Can Josh Allen Avoid Mistakes Against Cincinnati?
NFL Divisional - Finally, we get the matchup we were due three weeks ago. Week 17's highly anticipated Monday Night Football matchup was cut short and later cancelled after Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital. Happily, Hamlin is back sharing his smile around Orchard Park, his charity $8.6 million richer. The fear and worry that washed over millions of viewers that night has subsided, and now we are rightfully getting a redux of the matchup that could have re-shaped the AFC playoff picture.
The Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, two of the five best teams by total DVOA, nearly did not make it here. A blitz-happy Miami Dolphins defense nearly forced enough mistakes to pull a massive double-digit upset in Buffalo, while the Bengals needed a 14-point-swinging, 98-yard fumble recovery touchdown to seal the deal against Baltimore. The two teams saw blood drawn, chumming up the waters for what is surely going to be an all-out slugfest. While there may be some questions about where this game should be played and the seeding of the teams, this is the matchup fans have been waiting a month to see.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||18.1% (5)||35.0% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||25.3% (4)||40.5% (2)|
|Bengals on Offense|
|CIN OFF||BUF DEF|
|DVOA||14.2% (4)||-11.0% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||20.0% (3)||-12.8% (4)|
|PASS||24.9% (7)||-4.9% (9)|
|RUSH||7.5% (4)||-19.7% (3)|
|Bills on Offense|
|CIN DEF||BUF OFF|
|DVOA||-4.4% (11)||19.0% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||-5.4% (11)||19.8% (4)|
|PASS||-0.5% (12)||36.5% (2)|
|RUSH||-9.5% (14)||0.5% (11)|
|DVOA||-0.5% (18)||5.0% (1)|
If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The biggest change to the Bengals' offense between Week 17 and now is the shuffling at offensive line. Starting right tackle La'el Collins has already been lost for the year with an ACL tear. Now right guard Alex Cappa is nursing an ankle injury and left tackle Jonah Williams suffered a dislocated kneecap last week against the Ravens. Both Cappa and Williams are considered week-to-week by Zac Taylor, and neither has practiced this week.
Most of this year's improvements on the Bengals' offensive line have ended up on the injury report. According to Next Gen Stats, Joe Burrow has cut his time to throw from 2.69 seconds to 2.55, while the team's adjusted sack rate fell from 9.1% to 7.0%. Burrow's intended air yards per attempt fell from 8.1 to 6.8 year-over-year according to Pro Football Reference, prioritizing more quick passing to avoid pressure.
The Bills would be able to wreak havoc if Von Miller were healthy, but they still have very capable pass-rushers without him. In last week's game against the Dolphins, Buffalo was able to pressure Skylar Thompson on 25.5% of dropbacks. While the jump from Thompson to Burrow is massive, there is a drop-off from Miami's offensive line to an injured Bengals line.
The Bengals offense is not a tricky one. Cincinnati ranks second-to-last in play-action frequency and last in percentage of plays with pre-snap motion, according to Sports Info Solutions. For the most part, Cincinnati lines up their best 11, led by wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, and tells defenses to come beat them. That's going to be a challenge for Buffalo. While Buffalo ranks ninth in defensive passing DVOA, they rank 29th in passing DVOA against WR1s and 14th against WR2s.
One thing the Baltimore Ravens did well against the Bengals in the wild-card round came in their pre-snap disguises. Baltimore often mixed up their coverages and pass rush packages pre-snap, causing Burrow to hold and read, throwing him out of the rhythm Cincinnati's offense relies on. Buffalo rarely does that. Their defense, similar to Cincinnati's offense, has little disguise, choosing instead to go best-on-best. Buffalo ran some press coverage against Miami's wide receivers in order to achieve a similar effect.
Hopefully, Buffalo will give rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam some more playing time in this game. It may sound like an odd thing to say about a backup rookie corner against a team loaded with wide receiver talent, but Elam certainly earned more playing time in the wild-card round. According to Pro Football Reference, Elam was targeted six times, his highest total since Week 5 against the Steelers. He allowed two completions on those six targets for 25 yards, with two passes defensed and an interception. This was the first time this season that Elam allowed a sub-50-percent completion rating.
The Bengals may boast one of the better running back tandems in football, but they will have their hands full with the Bills defense. Buffalo ranks third in defensive rushing DVOA; they have strung together negative defensive rushing DVOA finishes in nine of their last 10 games. Against most teams, the versatility of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine usually mitigates some of that dominance by the Bills run defense. Cincinnati has the third-most receptions by running backs. However, Buffalo is also third in DVOA defending passes to running backs.
If there are any takeaways from Cincinnati's abbreviated Week 17 game script, the Bengals will be aggressive attacking this Buffalo defense. In that game, Cincinnati won the coin toss, elected to receive, then hit a huge gain on a deep pass on their first play from scrimmage. While Burrow does not attack deep often, throwing there 14% of the time, his 82.0% deep passing DVOA is sixth among quarterbacks this season. Buffalo is 15th in DVOA when defending deep passes.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
If Cincinnati can learn anything from the Miami Dolphins' performance last week, it's that pressure is key. Miami was able to pressure Josh Allen on 24.5% of dropbacks, sacking him seven times and forcing three fumbles on 18 blitzes. The Bills offensive line will have their work cut out for them with Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Hendrickson ranks fourth among edge rushers in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate, while Hubbard ranks fifth in Run Stop Win Rate among edge defenders. While Cincinnati boasts a strong defensive front, the Bengals rarely get home; their 30 sacks on the season are the fourth-fewest in the league, while their 6.1% adjusted sack rate is fifth-lowest.
