How the Bills can create YAC and why this may tweak offensive identity


New Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders. Dorsey must maintain the explosiveness of the Bills’ high-flying offense that propelled them to fifth in DVOA in 2020 and 10th in 2021 (according to Football Outsiders), but at the same time, he must inject some new ideas to combat how defenses began to defend the Bills.

One area where there is room for improvement and which has been a talking point all offseason is improving the yards after catch numbers. It’s been the focus on the offensive side of the ball since Dorsey took over. “We’ve talked about that (improving YAC) since day one of the players coming back,” Dorsey told the media on day four of training camp.

“We’ve talked about that (improving YAC) since day one of the players coming back.”

While most believe that adding weapons who are good after the catch, players who are fast, elusive, or can break tackles, will ultimately improve the offenses’ YAC, the conversation is much more nuanced than that. Personnel absolutely plays a part, but the scheme and how Dorsey gets the ball into those players’ hands is the driving factor behind YAC.

The Bills have maximized Allen’s big arm by designing an offense that threatens defenses down the field. This is why Allen’s average depth of target is 9.9 yards since entering the league and his annual average depth of target has never placed him outside the top seven QBs. Generally, the shorter the pass, the more opportunities for YAC arise.


Average Depth of Target















It’s no surprise that it has continued to decrease over the years, as part of Buffalo’s goal since taking the raw prospect in 2018 has been to make him a more balanced quarterback, to reign in his highs and lows and attempt to make him more efficient. They and Allen have done a great job of improving his efficiency but more importantly his accuracy and placement, which are key components to having an offense that succeeds in YAC play calls, play calls that come at all three levels of the field.

“You can still maximize RAC (Run after the catch) on all levels of attacking a defense. That’s through scheme and that’s also through execution.”  OC Ken Dorsey

Targeting Running Backs

I believe the Bills can instantly improve their YAC by targeting running backs more, and they appear to be focusing on this thus far in training camp. One day one of camp, the Bills’ offense focused on red-zone work and a lot of the concepts on that day revolved around getting the ball to the running backs via the passing game. Bills running backs were targeted 16% of the time in 2021, which was 27th overall and below the league average of 19%. They collectively ran 84 routes, the fifth most, and were only targeted 16 times, which was ranked 10th according to Sports Info Solutions.

Enter James Cook. Dorsey has installed numerous concepts and plays that target the backs, but more specifically Cook.

We saw an array of ram and option routes for Cook from his backfield alignment.

But also plays where he motioned out of the backfield into the slot where he could do some damage on routes to the weakside of the formation.

These are routes that are typically run by Cole Beasley or Isaiah McKenzie. Cook’s penchant for reading coverages and smooth route running paired with his ability to create with the ball in his hands will force the defense to gameplan against him, which is something that many defensive coordinators don’t have to do on a weekly basis because there aren’t many backs with the receiving chops of Cook.

Cook and Co. can also stress defenses if the Bills call and execute screens more consistently. In 2021, the Bills targeted backs in the screen game 20 times, which was ranked 22nd but, surprisingly, they were fourth in Expected Points Added per Attempt. But when you analyze their YAC, they were ranked 20th and 19th in yards after contact. Bills running backs only gained 59 yards after contact when targeted in the screen game, plays where they actually forced five missed tackles which was tied for the fourth most.

Allen can also help improve the offenses’ YAC numbers by taking what the defense is giving him. If the defense is dropping out into two-high safety coverages like we saw in 2021, getting through his progressions quickly and finding Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, or Cook underneath on check downs will immediately boost yards after the catch. Allen took those outlet options in the second half of last season and the offense became more difficult to defend. The check downs became an extension of the run game and kept the Bills’ offense on track.

On one play at camp, the Bills motioned to a four-strong formation, so four eligible receivers to one side of the formation. This floods zone coverages. On the snap, FB Reggie Gilliam expanded to the flats and up the sideline and TE OJ Howard ran a crossing route. This will force zone coverage defenders to expand horizontally, which should give Allen an opening to hit Cook on the check down in the void.


