Film Room: Josh Allen

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

The Sean McDermott Era in Buffalo has been a smashing success compared to anything the franchise has done since Jim Kelly was behind center. After more than a decade of playoff drought, the Buffalo Bills are now locked into their second postseason bid in three years. They have won 10 games with two left on the schedule and field an elite defense that ranks fourth in DVOA. While the Patriots still steal their shine in the AFC East, the Bills are going to be a tough out come playoff time with how fearsome their defense is.

Buffalo's question mark heading into the postseason is their offense -- specifically, their quarterback. Second-year passer Josh Allen was a polarizing first-round pick in 2018 and his rookie season did little to silence his doubters. The same held true for the first two months of 2019. Allen got off to a poor start despite Buffalo's overall success and did not seem to be improved in any meaningful way. The month of November, on the other hand, finally showed fans and analysts alike what Allen might be capable of long-term.

Over a five-game stretch in November (Weeks 9 to 13), Allen ranked 13th in success rate and 10th in yards per attempt, throwing seven touchdowns with just one interception. It was the best, cleanest stretch of play Allen had ever shown in his career, even dating back to his days in college at Wyoming. Allen was quantifiably an above-average quarterback, even if not a great one. For Allen, a "project" quarterback for whom many believed Buffalo had reached, getting to above-average in Year 2 was a big win.

In the two weeks since, however, Allen has imploded again. Granted, those two games were against elite defenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but he has been abysmal by any standard. Allen posted a 28% passing success rate and 4.5 yards per attempt through those two games, both of which rank worst in the league over that stretch. That's obviously on the low end in the range of outcomes for any given Allen performance, but the stretch in November seemed to be a high, so it's not surprising that he has swung back the other way a bit.

Allen is still at the bottom of most quarterback metrics despite the strong showing in November. Through 15 weeks, Allen ranks 25th in ESPN's QBR. He also ranks 27th in Points Added, which is effectively a measure of QBR weighted to the volume of a quarterback's plays. In our own DYAR, Allen ranks 28th. Even in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), which doesn't account for opponent like the other metrics, Allen lands at 24th. Trying to explain away Allen's previous inconsistency and poor performance for one month of play that didn't even move the needle very far on his season-long figures doesn't feel like a worthwhile endeavor.

One promising month of play or not, it's tough to trust Allen being a consistent factor moving forward because of the process he shows on film. As was the case coming out of Wyoming two years ago, every aspect of Allen's mental and physical process is disjointed from one another, each operating a tick slower than what is often required of a quality NFL quarterback. While his impressive mobility and otherworldly arm talent make him a rare physical specimen and set somewhat of a floor for his level of play, Allen hardly shows any of the down-to-down processes to suggest he can be a reliable passer come January, never mind in the long-term.

There is no excuse for Allen completely stopping his feet and freezing in place. Almost any other competent quarterback in the league would "rhythm" the weak-side No. 1 wide receiver on the vertical route through their dropback, then transition back to the middle of the field at the top of the drop. Allen doesn't do that. Allen gets to the top of his drop, stops his feet completely, and stares at the vertical route for a good half-second. More than likely, Allen is waiting on the double-move, but that "receiver" is a tight end. Allen is begging for the player to be open if he is assuming the cornerback is going to bite on that. Not even Marcus Peters is that foolish.

With that time wasted, Allen comes back to the middle of the field to read the square-in breaking over the middle, but shifts his feet and shoulders as if the route is going to hit over the left hash. However, Allen is a beat late, which means the wide receiver is already well out of the break by the time Allen could be ready to throw. In addition to being late, Allen's feet are swung far to the left, making it difficult for him to throw toward the right hash, where the ball now has to go because he's late. Each of Allen's errors compounded upon each other to result in one of the many sacks he took against Baltimore.

