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The proverbial 12th man, though not physically in attendance, made its presence felt as the Buffalo Bills kicked off phrase three of organized team activities last week.
The team pumped in imitation crowd noise throughout its Tuesday practice session. The reasoning behind this, on the surface, is quite simple: fans appear set to return to every NFL stadium in full force this season, this after a 2020 campaign in which strict attendance restrictions were in place in all 32 venues across the league due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
After experiencing a surreal season with little fan interaction, reintroducing players to the sound of blaring and consistent screaming during spring workouts seems like a no-brainer.
And though the re-familiarization to a distraction certainly played some role in Buffalo’s choice to blast crowd noise during its first formal practice in five months, it’s more likely that the decision was made as a course correction for an issue that made itself apparent late last season.
During their AFC Championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills – in a game that was played in front of just 17,000 people – were consistently behind the eight-ball offensively due, in part, to crowd noise. Kansas City’s defense frequently changed its play late in the play-clock throughout the game, with the lack of time, and the volume of the fans, making it difficult for Allen to identify the coverage and check into a higher-percentage look.
Allen spoke about the role that the crowd noise played in his AFC title-game struggles while talking to reporters Tuesday.
“There are certain stadiums [where] you can’t even hear your own thoughts, going back to that game in Kansas City last year,” Allen said. “Arrowhead is known as one of the loudest stadiums, but even with 17,000 people in the stands, making calls and checks at the line and trying to do that before the play clock is over, it presents a challenge.
“Like I said, that practice that we can start getting now is going to pay dividends in the season.”
Kansas City’s defensive strategy was a concerted effort to consistently change its play shortly before the snap, and it worked not only because it flustered Allen, but because it caused Buffalo to deviate from its offensive approach.
Though the Bills’ offense was high-octane and incredibly productive last season, it was methodical in terms of time management. According to Football Outsiders (subscription required), Buffalo’s average offensive play took 28.65 seconds last season, the fifth-longest span in the league and a full second longer than the NFL average.
The Bills took time pre-snap to take in what opposing defenses were giving them, identify favorable matchups, and adjust accordingly. They weren’t in any rush, getting plays off with an average of 9.2 seconds on the play clock (10th in the NFL).
Buffalo consistently adjusted at the line and put itself into opportune situations, something that helped its offense flourish. The Bills finished the 2020 season second in total offense, trailing only the Chiefs.
Traces of the team’s time management skills are evident in its offensive production. Despite being a pass-heavy attack, with Allen ranking sixth in the league in passing attempts (572) and the team itself finishing with the third-most passing yards in the NFL, Buffalo finished third in the league in average time of possession, per Football Outsiders, holding onto the ball for an average of 31:45 per game.
Though it would be unfair to say that the unit relied on it, having the ability to change plays at the line based on defensive alignment certainly helped Buffalo’s offense throughout the season.
This is a major part of the reason why the team struggled in the AFC Championship – Kansas City adjusted right back, and due to the crowd noise, the Bills consistently found it difficult to make further changes.
Allen specifically mentioned the crowd noise when speaking about the Chiefs’ defensive strategy following the January loss.
“They did a good job of making things look like zero and they dropped out and doubled a couple of our guys,” Allen said. “Brought zero from a distance. Just the whole operation, we weren’t fast enough to the line. That’s on my part. Being able to get in and out of calls with the crowd noise, it’s tough to do. That’s why it’s such an advantage to have people inside the stadium.”
And in its first opportunity to do so, Buffalo is already working to fix (at least part of) the issue that derailed it on its road to the Super Bowl.
By deliberately pumping in crowd noise during practice sessions, the Bills are not only refamiliarizing themselves with the roar of the fans, but are also learning to make checks around the noise, not get distracted by it.
“Obviously last year, the luxury of being able to go into an away game and not have to deal with the crowd noise, being able to make checks at the line and deal with your snap count in an easier fashion, it was awesome,” Allen said on Tuesday. “We understand that that’s probably not what it’s going to be like this year. We have to practice everything that we can.
“Coach McDermott’s extremely good and detail-oriented when it comes to practice and trying to focus on the little things that matter. [Crowd noise is] just one of those little things that makes a huge impact on a game. We’re going to try to get as many opportunities as we can with the crowd noise. I’m excited for that and being able to try to be the best team at operating at an away stadium, whether it’s communication, or checks, or signals. Making sure we’re getting to the line. Starting that process now is what’s going to help us in the regular season.”