The Buffalo Bills’ most recent domination of the New England Patriots took a much different shape than the last couple of wins over their long-time bully. The box score does not pop like it did in last year’s Wild Card game. But for a team that had been struggling with an overreliance on their quarterback to be special, Week 13 showed how Buffalo can make the game easier for Josh Allen by implementing a more diverse offense.
Easy button in the passing game
For three years, the Bills had an easy button in the passing game when things broke down. That was Cole Beasley. Beasley feasted in the short to intermediate passing game. In the weeks leading up to the game, the target share of passes thrown within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage, was 44% in Week 9’s loss to the Jets, 41% in Week 10, 40% in Week 11, and up to 47% in Week 12.
This matters because, during Buffalo’s offensive skid, the team felt like it relied on either chunk plays or nothing because Josh Allen wasn’t throwing the easy throws. The entirety of the offense was predicated on Allen making something happen down the field. Though exciting at times, it is not sustainable, especially with the Bills are facing the fourth-most cover 2 snaps in the league per SIS.
In Week 13 against the Patriots, Josh threw 54% of his targets within 9 yards. And it was both efficient and effective, going 16/18 for 167 yards. If Ken Dorsey can continue to scheme easy buttons for Josh Allen and Josh Allen continues to take them, teams will be forced to decide whether they are okay with being picked apart a few yards at or time or are willing to try their luck against Josh Allen’s arm. In terms of the sustainability of the passing offense, Thursday’s game plan was a huge step forward.
Another reason for optimism is that the Bills have found a way to get running back James Cook more involved. The explosive rookie has seen his targets increase, with 5 against the Lions (of which only 2 were completed) and 6 against New England. All 6 of his targets were completions in that game for 41 yards. Additionally, Isaiah McKenzie has seen 14 targets over the last two games, going 5 for 5 against the Patriots, converting 4 of his catches for first downs. Cook and McKenzie have served as the easy button for Josh Allen, something that was sorely missed in the prior weeks.
Buffalo’s run game felt unsalvagable through the first ten games of the year. How bad was it? In Weeks 1-10, the Bills were 31st in EPA/ attempt in non-quarterback runs. Since Week 11, the Bills rank No. 6. Individually, Devin Singletary and James Cook are 11th and 20th in EPA among running backs with at least 10 attempts.
What can this be attributed to? It does help that the Bills have faced two below-average run defenses in the Browns and Lions, but the line is also performing better as run blockers. In Weeks 1-10, Buffalo ranked 23rd in the rate in which they were hit at the line of scrimmage on running back runs and 31st in stuff rate. Since Week 11, they are 11th and 10th in the same categories. This development could be massive for the Bills as they advance to the playoff. Though running will never be the focal point of the offense, running when the defense gives the Bills advantageous looks will elevate the offense.
If you’ve read this far, I don’t want you to think I was Josh Allen’s role removed from the offense. This offense is ultimately at it’s best when Josh Allen is allowed to be himself. But there is a fine line between running your offense through Josh Allen and having Josh Allen be your offense. When the Bills’ offense struggled, it was because Josh Allen (and Stefon Diggs) were the offense. Thursday’s game and the games leading up to it show a promising trend. It shows an offense with multiple options that Josh Allen can lean on and an offense that can be nearly impossible to defend come January and February.