Film Room: Buffalo Offense

Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Sunday's Week 17 game against the Miami Dolphins was not a must-win for the Buffalo Bills. All that was on the line for Buffalo was the difference between the second seed versus the third seed in the playoffs. While having a higher seed is always nice, the Bills were already locked into a division title and a solid playoff spot. Their regular-season mission had been accomplished.

Miami, on the other hand, needed the win to secure a playoff spot. Technically, with some luck, the Dolphins could have still gotten in with a loss, but a win would have secured their spot in the postseason. The game was an absolute must-win for the Dolphins.

The Bills sure did not treat this game like a throwaway match. By the end of the first half, Buffalo held a 28-6 lead, thanks in part to a punt return score from wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie. Quarterback Josh Allen put on an absolute clinic, earning himself some R&R on the bench for the second half so as to ensure his safety for the playoff run. Allen finished with 18 completions on 25 attempts, 224 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception in the first half alone.

Despite what the 28-6 halftime lead suggests, the Bills did not do much of anything through the first quarter. Their first three drives generated a whole bunch of nothing. In fact, the first drive gave the impression that the Bills might actually be in for a long day. After converting a couple of first downs through efficient runs and short passes, Allen was sacked for 11 yards on a first-and-10, then immediately threw an interception on the next play after waiting around too long for his receivers to break open. Briefly, the Bills looked like the worst version of themselves, setting up an early Miami 3-0 lead.

The next two drives didn't get the Bills anywhere, either. They nearly reached midfield on both drives, but ultimately stalled out after a few incompletions thanks in part to pressure generated by Miami's front. Through those first few drives, though, the Dolphins defense seemed hellbent on spot-drop Cover-3, fire-zone Cover-3, and five-man pressure versions of Cover-2 on early downs, while mixing in more aggressive man coverage pressure packages on third down.

Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll soaked that information up and went on a rampage over the next few drives. Daboll caught the Dolphins defense in the exact coverage he wanted a number of times, while Allen did well to execute and get the ball out of his hand in a timely manner. The offense looked as mercilessly efficient as it had been all year.

Below is a first-and-10 from Buffalo's fourth drive of the game, their first to end in a touchdown. As Daboll anticipated, Miami called a variation of spot-drop Cover-3 to open the series. This is a fire-zone version of Cover-3, meaning a fifth defender rushes the passer (the nickel corner, in this case), while three deep defenders and three underneath defenders handle coverage responsibilities. Daboll, in response, calls a Cover-3-beater, hitch-seam, to the strong side.

Since there is only one deep-middle defender, the two outside underneath defenders need to help carry any vertical releases up the seam to buy time for the deep-middle safety. In doing so, there is a window in which the hitch route on the outside is one-on-one versus a cornerback who wants to bail to a deep-third. Allen finds that window with ease and sticks one to Stefon Diggs at the bottom of the screen for a solid 8-yard gain.

On the very next drive, Daboll and Allen harped on the same idea to find another nice pickup from Diggs. The Dolphins even run the same safety rotation away from the tight end behind the blitzing nickel cornerback (who this time is coming from the offense's left). In this clip, the Bills are running more of a Levels concept, but the idea is the same. The outside underneath defender (Jerome Baker, 55) needs to flow with the vertical release of the tight end and help pass him off to the deep defender. Diggs is once again left alone against a cornerback who wants to bail, setting him up for an easy pitch-and-catch from Allen.

Daboll also turned Miami's more aggressive third-down calls against them, too. On Buffalo's first scoring drive of the day, the Bills offense was faced with a third-and-4 just inside the 10-yard line. Daboll caught the Dolphins in a man coverage pressure look and set up slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie to make a play.

To the trips (right) side of the formation, the Bills are running what looks like a red zone adaptation of an Ohio combination with their two outermost receivers. The No. 2 (middle receiver) runs a speed out at 5 to 7 yards, while the No. 1 (outside) gets vertical with an outside release. The outside release from No. 1 is done in order to force the outside corner to turn his back to the rest of the combination, which will not necessarily happen in zone coverages, and help generate space. All the slot receiver needs to do now is get a step of separation on the goal line and it's an easy score. McKenzie, who scored two more touchdowns in this game, did just that and provided Allen with an easy target.

