Sports

Is Regression Coming for Josh Allen and the Bills?

It’s a hackneyed trope: the Week 1 overreaction, so common at this point that it’s almost self-aware. I should know, because I indulged in it the moment NFL football returned to my television screen. As one of the many analysts who were stunned that Josh Allen skyrocketed into the upper echelon of quarterbacking last year after his subpar early-career performance and deeply flawed draft profile, I had one thought in my mind when Allen’s Buffalo Bills struggled to move the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense: He’s come crashing back down to earth, and he’s landing right on a giant red panic button the size of metropolitan Buffalo.

I was drunk on football. Sober now, I still see some concerning phantasms of the Allen of old in his tape against the Steelers. He double-clutched the football in the pocket, lowered his eyes at the top of his drop, and squirmed under pressure. There were times I didn’t understand his thought process; there were others when I didn’t even believe he had one.

These were all truths of Allen’s 2018 and 2019 seasons—you remember, the ones during which he was bad? Well, they were truths of his 2020 season, too. His play style remained the same; his accuracy, and accordingly his effectiveness, leapt through the roof. With his howitzer of an arm attached to the thundering ram that was Brian Daboll’s pass-happy offense and a dazzling superstar in WR Stefon Diggs, the Bills offense was a … well, it was a superstar ram with a howitzer. It was very good! And effective! And hard to stop.

But the Steelers stopped it on Sunday, and it may seem obvious that the dip in the Bills’ offense was the result of a dip in Allen’s play. But that wasn’t the case at all.

I can make the entire argument in just a paragraph. The Steelers blitzed the Bills once on Sunday, per Sports Info Solutions—and yet, they pressured Allen on 22 of his 51 dropbacks (39 percent). Let’s safely assume that the Bills will never surrender as much pressure to so few rushers ever again, and sail off into the sunset certain that Allen will return to his previous heights. Thanks for reading. Be sure to drop a like and smash that subscribe button.

Of course, football is never that neat. But few, if any, quarterbacks would succeed in this context. For comparison’s sake: the Buccaneers blitzed Patrick Mahomes on only three of 56 dropbacks (5 percent) in the Super Bowl, and pressured him on 25 dropbacks (45 percent). We all remember how that went. That Allen struggled under these circumstances is expected, not worrisome.

It’s worth double-checking whether Allen was at fault for generating pressures by holding on to the football and missing his landmarks on his dropbacks. While Allen has always been willing to hold on to the football and deal with pressure as it comes, he was no more careless on Sunday than he was last season. Pro Football Focus charted Allen as being pressured on 23 dropbacks, and assigned him blame on only 5 percent of those pressures—one of the lowest numbers of the week, and far below his 2020 mark of 17.6 percent. Pittsburgh edge rushers T.J. Watt and Melvin Ingram both regularly won against Buffalo tackles Daryl Williams and Dion Dawkins, while DT Cameron Heyward swallowed most of Allen’s escape lanes with a relentless interior rush. Allen was frequently pinned in the pocket, limiting his freedom to create explosive, improvisational plays.

Some of these issues are structural. The Bills are willing to let elite edge rushers beat them. All offenses have particular weaknesses, and since Buffalo rarely uses tight ends as in-line blockers, it’s difficult to offer help to struggling tackles with chip blocks and extended surfaces. Buffalo’s starting TE, Dawson Knox, is a better receiver than blocker; Tyler Kroft left in free agency, and Jacob Hollister was cut late in the offseason despite Tommy Sweeney’s lingering injury. The Bills regularly lined up in four-open and empty formations against the Steelers, making it clear to the Pittsburgh defense that it would be blocking only with five offensive linemen.

With the Bills’ offense stymied so successfully, media and fans will be quick to jump on the Steelers’ defensive approach as a blueprint other teams will follow to similar success against Buffalo. Fortunately for the Bills, this blueprint is difficult to adopt. Few, if any, teams in the league can generate that much pressure with just four pass rushers—there’s a reason T.J. Watt has been top three in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the past two seasons. And the Bills’ offensive line, which struggled mightily on Sunday, usually plays better.

But even if the blueprint’s tough to follow, it still gives some important insights into how the Bills passing game works. When defenses rush four, they drop seven into coverage—enough to play man coverage with multiple safeties in support, or to play zone coverages and keep eyes on Allen and respect the threat of his pocket-breaking ability. The Steelers did both on Sunday, but largely leaned on zone coverages to force Allen away from the deep ball and to his checkdowns.

Take this third-and-10 early in the game:

The Steelers are initially lined up with two deep safeties, showing man coverage alignment across the board. Instead, they’ll play Cover 3—which every NFL quarterback has seen and dissected since his high school days. But the Steelers get into Cover 3 in an atypical way: not by dropping one safety into the short zones and leaving one safety deep, as is traditional, but by dropping both safeties into the intermediate middle of the field and asking the slot defender to fly back into the deep center-fielding position. On paper, seven defenders end up in the typical Cover 3 zones: four underneath, and three deep. Those zones are just filled with different players.

Ben Solak

This lets both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds play downhill into the route concept, while keeping their eyes on Allen the entire time. The Bills want to stretch Fitzpatrick’s zone in particular, by running both a bender and a curl route behind him—but Fitzpatrick is able to first take away Cole Beasley’s bender before settling into the curl window, while Edmunds sinks over to take the Beasley responsibility.

(Also notice how the chip from Knox slowed down Watt’s rush just enough to give Allen time to go through his progressions. This is important for the Bills offense!)