Slot Options

The Bills hope that the influx of slot options they brought in will also help the team improve YAC. The slot position is incredibly important to the overall structure of the offense. Most of that position’s targets come on option and return routes in the middle of the field. While Beasley was the cornerstone for the early part of Allen’s career, adding Khalil Shakir, Jamison Crowder, and giving Isaiah McKenzie more opportunities could yield better results after the catch. Their ability to read coverages and leverage along with being on the same page with Allen will be crucial to gaining yards after the catch. There have been some hiccups in that area early in camp and it has led to incompletions and interceptions.

I think this is a major reason behind McKenzie having the upper hand on the starting slot receiver position. McKenzie has been in this offense for years and understands what Allen expects of him. But I will give him credit, he has improved his release package at the line of scrimmage and the pacing of his routes which will make him a difficult assignment.

More importantly, this will allow McKenzie to create separation in the short area which can give him more opportunities post-catch. Opportunities may be everything with him. In 2021, Beasley got five times more targets but averaged less YAC than McKenzie. Beasley’s average depth of target was 5.7, third lowest in the NFL, compared to McKenzie’s 6.2. Beasley racked up 3.9 yards after catch per attempt which was 48th. McKenzie was able to gain 4.7 yards after catch per attempt on the 30 targets he saw in 2021. These are only a few of the reasons McKenzie has started in the slot thus far in camp.

When it comes to Shakir, I think how he can boost the offense’s YAC will be closely linked to what he does with the ball in his hands. Shakir is built differently, and not because of how he catches the ball, but I will say his ability to adjust to inaccurate passes is near elite. He stands out when he is given an opportunity to do something with the ball post-catch. And that is thanks to his contact balance. He puts his body in position as the ball is on its way, to make defenders miss once he catches it. That transition is crucial, especially on those timing-based routes from the slot. His running style and gait really stand out. Shakir runs on the outside of his feet, and with his knees consistently over his feet. This gives him a wide base that can withstand the weight of tacklers, including linebackers. This will allow him to slip the first defenders often and hopefully allow him to gain more than 3.9 yards after the catch that Beasley put up in 2021. But, I expect the Bills to bring him along slowly so as to not put too much on his plate because we must remember this is one of the most complicated offenses in the NFL.


While I have laid out how scheme and receiving personnel can improve yards after the catch, in the end, Allen’s placement on these throws will ultimately impact this stat. As Dorsey said in his press conference at camp, improving YAC and RAC at all levels comes down to scheme AND execution. The execution portion lies in the hands of Allen. The ball location on any of these play calls is crucial to gaining yards after the catch.

Allen’s sweet spot on the field has always been in the intermediate area or that area from 10-19 yards. In 2021, Allen had a 15.2% touchdown percentage in the intermediate area and racked up 24 of his 42 passing touchdowns in the 10-19 range, tops in the NFL by seven touchdowns. And as we have chronicled, Allen has improved his deep passing game over the years. Last season, Allen racked up nine total touchdowns on passes over 20 yards and put up a whopping 34% big-time throw percentage, according to PFF, which was the sixth highest. With the offense designed to maximize his strength in those intermediate and deep areas of the field by scheming guys open, Allen can help boost the YAC numbers by fine-tuning his timing and placement on those passes but also passes in the short area as he explains here.


The slants, unders, and in-cuts have heavily been in the Bills’ arsenal at camp as I discussed in my camp notes. We have seen an array of one-man, isolation-type routes where the receiver was running a slant, under, or in-cut. Most of those routes had the receiver aligning in a tight split, so closer to the formation and not split out wide or motioning said receiver into a tight split. This makes receivers so much more dangerous because it gives them a two-way go – inside or outside. Diggs smoked Elam on a play where they motioned him towards the formation and on the snap exploded to the middle of the field on a slant route with perfect placement by Allen allowing Diggs to tack on some yards.

But they also have aligned Diggs and others tight to the formation and allowed them to run these quick out type patterns. This route is one that I saw them repping in just about every QB/WR segment prior to team.

The other part of this becoming a bigger part of their offensive identity is that because of the WRs alignment from the start or once motioned, is that smaller receivers like Shakir or McKenzie can still flourish on these routes because they typically won’t be exposed to press and still have two-way go’s as if they were in the slot. But as Allen said, it will all come down to ball placement.

Improving placement on all three levels will help Allen and the offense boost the efficiency, taking some of the weight off of Allen’s shoulders and allowing others to carry more weight.