Allen himself showed a pretty good understanding of how to battle Miami's coverages, too. Both inside and outside the pocket, Allen proved he had answers for what the Dolphins were trying to throw at him, especially on early downs.

With Miami starting off in a single-high shell and their nickel cornerback at the top of the screen immediately bailing off the line of scrimmage into the flat, Allen can make a strong guess that the Dolphins are once again in spot-drop Cover-3. As Allen brings his eyes back to the middle of the field, he sees both Miami linebackers in hook zones, which helps Allen make his next move outside the pocket. Allen bails to his left and gears his shoulders as if he's going to throw left, perhaps just down to the checkdown. The hook defender (Kyle Van Noy, 53) flies down as a response to try to corral either Allen as a runner or the potential checkdown, leaving a window behind him for the deep crosser to settle back into. That's just a good job from Allen to understand how windows open up against certain coverages based on where he's moving outside the pocket.

This time, with just over a minute left in the half, the Dolphins are in Cover-2 with their cornerbacks playing really soft. Seeing as the Dolphins start in a two-high shell, the moment Allen sees the cornerback on his first read (right) slide to outside leverage and looks to settle down, he can assume Miami is in Cover-2, or perhaps Cover-6 with more of a quarters look on the other side. As soon as Allen bails the pocket to his left, he takes inventory of the cornerback to be sure the defense is in Cover-2. Allen sees the cornerback sitting low, as expected, and lets it rip to John Brown on a corner route about 30 yards down the field.

Again, that is a heads-up play from Allen to understand what is left on his checklist before making a throw despite being moved out of the pocket. It also helps he has the arm strength to rip a 25-plus-yard corner route with ease, which is not something most quarterbacks can say.

Plays like the previous two are good examples of how far Allen has come as a quarterback. Previously, both at Wyoming and early in his NFL career, many of Allen's plays outside the pocket lacked any degree of process. He looked more like a chicken with his head cut off than a quarterback deliberately moving around to make a play. Now, Allen's scrambling feels like it has real structure and he understands what to look for once he gets moving. That has been a terrifying predicament for defenses all year long considering Allen has the athleticism and arm talent to make every throw on the field available to him at all times.

It's dumbfounding how ruthless Buffalo's passing attack has become. The Bills have discovered a beautiful blend of making the base of their offense as smooth to execute as possible while enabling Allen to be the playmaker he is. All the flash about Allen's game that dazzled for years finally has some real substance to it, thanks to both Allen's personal development as well as Daboll's play-calling brilliance.


9 comments, Last at 08 Jan 2021, 1:12pm

1 Great article, thanks! What…

Great article, thanks!

What do people think about Daboll as a head coaching candidate? Charger's fans seem to have him as the #1 target but some have expressed concern that he's never really had any success before this year. I tend to discount such concerns (even Belicheck got fired before landing with the Pats) and it seems to me that Herbert would do just as well in this offense as Allen.

I also wonder if offenses have gotten too good at attacking Cover-3. Will it's usage start to wane in a repeat of what happened to Cover-2? I might be biased because the Chargers run so much Cover-3, but it seems like decent QBs just march down the field executing throws similar to the first two examples in this article. The Charger's version of Cover-3 is almost completely dependent on the front four generating pressure, and I suspect their defense does so poorly in the second half because the d-linemen tire and opposing offenses realize how easy it is to attack the outside corners.

3 Daboll as HC

I have seen this suggestion somewhere too. I can't say whether he is a good candidate or not. But I would not like the idea if I was a BUF fan. It seems like they have a great offense, with good young players at many spots. I would want to keep this group together for another year.

5 Daboll / Keep the Band Together

In reply to by Joseph

Yeah another run with roughly the same group seems like a good idea if in any way possible.  They will also have an impeccable CAP position in 2021.  These two years is probably their primary Super Bowl window...although Beane has been lights out on almost all draft / personnel decisions, so maybe they can maintain the momentum even as the salaries of the young core rise dramatically.


6 Daboll / Keep the Band Together

In reply to by Joseph

Yeah another run with roughly the same group seems like a good idea if in any way possible.  They will also have an impeccable CAP position in 2021.  These two years is probably their primary Super Bowl window...although Beane has been lights out on almost all draft / personnel decisions, so maybe they can maintain the momentum even as the salaries of the young core rise dramatically.


