. Everyone was drawn to McKenzie, so the tight end was wide open in the flat and could have made a solid gain. Since putting players in motion reveals the defense’s plans and creates favorable matchups, it’s no wonder that Josh Allen has improved so dramatically this year.

Play-Action Passing

A year ago, Buffalo didn’t use play-action much, ranking 18th in play-action passing rate and 19th in play-action passing yards. In addition, the Bills have struggled to run the football this year, which would lead many to think that play-action wouldn’t be effective.

The above graph from RBSDM illustrates teams’ success passing (right is better) and rushing (up is better). Buffalo ranked 2nd in the NFL in passing efficiency, but was only 21st on the ground.

With the Bills’ rushing struggles, many pundits might argue that opting for play-action passes would be foolish, since defenders wouldn’t bite on the run fake. However, as Ben Baldwin pointed out back in 2018, teams can use play-action passes effectively without “setting them up” with the run game. Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, has taken this advice to heart, calling play-action passes at the 4th-highest rate of any team this year. And these plays have been quite successful – Buffalo led the league in play-action passing yards this year.

In no game was the versatility of play-action passing more apparent than the Bills’ AFC Divisional Round game against Baltimore. Daboll called only one designed run during the entire first half of the game, but the Ravens were still completely fooled when Buffalo faked the run on 3rd & 2 to open the second half.

In this short yardage situation, Baltimore sold out to stop the run. The defense lost sight of tight end Dawson Knox leaking out into the flat, and Allen found him for a crucial third down conversion. This play illustrates how play-action passing unlocks easy completions in situations which would commonly be assumed to be running plays.

Play-action passing also opens up opportunities down the field. When linebackers instinctively step closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, receivers can get open by running crossing routes behind them. As ESPN’s Matt Bowen highlights in the clip below, the play-action pass has led to effortless completions for Josh Allen this year.

By implementing more play-action and motion concepts with an upgraded receiving corps, the Bills have set Josh Allen up to succeed. And Allen has more than delivered. He’s racked up the most passing yards (4,544) and touchdowns (37) in a season in franchise history, and per Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, he’s also put together the most valuable season of any Bills quarterback ever. FiveThirtyEight now ranks him as the second-best quarterback in football, ahead of stars like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson.

What is most striking about Allen’s progress has been his improved accuracy. After ranking 33rd in completion percentage in 2018 and 32nd in 2019, Allen jumped all the way up to 4th in 2020. From 2019 (58.8%) to 2020 (69.2%), Allen raised his completion percentage by more than 10%, a nearly unprecedented improvement matched by only 3 players over the last 20 years. The Bills’ schematic changes have likely aided this growth, as pre-snap motion makes it easier to identify coverages, and play-action opens windows to find receivers. After being seen as comparable to Mitchell Trubisky, Daniel Jones, and Dwayne Haskins before the season, Josh Allen has emerged as one of the league’s top quarterbacks. With the help of a deep receiving corps, more pre-snap motion, and increased play-action passing, there’s no telling how far Josh Allen and the Bills will go.

Editor’s Note: If you have questions about this article, please feel free to reach out to Danny at 
harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com. Thank you for reading!

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