While Cincinnati boasts some very strong safety play, with Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III each boasting four interceptions this season, the Bills should have a leg up when attacking their cornerbacks. With Chidobe Awuzie out for the season, rookie corner Cam Taylor-Britt has stepped up in his place. Taylor-Britt allowed 9.3 yards per pass attempt, which ranks 20th among qualifying cornerbacks according to Sports Info Solutions. Eli Apple is a hyper-volatile corner who is averaging his highest yards per target allowed since joining the Bengals, per SIS.
One person who will need to step up Sunday: Gabriel Davis. Davis saw his biggest workload since November against the Dolphins, breaking 100 receiving yards for just the second time this season. With Stefon Diggs serving as the only major threat in Buffalo's passing attack, teams obviously tend to key on him in pass coverage, offering additional help over top or outright doubling him.
That could very well be the case this weekend; if it does, Davis better be ready. Cincinnati has a sixth-best -16.2% DVOA against WR1s, but a 31st-ranked 28.4% DVOA against WR2s. No team in the NFL has a bigger disparity in DVOA between WR1s and WR2s. Last week, Davis had some help from Dawson Knox against a Dolphins team that ranks bottom-five in DVOA against tight ends. This Bengals team not only ranks fifth in the league against tight ends, but also ranks second to only San Francisco on passes to running backs.
The Bills passing attack's performance on Sunday will rely heavily on whether offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey did some self-scouting over the weekend. He had some brutal miscues in play-calling last week, specifically when it came to over-aggression. Vertical routes are all well and good, but there is a time and place for them. Following the Dolphins' touchdown to make it 34-31, Buffalo got the ball back with 10:53 left in the fourth quarter. Instead of burning clock by running the ball—or even throwing short—Dorsey dialed up a first-and-10 go-ball to Davis. The pass fell incomplete, but Davis stayed on the field visibly gassed. Dorsey pretty much called the same play to Davis, who was exhausted and could not complete the play. Allen was finally sacked on third-and-long for a three-and-out. Buffalo will not be able to make such mistakes against a potent Bengals offense. While no one throws deep more than Allen, who led the league with 135 deep pass attempts, the Bengals defense ranks sixth in defensive pass DVOA on deep passes.
It will be really interesting to see how the Bills incorporate their run game in this one. Buffalo's 11th-ranked run game does not have the same prowess as their passing attack, but the Bills' 36.6% rushing DVOA against the Dolphins was their fourth-best single-game mark of the season. James Cook saw his second-biggest workload of his rookie campaign and scored his second touchdown in three weeks, out-carrying lead back Devin Singletary in the process. Cook is sparingly used in the passing game, but his volume has increased over the last six weeks. Despite not seeing a target against Miami, 19 of his 32 targets have come since Week 12.
At the end of the day, this game will fall on Josh Allen's shoulders, for better or for worse. It should be for the better. He is easily one of the best quarterbacks in football, one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in both DVOA and DYAR. It just comes down to mistakes. Allen coughed the ball up seven times in his last three games. It is a shade of pre-leap Allen we seldom see nowadays, but it is the kind of thing that kills the Bills.
This may be the week when Allen breaks out the run game again. He notched a career-high 124 carries this year, and the Bengals tend to struggle against mobile quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson pasted a 12.0% rushing DVOA on 10 attempts in his lone matchup against Cincinnati the season. Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson had rushing DVOAs of 37.7% and 22.4%, respectively. Allen's legs could be the X-factor if things do not start in Buffalo's favor.
Now two weeks removed from their own all-time kickoff return performance by Nyheim Hines, Buffalo's kickoff team had some trouble containing Miami's return game. River Cracraft and Cedrick Wilson Jr. combined for 76 return yards on three kickoffs, including a 50-yard return from Wilson. Tyler Bass also landed a kickoff out of bounds, aiding in Miami's field position. For Cincinnati, last year's playoff hopeful Evan McPherson started his encore performance on rocky ground. He missed just his third extra point of the season against Baltimore and was only tasked with one field goal attempt—a 39-yarder he made.
No matter what way this shakes out, prepare for offensive fireworks. The matchup stacks up very favorably for Cincinnati's loaded receiving corps against Buffalo's secondary. Gabriel Davis and Stefon Diggs will have opportunities against a pair of weak Bengals cornerbacks, while Josh Allen will have a chance to unleash his rushing ability. While the biggest decider of outcome will be Allen's mistakes, the most intriguing battle of this game lies in the Bills front seven against a banged-up Bengals line. If Joe Burrow can avoid pressure by getting the ball out quickly and not let the breakdown affect the offense, Cincinnati has a real shot of moving on to a second straight AFC Championship Game. If Buffalo can get home and disrupt a potent Bengals passing attack, the Bills will be in prime position to set up revenge for 13 Seconds.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.