2 It Looks as if Daboll Should get most of the credit.

Based on the examples you selected.  In the second example I see three on one in favor of the offense to the offense’s left, so I am not sure he made the correct read.  In the last example I saw multiple guys open, so perhaps it was just a really great play call that got the look Daboll anticipated.

4 The Angles

Nice article!  Very good film choices.  Those simple hitch patterns to Diggs are the best possible example of the change between last year and this year.  Last year, that option route didn't exist (if it did, then they didn't call it much).

Here is the big thing ...if Josh Allen can clearly see the #s on the front of your jersey, he is among the NFL's best at completing that pass ...the further down the field the better.   Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis have allowed Josh Allen to gain more access to the middle of the field and hit a lot more of these throws.

By comparison, those Diggs' routes last year to the same location were most likely to be "bend outs" by the RB or Cole Beasley where the receiver would be running away from him ...and he is among the NFL's worst at making that throw.

Similarly, he tried to zip a lot of balls over a defender and down fast .. .both from the pocket and on the run ...and sometimes well down the field.   It was understandable in 2018 because there wasn't much else available to him (that offense was almost historically bad outside of him ...the #s of the other QBs that year were beyond awful).  But these are almost impossible to make and his completion % suffered greatly, as a result.

Anyway, this is all discussed in this pre-season Josh Allen video:

In the end, the biggest difference between Josh Allen this year and last is that they figured out how to put him in a position to make a lot more of those throws that he excels at AND he has learned to loft balls accurately over defenders in appropriate circumstances instead of throwing everything a million miles an hour.



7 I would also add that his…

In reply to by Clock_Football

I would also add that his mental game has improved - he now knows what he's looking at, is decisive, and knows what to do physically to complete the throw.

I just find myself wondering if his mindset isn't the biggest part of his improvement? It seems like you could teach anyone with similar physical tools (which is a small list, admittedly) the things Jordan Palmer has taught him, but the mental part starts with an understanding that he's not already great that he wouldn't have arrived from a big program with.

Daboll also deserves a mountain of credit for sticking to his guns in previous seasons and not destroying his development. Beane surrounded him with talent - it's a team game and you need players at all the positions that can win their matchups.

As an aside, this is another offense (like Green Bay and Kansas City) that is called "QB friendly". In 2020, if your offense isn't "QB friendly", should you even still have a job as an OC?

8 QB friendly offense

Here is the problem with your last statement: Not all OC's and QB's can work together, because the OC's philosophy/foundation and the QB's best strengths do not jibe. Now, all OC's have some basic plays in their playbook, and all QB's have some basic skills--but that doesn't mean they match up. For example, it is widely assumed that KC's Bienemy will get a HC position. But will Mahomes sit in with Andy Reid on any OC interview? Will it matter, since it is also widely assumed that the system is really Reid's? Will Josh Allen do the same if Daboll gets hired as a HC somewhere else? Then, what about the reverse? You would assume that the OC has some input during the offseason on players that would fit his offensive system (whether draft or FA)--but it's not a given that he isn't overruled by an owner, GM, or HC. And you still have the times where player X doesn't end up fitting--even though everything "looked right" on paper.

In other words--whether someone calls an offense QB friendly doesn't mean that it is, and what is friendly to one QB might not be to another. What matters most is that your OC can design an offense that fits the QB you have. Once you get a QB that projects to be a long-term starter, since QB's tend to last longer than OC's, you better make sure that they mesh. But considering that, you can get a situation where your "long-term" QB gets injured, traded, falls off a cliff, etc. and then your back to figuring out if the QB & OC mesh. 

9 OC / system

This is a really good point.   There is a significant number of OC types that want to run THEIR SYSTEM, and believe that the offense's success will be enabled by their superior way of doing things.  To these guys, it is crucial that they get guys to fit the pre-designed approach.

The genius of Daboll (this year specifically) is that he created a customized approach based on the unique strengths of Josh Allen.  Very similar to the Roman / Jackson dynamic from 2019.  Kudos also to Beane (the best in the biz right now?) for also providing Davis and Diggs, two massive additions for what they were trying to accomplish in 2020 on offense.

Maybe the ideal landing spot for Daboll (if he becomes a head coach) is with a similar unique and super talented QB that has underperformed his skill set?  In the meantime, keep the band together!  Pay Daboll whatever he wants for 2021.  Super Bowl windows like this are very difficult to come by.