Unpacking the Buffalo Bills’ Offensive Woes: Where Did the Winning Recipe Go?

02/17/2023
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Ever since the season ended, I have been scouring film and statistics to properly frame just exactly what happened on the offensive side of the ball that led to struggles for the Buffalo Bills down the stretch of the 2022 NFL Season. It’s a much different endeavor this season, because this was Offensive Coordinator Ken Dorsey’s first season as the play caller. It was his first season as a play-caller, period, so there were no statistics or film to draw from. So, I have been spending my time charting his offense as a whole, but also finding out how he changed up his tendencies as the season progressed.

Dorsey didn’t have much of a choice when it came to changing up some of his tendencies throughout the season because his Superstar QB, Josh Allen, injured his UCL on his throwing arm late in the Week 9 game against the Jets. Rather than shutting it down for a few weeks to let it heal, Allen and the Bills ultimately decided to let him play through it. But he was going to have to manage the pain, and Dorsey was going to have to manage the offense.

So, as I began to chart the season, I wanted to analyze it with his injury in mind. Recently, Alpha WR Stefon Diggs stated that in the first nine weeks they had a “formula” or “recipe” to winning and they “kind of got away from it on the back end.”

Naturally, that caught my attention, so I wanted to use that as one of the splits when analyzing the Bills’ statistics from the season. During Super Bowl week, Allen made his appearance Kyle Brandt’s Podcast “The Basement.” In that appearance Allen stated that once he “hit the 4 or 5 week mark after it happened, I was pretty much in clear skies there.”

Which would put his arm closer to 100% around Week 14. But Allen also added that the elbow would flare up from to time to time doing mundane things like opening up a door, but that once the game started he was fine.

Now, Allen is a tough dude, so he was absolutely dealing with some pain, and the injury affected his play at times. But also, the play-calling was in Dorsey’s hands, and that affected the veteran passer as well. So I decided to chart his statistics with three splits in mind – Weeks 1-9, Weeks 10-4, and Weeks 15-Divisional Round. With those splits in mind let’s dive into what “recipe” Diggs was talking about early in the season and how the injury affected the play calling and production as the season progressed.

Weeks 1-9

In Weeks 1-9, Allen had a 74.9% Adjusted Completion Percentage which was ranked 19th overall among QBs with 20% of the snaps. Adjusted Completion Percentage is PFF’s measurement of Accuracy and Success. In that span, he was No. 2 in Touchdowns with 19 and “Big Time Throw” percentage at 7.3 and 4th in yards with 2,403.

To get a more nuanced look at how the injury may have affected his play and Dorsey’s play calling, I looked at Allen’s production by throw depth. 14.1% were throws Behind the Line of Scrimmage ( Behind LOS),  43% went into the Short Area (0-9 yds), 20.1% went into the Intermediate area (10-19 yds) and 13.8% went Deep (20+ yds). In his first eight games in Dorsey’s offense, Allen averaged over 300 yards per game and pitched in 19 touchdowns – second only to Patrick Mahomes.

Diggs got a heavy workload as expected. He was targeted 81 times, which was fourth in the league per Sports Info Solutions (SIS). That boils down to just over 10 targets per game. He also registered 857 yards which was third in the league, led the league in touchdowns with 7, and was second in EPA/Target (Expected Points Added per Target).

Overall, the Bills enjoyed a success rate early in the season of 52.4%, which was ranked 2nd. A very fine start to the season.

Post-Injury Weeks 10-14

Now, we look at some of the production from the Week 10 game through the Week 14 matchup. With those first 8 games as a baseline for Dorsey’s offense, we can now see how much the “recipe” and injury may have affected the play and play-calling. Allen still completed passes at a decent clip, registering a 77.6% Adjusted Completion Percentage – good for 12th overall, a 2.7% increase from Weeks 1-9. But, his touchdowns dropped from 19 to 7 which put him 11th overall. Yards dropped from 2,403 to 1,150 (9th).  His Big Time Throw Percentage was still amazing at 7.1%, only a slip dip from 7.3%.  But we should probably frame those numbers better because of the different sample sizes. Essentially, Allen went from throwing for over 300 yards a game to 230 yards a game, 2.4 touchdowns a game to 1.4 touchdowns a game.

