Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Eagles over Bills

Eagles force a Josh Allen fumble
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

It has become very apparent that, in public discourse, Josh Allen has taken a step forward. That goes along with three things: his team's winning percentage; Allen's percentage of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives; and finally, Allen's completion percentage. The Bills are just one win away from equaling last season's total; Allen already has more fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives then he did last year; and his completion percentage has gone up by 7.3%.

From a more advanced analytical standpoint, however, Allen has mostly been the same quarterback with a slight boost. His interception rate has dropped a bit -- from 3.8% to 3.1%. He has taken modest steps in adjusted yards per attempt from 5.4 to 6.1. His sack rate is mostly unchanged. Allen's DVOA has improved from -35.9% to -26.3% -- he's still worse than every qualifying quarterback besides Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen. Last year, he was only better than Rosen.

If you read this site, I tend to have a base level of faith in you to understand that although the Bills are 5-2, they are lucky to be there and are winning with their quarterback, not because of him. But I think the most interesting thing about Allen is how the game plan has changed this season, and I think that colors a lot about how we should view him.

Josh Allen's 2018 and 2019 Seasons by NFL Next Gen Stats
  Time to Throw Intended Air
Yards per Attempt
On-Target% (SIS) Aggressiveness% Expected Completion Rate Completion Rate
2018 3.22 (most) 11 (1) 63.1% (last) 13.8% (29) 60.5% (3rd-lowest) 52.8% (lowest)
2019 2.89 (4th-most) 9.1 (9) 64.6% (4th-last) 13.9% (11th-lowest) 62.2% (8th-lowest) 60.1% (8th-lowest)

These stats tell us a tale of Allen's accuracy going up a bit, but also that he is only attempting many deep passes instead of a league-leading amount of deep passes. Allen has mostly performed better on intermediate passes and passes behind the line of scrimmage. Through Week 7, Allen was 24-of-25 on throws behind the line of scrimmage (he was 42-of-50 in 2018), and 27-of-41 on intermediate throws (he was 39-of-84 in 2018).

Allen still buys plenty of time with his legs, but the Bills have also significantly upped the talent around him. Last year, this play is probably a scramble because John Brown would be Kelvin Benjamin or someone of that ilk, and Allen wouldn't have found anyone easy to throw to late in the down.

On that note, all of Allen's rushing yardage has disappeared. On 26 scrambles this year through Week 8, Allen had averaged 6.4 yards per play, 19th in the league. Last year, the Bills led the league with 10.3 yards per scramble. It is a step forward that Allen is hitting throws on his scrambles, but it has left him with little overall production change.

Then there's the fact that Allen still struggles with a lot of the mental aspects of quarterbacking. When he overcomes those struggles, he's amazing to watch. When he doesn't, well, the Bills don't score much.

I think we all inherently want young quarterbacks to succeed (even when we give them a terrible projection). We are always scouting for signs of the breakthrough, and that is why we all want to look at Allen's 10 best throws -- which are legitimately impressive throws -- and say that he is coming along. That is the lure of scouting the highlights, and those highlights are the reason that players like Allen get drafted as high as they do even though nothing about their statistical profile said they were ready.

But on a 500-throw basis, improvement in fits and starts doesn't make much of a mark. Allen is slightly better than he was as a rookie, but that's about all so far.

Where the Game Swung

The most impactful plays in this game, courtesy of our Business Daddy, EdjSports, and their Game-Winning Chance (GWC) metric:

  • Buffalo actually converting third-and-goal from the Philadelphia 14 to a touchdown was worth 10.2% GWC.
  • Josh Allen's fumble deep in Bills territory towards the end of the second quarter cost the Bills 13.1% GWC.
  • Miles Sanders' 65-yard touchdown run at the beginning of the third quarter was worth 14.6% GWC.
  • Buffalo again converting on third-and-13 at the Philadelphia 28, turning a likely field goal attempt into a touchdown, was worth 14.9% GWC.
  • Buffalo punting on fourth-and-4 at the Buffalo 31, down nine in the third quarter, gained 8.3% GWC after the Eagles fumbled the punt.