Allen is forced into a checkdown, and his double-clutching of the football gives DB Tre Norwood a head start in driving down to the flat to make the tackle. Norwood plays with poor leverage and gives up just enough space for the first down, but overall, this is a win for the defense.

The Bills also tried to attack the Steelers’ Cover 3 defense in the seams, but again, the Steelers’ secondary was keyed in on the Bills’ plans and willing to play aggressively.

Watch Joe Haden, the corner at the top of the screen, read Josh Allen’s eyes as he sees the vertical route coming up the seam from Emmanuel Sanders. Allen wants to hammer this ball into Sanders before the center-fielding safety can arrive, but misses high on a pass that likely wouldn’t have been completed even if it were accurate.

Allen’s accuracy wasn’t great on Sunday, which is naturally the item of chief concern for Bills fans. The above rep is a great example of what constant pressure can do to a quarterback’s throwing process. Having been hit all game, the internal alarm clock in Allen’s head starts blaring as he scans the field. Throw! Throw! Throw! Someone is coming to hit you very hard and maybe knock the ball free! Throw!

Allen knows he’s late to this route and has been long in the pocket. He’s hitching in the direction of the crosser from Beasley, but instead decides to give Sanders a shot on the seam. It’s a bad decision, but it’s characteristically Allen. And while it’s an inaccurate pass, that much velocity is tough for anyone to intercept, so the ball falls safely incomplete. These are the risks he often takes, and the Bills have to live with the ups and the downs on that roller coaster.

Allen missed other throws because he rushed them. A bubble screen to Beasley on a manageable third down barely grazed his shoelaces. A corner route to Diggs was placed on the wrong shoulder, as if he expected Diggs to keep running upfield while Diggs was flattening to the sideline. An easy completion on a flea flicker was broken up because Allen lollipopped a throw that should have been delivered with velocity—he had Tyson Alualu in his face. And, of course, Allen missed a deep bomb to Sanders, throwing just a yard beyond his outstretched fingers.

Plenty of time. Extra man in for protection. It’s a similar concept to the above seam route to Sanders: Sanders and Beasley switching at the line of scrimmage, a deep comeback from the outside receiver to occupy the corner, a deep in-breaking route from Beasley to occupy the deep safety. This one uncovers gorgeously, and Allen just misses it by a step.

A play diagram in which receiver Cole Beasley pulls the safety to the middle of the field, leaving receiver Emmanuel Sanders in single coverage deep down the field.

Ben Solak

Bills fans, cover your ears. (Or your eyes. But keep reading.) I’m about to say the dreaded “R” word.

This is regression.

Remember in 2019 when Josh Allen was one of the worst deep passers in the league? On his throws more than 20 yards downfield, he had an adjusted completion percentage of 31 percent, threw only four touchdowns and three interceptions, and with 68 total deep attempts, he had a paltry 8.7 yards per attempt. His performance on deep patterns was shockingly poor.

Then came 2020. Allen’s adjusted completion percentage on such throws jumped to 47.2; his TD-INT ratio to 11-to-5; and his yards per attempt to 13.2. Next Gen Stats saw his completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) jump from -10.1 to 7.1, the second-biggest increase in the league. The leap Allen took was tremendous, as he quickly went from one of the league’s worst deep ball passers to one of its best.

That phenomenon, in and of itself, was regression. When a player’s performance regresses, that doesn’t necessarily mean he gets worse; it means he trends back toward the mean. Deep throws, which are the hardest and most valuable passes to complete, are inherently volatile. Year over year, the small margins that separate an incompletion from a 55-yard bomb TD to Emmanuel Sanders are the margins that dictate overall game performance, season-long performance, and wins and losses. Allen was a really bad deep ball thrower in 2019; he was a really good deep ball thrower in 2020. In reality, he is probably somewhere in the middle of all that. Performance against the blitz, where Allen was perhaps the best quarterback in 2020, is another area that will likely see some statistical dropoff as a result of a few unfortunate bounces of the ball.

That doesn’t, at all, take away the strides in accuracy that Allen has made. He was a stunning intermediate passer (10- to 19-yard range) last year, and looked like one again against the Steelers. Even as Pittsburgh did its best to clog up intermediate windows with buzzing safeties and zone droppers, Allen was able to fit the ball into tight windows against man coverage and beat closing zone defenders in short areas. For all the seam routes he tried and missed, perhaps his best throw was just that: a laser of a seam ball, thrown ahead of the Cover 3 safety.

This is true development, true quarterbacking improvement, which will stick even if he doesn’t catch and sustain the fire that was his 2020 performance. He may not be as good, but he’s still got the goods.

It is frustrating to score only 16 points against the Steelers, a harrowing reminder to the Bills and Brian Daboll that a lot of really good AFC defenses—Pittsburgh, Miami, New England, Baltimore—spent a lot of time this offseason sculpting plans to slow them down. But it is far better to be frustrated by one performance than concerned for the season altogether given the performance of your quarterback. It was far from Allen’s best game—he left plays on the field that could have brought home victory for the Bills—but with the memory of Allen’s rookie and sophomore seasons in mind, it was also far from his worst. The Bills have problems to solve: the quick pressure they surrendered, the miscommunications between Allen and his receivers, Allen’s continued willingness to test impossible windows, and, of course, a generally inert running game. But these aren’t unfamiliar problems to the Bills—they experienced most of them in 2020—and they all have actionable solutions; avoiding Mike Tomlin’s Steelers defense is the first and most meaningful step.

Yes, Josh Allen is regressing. It had to happen. But guess what: He’s still a good quarterback, plenty capable of winning all the way into January, and maybe even February. The panic button, while looming in the distance, is still many weeks away.

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