Given the injury in Week 9, it is only fair to add more context to the big picture production and play-calling. So, if we now compare the two splits, we start to see some changes occurring not just in production, but in play-calling. Let’s start at Attempt Percentage Behind the Line of Scrimmage, because this is the most glaring difference, and logically it makes sense. Dorsey and Allen attempted 3.6% less passes Behind the Line of Scrimmage. When I think about routes behind the line of scrimmage, I think Swing routes to Running Backs and Screens. Allen attempted 39 total screens, which was 17th overall. His on-target percentage for those plays was 83.8% which was 37th out of 46 QBs with at least 20 screen attempts.

As to not stress Allen’s more than they had to, anytime they wanted to throw behind the line of scrimmage they generally opted for a Screen as opposed to a Swing pass to one of their backs. In the first 8 games, Allen completed 20-of-22 screen attempts for 134 yards and 1 TD.

But once they tried calling more screens in Weeks 10-14, all hell broke loose. Most of the screens were executed horribly, so badly that Allen just had to throw it away. But there were a couple times where you could see Allen struggle to throw them to Running backs or Wide Receivers. That’s why Allen only completed just 9-of-14 attempts for 21 yards in that five-game stretch. Overall, Allen went from completing 92.9% to 77.8% on passes Behind the Line of Scrimmage. That was dead last – 34th among 34 QBs with 20% of the snaps. The injury played a part, but this segment of the schedule highlighted how bad the Bills screen game was – and has been – more so than the injury causing these inaccurate throws.

The brace that Allen chose to sport changed his mechanics, which is major given the strides he has made the last few years. I think that’s why you saw some of his sequencing was off in that reel above. Allen wore a brace up until Week 14 against the New York Jets, so he was obviously on his way towards improving.

Kyle Trimble, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy stated that “the arm/elbow angles based on the type of throw affect how much pain there is and how much stress was placed through the joint. Deeper throws require less accuracy due to decreased elbow flexion, thus reducing stress on the injured joint. Shorter and intermediate throws require more precision with a different throwing motion requiring more elbow flexion. The increased elbow flexion places the injured ligament on tension, causing pain. That in turn would affect speed. The faster he threw, the more torque is required through the elbow joint. However, the pain and instability limited how much torque the elbow could accept. With the offense predicated on timing to be in a specific location at a given time, any alteration in mechanics due to pain, adjusting for elbow brace, or speed could greatly affect the accuracy for ball placement to the receiver.”

Dorsey also seemed to dial up more passes in the Short area, where we saw Allen’s attempt percentage increase from 43% to 48.8% but the scoring dropped significantly in that area. Allen only threw 1 passing touchdown in 5 games. When you factor in the sample, that’s a decrease from .625 touchdowns a game to .2.

Some of those throws behind the line of scrimmage shifted to the intermediate area where we saw Allen go from 20.1% from 10-19 yards to 23.3% and he threw for only one less touchdown. Surprisingly, Allen’s Deep attempt percentage decreased from 13.8% to 11%, but so did the touchdowns. I say surprisingly because all we have heard was that Dorsey dialed up deep shots when Allen was injured but that wasn’t the case. But, Allen went from 7 touchdowns in 8 games on passes over 20 yards to 1 touchdown in 5 games. The increase in Adjusted Completion Percentage to 52.6% from 48.8% in the Deep area was nice, we actually saw his yards per game on Deep passes decrease from 93.5 yards to 40.6 yards a game at that depth.

During this five-game stretch, Diggs was targeted 58 times which was 4th overall. Which is 11.6 targets per game! Diggs caught 39 of those targets which was the 3rd most for 442 yards (8th) and 3 touchdowns which was 11th overall. Diggs’ yardage dropped from about 107 yards a game to 88 and his touchdowns from from .875 a game to .6. The largest drop was Diggs’ EPA/Target where he ranked 30th thanks to his .23 EPA/Target rating.

