Did Josh Allen back down? Statistics say yes and no but the Buffalo Bills can fix it

The Buffalo Bills entered the season as Super Bowl favorites, due in large part to their MVP nominated quarterback, Josh Allen. The defense, bolstered by fresh draft picks in the secondary and the addition of Von Miller up front, was supposed to be an overwhelming complement to the Bills’ unstoppable offense.

What’s wrong with Josh Allen and the Beals?

The offense and defense are still quality units, but they don’t play as well as they did at the start of the season. Prior to the Bills’ Week 7 bye week, they ranked first in point difference per game by a wide margin, finishing games with a 15.8-point lead on average.

The distance between them and the second-ranked Eagles, at 9.3 points per game, was equal to the distance between the Eagles and the ninth-ranked Giants, at 2.9 points per game.

But since then, the Bills have ranked 12th in point difference per game at 3.0 per game. A lot of that has to do with some dropouts on defense, but the Bills’ biggest concern may be what feels like a drop in quality play from the quarterback.

Since Week 8, Allen has thrown six picks and averaged just 7.36 yards per attempt. He’s taken more sacks in his last four games and had problems scoring. This resulted in adjusted net yards per attempt of 5.04, which ranks 26th of 34 quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts since Week 8.

His third-down play and rushing potential — he ranks 16th in projected points per touchdown — helped bolster his troubling passing numbers.

But it sure looks like something has gone sideways with Josh Allen. While some of these can be explained by an injury to the UCL, not all of them can be explained; Allen suffered the injury in the last round of a Jets game in Week 9, meaning his performance in that game and the previous game could not be explained by his elbow.

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It makes sense to give him some leeway, given the fact that he’s playing through such an injury, but even some of his worst passes feel more like bad decisions than bad throws.

This is one of the worst periods of play from Allen since he improved to MVP in 2020. But that doesn’t raise all the angst surrounding Allen’s play. He had bad games out of that stretch, including a performance against the Miami Dolphins where he threw six interceptions. But the last four games are the most troubling.

Allen has always been a high-risk quarterback and has earned a reputation for great games ruined by stupid moments, but it was particularly awful this year.

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills have a red zone problem

In particular, the compressed field in the red caused problems for Allen. As Trumedia’s data shows, Allen ranks 28th among EPA quarterbacks per tackle in the red zone, and has the second-highest interception rate at 5.6 percent in the red zone, right behind Mack Jones.

His red zone completion rate ranks 32nd out of 34 quarterbacks, and his red zone touchdown rate is just 15.6 percent, which is 25th in the league.

Compare that to open field, where his interception rate is the league average, and his completion rate and touchdown rate are fourth in the NFL, and second in expected points added per touchdown.

Even if we only look at the last four weeks of play, his performance on the field has been amazing; He ranks sixth in expected points-per-retreat and seventh in yards-per-retreat.

So if the problem is the red zone, we can look at his red zone intercepts to see if there is a pattern, which may give us a clue as to why this problem is.

At first, one obvious pattern was that three of his red zone picks occurred while he was running, moving to his right. This does not explain the first or last choice, but this may provide a clue. However, throwing on the run isn’t a weakness for Allen, so that alone can’t explain it.

The bigger problem is that on four out of five of these plays all receivers are covered, and Allen doesn’t have a great throw at the top of his position. As he waits in the pocket for one to open, he feels pressure and a bail from the pocket, which explains why he hits so many throws on the run.

Pittsburgh’s first pick was right reading and timing, just bad throwing and good defensive play – so that’s not part of the pattern.

But the rest of the objections show that the players have a hard time opening up. Buffalo receivers have talent, and Stefon Diggs has been a consistent red zone performer in the past, so that receiver’s ability can only explain some of the issues there as well.

It’s easier to spot the pattern when you’re extending the range and looking at all red zone throws – it’s not just interceptions. In the open field, with over 20 yards of grass to explore, it’s easy for receivers to find space, which is true of any team.

But the Bills experience a huge difference between receiver separation in the red zone when compared to plays in the open field. The issue may be the departure of offensive coordinator Brian Dabol.

The Bills still beat outside the red
October 16, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) celebrates with tight end Dawson Knox (88) after a touchdown during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at GEHA Stadium at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills still beat outside the red

When looking at the other dichotomy in the open field — man coverage vs. zone coverage, play action vs. standard dips, high safety vs. one safety, snap vs. no offense — nothing stands out. This problem is unique to the red zone, and Allen’s open court play was unusual regardless of the defensive approach.

Freshman offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey does a pretty good job using Allen in most situations, even if he could do a better job tailoring running plays for him or making sure he runs runs on the three more often.

But in the red, their preparation and planning seems to fall short. Human hits are called when the opposition defense is playing conventional territory or Allen becomes unaware of the defenders’ positioning.

Interceptions against the Jets and Packers included plays where Allen seemed surprised there were two defenders where he threw. Since the readings in the red are so fast, this isn’t necessarily a huge shock; Against the Jets, Allen must have expected that Whitehead would bite into playing dummy and keep the sale option open.

This has happened more than once outside of interception scenarios, so it seems as if red zone practices don’t do a good job of predicting how the defenders they will play will behave.

Just because there seems to be an explanation for Allen’s poor play in the red doesn’t mean he’s not at fault either. There needs to be better play communication and better play design, but Allen needs to make sure he sees the field before following his instincts. Predicting where Defenders will be is not the same as knowing where they are.

Although the compressed area of ​​the red zone is an area where teams often see more pressure, Allen sees much less pressure than in other areas of the field. He may instinctively speed up his process too much, which could also be contributing to the problem. The offense should also mix in some plays that develop a bit slower as well as train Allen to be more patient on the pocket.

Pressing is not good, but inviting pressure and waiting for the defense to reveal itself is better than shooting blindly.

Because he and the Bills’ offense enter the red zone so often—the second-highest number of red-zone trips per drive in the league—they’ve maintained high scoring rates and covered up some of their problems with sheer volume.

But he also highlights some of his individual failings when too much is expected of him.

The Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen can fix this

Allen and Dorsey need to throw out the way they run the red zone attack and come up with a new way to do it. It sounds difficult, but it can be done and has been done before. Bills have already recognized this problem.

Red zone performance is usually “random” insofar as past red zone performers do a poor job of predicting future red zone performance. But this does not mean that variance accounts for all differences in outcome.

Instead, teams that struggle in one area will devote more time and attention to that area until the problem is resolved. The result is something that statistically looks like regression but can sometimes be the product of a concerted effort made in the movie room and during practices.

Just as the Patriots improved their red zone production from the bottom five in the first half of the season to the top five in the second half of the season last year, the Bills can jump into a crushing offense with just a little more improvement in the red zone.

For the Patriots, that meant more commitment to action, linebacker Jacob Johnson, role changes for Jono Smith, and the isolation of Kendrick Born in one-on-one situations. The Bills could do something similar and recommit linebacker Reggie Gilliam, but they’ll do a better job focusing on what they did well than the Patriots did last year.

So, is Allen playing worse now? In some ways, yes. But his issues are localized in the red. He may have found himself trailing in the MVP race, but if he and the Bills can sort out their issues near the end zone, he could find himself teetering back in the MVP contention as the Bills regain the division lead before they pulled away from them.

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