Even in instances where Allen is closer to having the right idea, his feet don't always follow. Allen plays the position like he has not once considered how his feet are supposed to be tied to his eyes. His feet often trail after his eyes, as if his body is buffering to execute the command his brain is giving him. There is a visible disconnect that just isn't there for almost any other quality quarterback in the league.

First let's take a look at this clip full speed from both angles. Allen does a fine job of hitting the top of his drop and trying to move onto his next option. The issue, however, is that Allen doesn't have a sound plan that gets him from one read to the next. He swivels his head around from one-two-three on his reads, but his feet don't follow in full. By the time Allen gets to the tight end sitting over the middle of the field, his feet are in no position to allow him to make a comfortable throw. Allen is then forced to bail because he can't make that throw comfortably and on time, which leads to an incomplete pass thrown from outside the pocket.


Here is Allen at the moment his head is turned toward the tight end over the middle. While his eyes have gotten where they need to be, there is just a slim chance Allen can get this ball out comfortably or on time. His feet and shoulders are both pointed as though he's about to throw to the receiver outside the left hash. In going from that read to the tight end, Allen does nothing to bring his feet around and finds himself in a compromised position. Had Allen gotten his feet around on time, he could have thrown this ball and at least given the tight end a chance, but his feet being late forces him to bail the pocket instead.

Plays like this highlight why Baltimore felt comfortable bringing five or six rushers all day. While Allen may get away with a few plays here and there, he does not have a sharp, consistent processor that allows him to chip away at what the defense gives him when they get aggressive. Allen's process simply isn't fast enough to beat blitzes before they arrive, especially with Buffalo's offensive line having a bit of a rough stretch.

Even in simpler, safer instances, Allen still forgets to bring his feet along with his eyes. Allen missed a number of throws over the past two weeks because his feet weren't adjusting to the flow of the play. One such instance against the Steelers led to a high throw that resulted in an interception.

In this example, Allen again does well to bring his eyes over in time. He even brings his back foot around and points the flat surface of the foot directly at the target area. Allen forgets to check one of the final boxes, though: his lead foot. His front foot sits out in front of his back foot while his front shoulder is turned more toward the outside. Allen can't really swing his hips all the way open to match his shoulders because his front foot is so tight, but he also can't really step into the throw onto his front foot because his front shoulder is already so wide that it negates how well he's able to generate a full rotation. His feet and shoulders being completely disassociated from each other forces him to whip this ball out with his arm doing almost all of the work. Allen isn't able to drive properly to finish the throw and the ball sails a couple feet high, bouncing off of Cole Beasley's hands and into a defender's.

Even as Allen gets closer and closer to getting it right, something still goes awry. It's rare to find instances where Allen strings everything together on anything other than a routine pitch-and-catch.

Admittedly, it looks exceptional when Allen does put it all together on a given play. When Allen can actually get his eyes together with his mechanics, he can absolutely rip fastballs into tough windows with impressive control. The issue remains that Allen rarely puts all of those things together enough times in a given game.

In fairness to Allen, Buffalo's wide receivers have been as inconsistent as their quarterback. According to Pro Football Reference, Allen has dealt with the highest rate of drops (7.5%) of any quarterback by a comfortable margin. It's possible that some of those drops are brought upon Allen by himself through questionable ball placement, but leading the league in drops by more than a full percentage point is outrageous even if Allen is partially to blame. This year's wide receiver corps is far better than last year's, but to say they aren't without blame for the passing offense's instability wouldn't be right.

The good news for Buffalo is that they are likely to face Houston in the wild-card round, assuming Buffalo is the fifth seed and Houston is the fourth seed. Buffalo matches up well with Houston given the Texans' own inconsistency on offense, but succeeding in the playoffs beyond a wild-card win isn't something to bet on with this team. The offense, particularly Allen, can not consistently play well, and their peaks do not match those of other offenses in the AFC race such as Baltimore and Kansas City. Allen is going to have to prove himself to be a reliable figure, something he has hardly ever been, if the Bills are to stand a legitimate chance at representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.