Overall, Allen and the Bills passing offense still enjoyed a 51.9% Success Rate, which was a slight decrease from 52.4% but it was still ranked near the top at 5th overall.

Weeks 15 – Divisional Round

In the final stretch of the Regular Season to the Divisional game against the Bengals, Allen’s Adjusted Completion Percentage dropped from 77.6% to 69.5%, a precipitous drop in 8.1% which was ranked 28th. Allen shed the brace to start this time frame and without that “restrictor plate he was able to throw 12 touchdowns which was up from 7. His double-digit touchdowns put him 2nd in that 6-game sample among all QBs with 20% of the snaps. Allen registered 1,345 yards to end the season, which was 6th overall and a Big Time Throw Percentage of a whopping 9.5% and we will see why in a moment. Overall, Allen’s yards per game continued the dip. From Weeks 1-14, he saw his Passing Yards per Game drop from 300 yards a game, to 230 to 224 in the final stanza. But we also saw a nice bump in Touchdowns per game from 1.4 to 2.

The Bills’ offense continued to limit the throws Behind the Line of Scrimmage, only throwing to that area 7.3% of the time. But with Allen’s elbow on the mend, his Adjusted Completion Percentage jumped back up to 92.3% from 77.8%. But the major shift that we saw was how the Bills began to attack Deep at an unprecedented rate by throwing Deep 24.7%, which was tops in the league. There were 178 attempts beyond 20+ yards but Allen only registered an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 36.4% which was ranked 20th. So of course, Allen’s overall Adjusted Completion Percentage was going to drop with the offense throwing deep that often. Those are low percentage throws. The Bills went from 40.6 yards per game on passes over 20 yards to 72.5, and increased the touchdowns per game from .2 to .67, but the all or nothing mentality was not the sort of strategy the Bills should have taken. Dorsey wanted to be firing on all cylinders and hitting the big plays down the field as the playoffs started. But I believe that was where Dorsey went wrong.

Allen’s Attempt Percentage in the short area decreased from 48.8% to 37.1% in Weeks 15+. Sure, his Adjusted Completion Percentage dropped from 86.9% to 80.3%, but that’s still a winning formula when you have an offensive line that surrenders the 2nd highest Quickest Pressure Rate in the NFL per PFF (Pressure under 2.5 seconds). Not creating easy plays for Allen in the Short and Intermediate areas made the Bills’ offense much too volatile. Buffalo’s Success Rate in this time period dropped to 47.5% which ranked 13th. In the two playoff games, Dorsey’s offense had a success rate of 43.9%, which was awful. For comparisons sake the Chiefs’ rate was 62.5% en route to another Lombardi Trophy.

In those final 6 games, the Bills’ top WR Stefon Diggs was targeted 40 times which was ranked 15th overall. So Allen only targeted Diggs 6.6 times a game – that is simply not enough. Neither were his 449 yards which ranked 14th or his 1 touchdown. WOW

Takeaways

Overall, Dorsey had a very good first season as a rookie play-caller, but I believe defenses began to key in on his tendencies. There were absolutely struggles by Allen, the offensive line and the Bills weapons. But I thought outside of Allen’s turnovers which were on par with his career – he balled out.

Dorsey did dial up too many Deep passes late in the year, but it wasn’t in the face of Allen’s injury. He was just too aggressive and it stressed the offensive line because Allen had to hold onto the ball longer. But he was still able to rip off some Big Time Throws. Not getting the ball out of his QB’s hands quicker caused them to have a higher variance. Guys were less open as the season progressed because teams picked up on his Quick Game and Intermediate Concepts.

Receivers were less open and began to drop more and more passes, at the most inopportune times.

The Bills need Dorsey to add some new wrinkles and layers to his passing game to give Allen more layups. But General Manager Brandon Beane also needs to invest in some difference-makers along the offensive line and at the skill positions. To help not only to support their Quarterback but their 2nd year play-caller.

Thanks to Andrew Stasell, Adam Pensel, Ajay Cybulski and Kyle Trimble for the assistance.

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