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Perhaps no quarterback in recent NFL history has seen the narrative around his play shift as much over the course of a single season as Josh Allen. Entering 2020, Buffalo Bills fans had high hopes for the former No. 7 overall draft pick, as Allen had made minor improvements in each of his first two years. But to those outside of Buffalo, Allen’s sub-60 percent completion rate, his tendency for erratic passes and his poor ball security were issues that would simply be too much to overcome. Fast forward one year, and we’re now talking about a top-five quarterback – one who just finished second to Aaron Rodgers in MVP voting after a dazzling campaign in which he absolutely torched opposing defenses- completing 69.2-percent of his passes for 4,544 yards, throwing 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Allen addressed the media Tuesday as the Bills kicked off phase three of their offseason workouts, explaining that he was far from content with his play. The 6-foot-5, 237-pounder made it clear that there were still a handful of areas that he must improve upon if he hopes to take his game to the next level.
“Couple things it boils down to,” Allen said. “Decision making – as far as where the ball should go in a given situation based on what the defense is doing. Understanding and being better in situational football. Ball security in the pocket and when I’m taking off and running.”
Instead of simply providing a cookie-cutter answer, Allen pointed at route concepts that he has been working on throughout the offseason that he believes he can get better at.
“A couple types of route concepts I need to work on – rub routes. In-cuts, throws to my left, just trying to be more concise and better with my footwork, better with the ball placement,” Allen continued. “So as many good things as we did last year, there was still a lot of stuff on tape where I look back and I’m like ‘why did I do this?’ And I think that’s the common theme every year, and it’s really cool that you get to look back, and like I said, even though all the wins and numbers, all that stuff, they look good on paper. But there’s still so much room to improve and I’m excited for that process.”
As electric as Allen was a year ago, he had some significant struggles on in-breaking routes.
According to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required), just 58.1-percent of his passes on in-breaking routes were on-target – the 23rd-best rate among qualifying quarterbacks. 82.3-percent of all other passes were on-target – the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Allen had a 27.3-percent interception rate on slants, posts, digs, and deep crosses that traveled 15-plus yards.
Allen’s accuracy on these in-breaking routes dwindled as the depth increased as well. 86.4-percent of passes under 10 yards were on target, 67.6-percent on passes between 10-and-20 yards, and just 46.7-percent on deep passes over 20 yards were considered to be on-target.
This isn’t the first time that Josh Allen went into an offseason with a few specific goals for improvement in mind. Following a 2019 season in which he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ second-worst deep ball passer after completing 18-of-68 throws that traveled 20-plus yards (26.5 completion percentage ranked 48th among 50 quarterbacks), he finished as the site’s sixth-best deep passer in 2020. Allen completed 33-of-72 20-plus yard passes (45.8-percent, 4th-best) for 952 yards with 11 touchdowns in 2020.
Allen’s personal quarterback coach, Jordan Palmer, told The Buffalo News last offseason that they’ve been working on deep ball accuracy, and made a bold claim that in 2020, the Wyoming product would be among the NFL’s best in that department.
“I think the big gap from his first to second year was anticipation, throwing with more anticipation, which is where I think he grew a ton. I think the theme for this year will be the deep ball, because it was well-documented (that he struggled in that area), controlling that. So based off what I’ve seen the last few years, I would just assume that he’s going to come back and be one of the best deep-ball throwers in the league next year,” Palmer said. “I see the way that he addresses issues and moves on.”
Allen’s drastic improvement from 2019 to 2020 on deep passes is evidence that when he has an area of focus, he can make some significant strides. He explained that this year, he wants to deliver the ball in a way that sets his receivers up for success.
“I think that (in-breaking routes) was something that wasn’t my strongest suit last year,” Allen said. “And like I said, the deep ins, the five-yard unders, just making sure I’m putting it in a catchable spot for these guys to catch and run. That’s going to be a huge asset for us to be able to hit those type of throws and allow our guys to stay up and stay on the move. I didn’t do a good enough job on that last year.”
Palmer was spot on in his assessment of Allen last year, so we asked the coach for his thoughts regarding Allen’s focus on in-breaking routes this year and he made it clear that Allen has been putting serious work in to improve.
The quarterback coach referenced one play in particular that stood out to him as an area where Allen will be better this season. In Buffalo’s Week 5 42-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans, a 3rd-and-4 pass on a deep in route intended for Andre Roberts on the Bills’ first offensive drive was picked off by Malcolm Butler and returned 29 yards. The pass was slightly behind Roberts, who wasn’t able to adjust and the ball bounced out of his hands and into Butler’s.
“We want the ball to finish on their face,” Palmer told Cover 1. “It wasn’t a bad throw, it was just the wrong throw. The more control (Josh) gains on layering the ball, the earlier he can throw and the more time the receiver has to adjust and find it.”
“His growth has been on controlling layers and touch.. He’s always had the horse power. He is continuing to get better at controlling the ball while still driving it.”
Allen is his own biggest critic and he explained that he’s realistic with his self-scouting.
“To take that next step, I need to reevaluate what I’m doing on the field and be really honest with myself,” Allen told reporters in Tuesday’s zoom call. “That’s one thing I feel like I can brag about, you know, is that I’m a very honest person with myself and I’m very realistic when it comes to my play on the field and what I can do better and what I need to do better and approaching how to do that. And there’s a lot of things, like I said.”
Heading into his fourth season, Allen is leaning on his familiarity with his coaches in order to clean up his game and become a more consistent and reliable passer.
“It’s those little things and having guys like (Brian) Daboll and (Ken) Dorsey and Shea Tierney and even going back to Jordan Palmer, just finding ways I can be more efficient in the pocket, better with ball security, running within the pocket, and then making decisions and not trying to force things no matter what the situation is. That’s where trust in your teammates, trust in the plan and your coaching staff and trusting the process in what coach McDermott is preaching to the team comes in.”
All eyes will be on Josh Allen and the Bills this season as they look to avenge their AFC Championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and the 25-year old quarterback is not getting complacent after a breakout season. If he can get better delivering the ball on-time and on-target on these in-breaking routes, Buffalo’s offense could somehow be even more potent than it was a season ago.
After getting markedly better in each of the previous two offseasons, there’s no reason to believe that we won’t be seeing anything less than an elite, well-rounded and much improved version of Josh Allen in 2021.