9 comments, Last at 20 Dec 2019, 12:39pm

#1 by Mike B. In Va // Dec 19, 2019 - 11:12am

A reasonable analysis. This team is at least one year ahead of where the plan had it (being a playoff contender wasn't supposed to happen until next year, and 8-8 was the reasonable prediction), so I'll take it. Allen looked considerably better in pressure situations against the Steelers, but still wasn't consistently good.

His biggest asset is that he does seem capable of learning and being coached, and the plan was always to hide his learning curve with a top-flight defense. So they seem to be on track, success just came a little early thanks to a total cupcake schedule. It will be interesting to contrast this film study with what Erik Turner (who watches him every week) has to say.

Points: 0

#2 by mehllageman56 // Dec 19, 2019 - 12:44pm

I agree that this analysis is reasonable, but I wouldn't assume the Bills will simply flame out in the second round.  Given New England's recent issues on offense, and that the Bills actually gave the Ravens a game, they will probably be a tougher out than the recent AFC South playoff teams (granted, Indy hung on a little last year).  I also thought the Bills were underrated by the FO prospectus this year, and after the first game against the Jets and Darnold's mono debacle, I assumed the Bills would snag the wild card simply because they had the coaching, defense and easy schedule to do so, something the Jets might have done without Adam Gase and bad luck (mono, again).

The issue for the Bills and Allen will be in the future, whether Allen can work on his footwork and improve overall.  If not, that may lead an implosion down the road like what happened with the Rex Ryan Jets.  A lot of this reminds me of Sanchez (minus the strong run game), which is another reason I'm not discounting the Bills in the playoffs- variance happens.

Points: 0

#7 by Mike B. In Va // Dec 20, 2019 - 8:08am

I assumed something would go horribly awry - history is a guide here - like Allen missing several games and they'd end up 8-8.

Allen is consistently improving, so I think he'll get better, especially since he'll have the same staff for a while. What his ceiling is, though, is anybody's guess. He's already exceeded some pundits' very pessimistic outlooks, but he's very much a work in progress.

Points: 0

#3 by tjb // Dec 19, 2019 - 1:04pm

Having a bunch of smurfs for receivers is not doing Allen any favors - a more prototypical 6'3" WR easily makes the catch on that Cole Beasley tip drill interception against the Steelers. Brown and Beasley (and McKenzie, who is their WR3) are decent receivers but their diminutive stature requires every throw to go into a much tighter window than would be required with bigger wideouts. I really don't get why 6'5" Duke Williams is languishing on the bench - when he has played he has been fantastic (including 4 catches and a TD vs TEN).

Whatever his failings as a passer or virtues as a runner, though, Allen's best qualities are the intangibles. Picking up that fumbled snap out of a pile of bodies on 4th and 1 vs. DAL and proceeding to drag the half the defense for a first down is about the most Josh Allen-y play ever.

Points: 0

#8 by Mike B. In Va // Dec 20, 2019 - 8:10am

Allen is definitely a guy his teammates and coaches like for the way he plays. Duke Williams apparently isn't producing at practice and won't play ST, so...

Points: 0

#4 by morganja // Dec 19, 2019 - 2:23pm

On the bright side, the defense can never read the quarterback and figure out where the ball is supposed to be going.

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#5 by theslothook // Dec 20, 2019 - 1:50am

A tough out is in the end always relative. Who in the afc is going to be an easier out? Ne, Bal, and KC will all be harder teams to defeat. The Texans and the slotted 6th seed(Steelers I guess?) might be easier but honestly, a weak offense with a scattershot qb is as inviting a playoff matchup as you can get short of facing some 8-8 division winner

Points: 0

#6 by RyanNewman20 // Dec 20, 2019 - 2:50am

His feet often trail after his eyes, as if his body is buffering to execute the command his brain is giving him.

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#9 by Noahrk // Dec 20, 2019 - 12:39pm

That was a great line. All the image is missing is the small hourglass turning in the corner.

Points: 0

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