Here's the Sanders run, because it's pretty:

While the Bills are dinged by GWC for not kicking a field goal on fourth-and-10 from the Philadelphia 29 -- they went for it -- it is much less of a bad decision in the context of this game. Swirling winds played havoc with kickers all game.

By the (D)VOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
PHI 15.7% -22.9% -7.4% 31.2%
BUF -34.0% 12.7% -3.8% -50.5%
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
PHI 24.2% -31.5% -7.4% 48.3%
BUF -35.6% 12.8% -3.8% -52.2%

Buffalo now falls to 16th in defensive DVOA -- though the funny part is that they'd be in third without opponent adjustments.

They aren't the worst 5-2 team we've ever tracked: that'd be the 2007 Detroit Lions (subscription required), who went on to lose six games in a row and finished 7-9.

Where has Philadelphia's Pass Defense Gone Wrong?

We have already talked about the Eagles' pass offense this year, which hasn't changed much -- they still need DeSean Jackson's speed. Let's take a look at something different.

The Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017 with a -6.9% pass defense DVOA, eighth-best in the NFL. They had the fifth-best defense overall that season, because their play against the run was dominant. The Eagles then had a 6.7% pass defense DVOA in 2018, and so far this season they're at 6.0%. What was once a strength for Philadelphia has been merely solid the last two seasons. It's very easy to just say "the cornerbacks are worse!" and certainly the revolving door at the position makes it an easy target. (Much like a Philadelphia cornerback! Whooo-hoooaaa!)

But the 2017 Eagles had exactly the same group of main cornerbacks. Jalen Mills. Ronald Darby. Rasul Douglas. They started Patrick Robinson in eight games, who had a career year in the slot for the Eagles, but other than replacing him with Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox, you have most of the core of Philadelphia's corner group still here in 2019.

Eagles Cornerbacks, 2017-2019
Year Player G GS Targets Yd/Pass Rank Success Rate Rank PYD Rank YAC Rank
2017 Jalen Mills 15 15 99 5.9 14 56% 35 11.2 55 1.8 39
Patrick Robinson 16 8 70 7.0 45 61% 14 10.3 67 3.4 78
Rasul Douglas 14 5 53 6.9 40 57% 29 11.5 52 2.5 60
Ronald Darby* 8 7 48 6.6 70 67% 14 11.4 103 2.1 96
2018 Ronald Darby 9 9 65 6.0 11 57% 18 11.9 48 1.5 3
Rasul Douglas 16 7 64 8.6 66 47% 61 11.7 50 4.8 68
Jalen Mills 8 8 51 11.7 82 43% 78 13.5 17 6.2 81
Avonte Maddox 13 9 33 4.6 1 61% 6 12.7 31 1.4 1
Sidney Jones* 9 4 31 7.0 77 45% 133 10.0 146 4.0 102
2019 Rasul Douglas 7 5 35 10.8 54 49% 38 16.3 4 4.2 37
Avonte Maddox 4 3 28 7.8 32 57% 16 8.5 56 6.9 58
Ronald Darby* 3 3 23 11.4 139 39% 117 15.7 20 5.2 124
Sidney Jones* 5 4 19 8.6 100 58% 49 10.1 121 6.6 142
Jalen Mills* 1 1 8 9.3 112 25% 143 13.5 44 1.8 19
* Did not qualify, rankings are among all cornerbacks.

With Darby, the story has been one of decline. He has been constantly hurt, and his torn ACL last season led to a down free-agency period for him. He has not played much since being torched by the Falcons on Sunday Night Football until last week's return to his first stop in Buffalo. The word "gambling" is often used to describe both Mills and Douglas. Even in Mills' best season, in 2017, he allowed nine touchdowns in coverage. Jones has played solidly this year but had a trouble getting a foothold after his own injuries. Maddox is probably the corner with the best statistical profile the Eagles have, so far. And, of course, as has been brought to our attention by Orlando Scandrick, whenever the Eagles need to sign a player to fill time for injuries, that player has been dreadful.

Rodney McLeod's absence in 2018 certainly changed a lot about that season, but he's back, and the Eagles have still been woeful in coverage in 2019. What gives?

The one major thing that has changed between the 2018 and 2019 seasons is the pressure the Eagles have gotten, and the way they have reacted to it:

Eagles Pressure Rate, 2017-2019
  Pressure (SIS) Rank Blitz (SIS)
2017 32.2% 9 19.0%
2018 29.7% 19 17.1%
2019 32.7% 5 24.0%

Jim Schwartz has been one of the least aggressive coordinators in the NFL the last two seasons, but suddenly he's blitzing a lot more than usual, the year after his defense finally had a middle-of-the-pack finish in pressure rate. One way to make your corners have less time to cover is to send blitzes, but it also makes it imperative that corners win earlier in the down. The Eagles simply haven't done that this year. (Losing key offseason signing Malik Jackson early on also probably helped them make the decision to send more heat.)

Regardless of what happens, it's nice to see Schwartz at least trying to speed things up this year. I think a core assumption most of us have about coaches is that they just stay "good" forever. Schwartz has been one of the best for a long time -- since 2006, he hadn't finished below top-five in pass defense DVOA as a coordinator until 2018. So it is baffling to see his defense look as mortal as it has for this prolonged stretch.

Perhaps the 2017 Eagles were simply a perfect box where everything went right, and the Eagles haven't been able to replicate it again these last 20 months. Perhaps Schwartz will need to build a new, faster box in which his scheme can work properly.

Comments

8 comments, Last at 30 Oct 2019, 11:31am

1 Presumably the DB and DL injuries are the reason

for the Pass D's decline. This year da Iggles just got Mills back from PUP, Darby missed most of this season, Jones has been in and out all year again, Maddox out with the concussion from Sendejo. And we all remember last year where 10 guys played CB and they were signing guys off the street like Le'Blanc, who has also missed this entire year.

2 The Bills' victories were…

The Bills' victories were over teams with a 7-31 record. Their losses are to teams with a 12-4 record.

Perhaps they are the same team as last year, only their schedule has gotten easier because something like three AFC teams are actively trying to lose and two of them are in their division.

3 I'm not actually sure the…

I'm not actually sure the problem is really the secondary. And I don't think it's the defensive line not getting pressure (because as you can see, they are).

I think it's the linebackers, which very few people (outside of Eagles fans) are mentioning. Philly's linebackers in 2017 were Bradham and Kendricks (plus Hicks/Goode in 3-linebacker sets). Bradham got injured in the Minnesota game, and the others are gone. The linebackers they're actually playing - Grugier-Hill, Gerry, formerly Zach Brown - are... not good.

And they're *so* bad that I think they're screwing up the secondary enough because the safeties are trying to cover for them. Dallas specifically wasn't targeting the secondary - they were targeting the linebackers, specifically, and holy hell it worked, because they bite on *everything*.

The corners haven't helped, because Darby, Mills, and Maddox aren't great to begin with, but I think the linebackers are more fundamental of a problem.

4 Mills just got back from a…

Mills just got back from a severe injury from last year. Darby, Maddox, and Sidney Jones have all been banged up (and it's not even certain Jones is even JAG-level).

The pressure rate has been achieved by blitzing more, which exposes the secondary. Bennett was the best DE and he left, Long is also gone. Cox has been injured all year, and the other DT position has been manned by JAGs since both expensive free agents went down in the preseason.

Finally, the linebackers they currently have are better at coverage (although they definitely are a step down).

Decline in the DL and CB position explain the issue rather easily.

6 "Finally, the linebackers…

"Finally, the linebackers they currently have are better at coverage"

What.

That's... not true. Dallas spent all game attacking the linebackers, not the corners. The corners aren't good, but the linebackers are really, really bad in coverage.

7 I call 15% more than a bit

“His interception rate has dropped a bit -- from 3.8% to 3.1%. He has taken modest steps in adjusted yards per attempt from 5.4 to 6.1.”

8 Clearly not improving at all…

Clearly not improving at all. Certainly not improving more than some drafted ahead of him.

Now that I'm done snarking, we'll see how all of this pulls together in 2020. The Bills weren't actually supposed to be good this year, just better, which they are. Though the defense is worrying.

I think his deep ball is being hampered by the mechanical changes they made to his footwork, just from watching him throw last year.