The Bills and Josh Allen must find the bridge between boom and bust

In the lead-up to Sunday’s divisional round matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had something interesting to say about Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

“He’s willing, if you take something away, to check it down and keep the sticks moving, which makes it hard on the defense because those completions are not what we want. We want incompletions. We want to create negative plays, but he’s willing to take a four- or five-yard gain and [he’s] not always just trying to get the explosive.”

One wonders, given the recent trends with Buffalo’s offense, if Frazier was throwing a veiled hint at his own offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and quarterback Josh Allen.

The Bills’ offense has actually improved as the season has gone along — they were fourth in passing DVOA in the first half of the 2022 season, and they were fourth in the second half. They were 19th in rushing DVOA in the first half of the season, and they bumped that to ninth in the second half. Overall, they worked their way from fourth in offensive DVOA to third in the season’s second half, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.

So, why are we worried about the boom-or-bust nature of Buffalo’s offense, and what it’s doing to Allen’s efficiency? From Week 11 through the wild-card round, Allen’s numbers are startlingly similar to Burrow’s, and nobody’s worried about Burrow. Allen completed 162 of 265 passes in that stretch for 1,901 yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 96.1. Burrow completed 204 of 305 passes for 2,148 yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 98.6.

Are we spending too much time looking at Buffalo’s narrow wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round? In that game, Allen completed 59% of his passes (23 of 39) for 352 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions (one of which wasn’t his fault), and a passer rating of 93.1. These numbers aren’t horrible per se, but all everybody is talking about now is Allen’s process, and the balance between explosive plays, and living to fight on the next down.

Perhaps we’re thinking about Allen’s fumble at the start of the second half, when defensive back Eric Rowe got him on a blitz, and Allen was trying to grown-man his way through it. That resulted in a fumble, and a touchdown return by defensive end Zach Sieler.

“I think it’s having a short memory and just trying to move on,” Allen said this week regarding getting past his issues with ball security. “Being the best quarterback I can be for the Bills. Obviously, wanting to make good decisions. Out of the whole game, I think I made one bad decision — it was the deep ball to [receiver] John [Brown, which was intercepted by Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard]. Obviously, we want to end every possession with the ball in our hands, whether it’s a touchdown, punting it away, or kicking a field goal. That’s our mindset. That’ll never change.

“There is a thin line between being aggressive and being a little bit reckless. So, getting back on the right side of that line. Being smart while not being conservative.”

It’s a very fine line when you have a quarterback capable of the kinds of plays Allen can pull off — he is an army of one in some instances, and you don’t want to shut that down completely. But there are also elements of Allen’s “WYLD STALLYNS” style of play that can bite the Bills in the wrong place from time to time.

“I think it’s very instinctual,” Allen said of his process. “It’s also dictated on the flow of the game. Sometimes, down and distance. But understanding just what kind of game it is. Last week, maybe getting too aggressive, and understanding with the lead, just forcing longer drives instead of helping their team get back in it. That’s what I really did. I credit our defense for stepping up, and guys making some plays on the offensive side of the ball.

“But we’re not going to get caught up in a couple bad plays we had last week. We’re going to focus on the good, and we’re going to learn from it. Our attention is on Cincinnati come Sunday at 3:00.”

Cincinnati’s attention will be on Allen, and the extent to which that defense is able to exploit Buffalo’s boom-or-bust offense. Bills head coach Sean McDermott knows all about the tiger he’s riding. Now, the key is to manage the risk.

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(All advanced metrics courtesy of Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, and Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise indicated). 

Not every play has to be a shot play.

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Allen mentioned the deep shot to John Brown that was intercepted by Xavien Howard, so let’s start there. The Bills had first-and-10 at their own 47-yard line with 6:18 left in the first half, and a 17-3 lead. This was not the time to get weird with downfield stuff. The Bills ran a flood concept with receivers to all three levels, and Allen had tight ends Quintin Morris (shallow) and Dawson Knox (intermediate) open on crossers. Perhaps Allen was anticipating that safety Jevon Holland would come down to match Knox out of Cover-3 sooner than he did. In the end, as Allen said, it was a bad decision.

Allen very nearly had another touchdown on a similar concept with 11 seconds left in the first half to Stefon Diggs — as Maxwell Smart would say, he missed it by that much. 

So, yeah… it’s a balance.

It's okay to take the under.

(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bills’ one pass play that was good for more than 20 yards against the Dolphins that didn’t have Allen throwing the ball all over the yard was this short crosser to Cole Beasley with 2:12 left in the third quarter. By this time, Miami had scratched its way back into the game 27-23, so it’s interesting that this is when Allen decided to take the underneath stuff and let his receiver do the work. 24 of the 29 yards on this play came after the catch. This was on third-and-6, and all you want here is to sustain the drive.

As they say, you never go broke taking a profit, and you don’t have to spend it all in one place.

We're on to Cincinnati.

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Allen said that there wasn’t much to glean from the one drive he had against the Bengals in Week 17 before safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field — which caused the postponement of, and ultimately the cancellation of, that game.

“They’ve played the same team [the Baltimore Ravens] twice since we played them,” Allen said of the Bengals. “There’s not much in terms of carryover in what our offense does and what their offense does. So it’s kinda original game plan thought. Making adjustments on the fly. They’ve played certain teams certain ways, and they could come out and play us completely differently than that first drive. So, it’s just being smart, decision-wise, finding the open guy, getting the run game involved, and just trying to be a balanced offense against this team.

“They’re high-motor, and they’re making a lot of plays right now. They’re playing inspired right now, and we have to be ready for whatever they throw at us.”

The Bengals like to rush three and drop eight — this much we know. Only the Patriots and Dolphins have rushed three on more opponent passing attempts this season than Cincinnati’s 71, and Cincinnati has allowed 42 completions for 465 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 90.4. So, there are vulnerabilities to be exploited. Allen has showed that he can create explosive plays against three rushers; this 62-yard touchdown bomb to Gabe Davis against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-man rush in Week 5 was another one of those “Yeah, go ahead and let him cook” plays.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

This isn't all Allen's fault.

(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s not that Josh Allen is one of those “million-dollar arm/five-cent head” guys — he transcended the Nuke LaLoosh phase of his career a long time ago. Allen is, to a large degree, doing what his coaches and the Bills as an organization expect of him. Allen is the black box on offense, and the team built the entire plane out of him. The Bills don’t have a very good offensive line, Allen would certainly love to have a receiver threesome like Joe Burrow does in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Buffalo’s run game is basically Allen when he decides to run. The running backs, outside of a few nice moments this season from rookie James Cook, aren’t really cooking.

Which makes it even more of a delicate balancing act when asking Allen to tamp it down. Former offensive coordinator and current Giants head coach Brian Daboll had a bit more of a balance when it came to Allen’s thermonuclear skill set.

Under new OC Ken Dorsey, it’s been a lot of airing it out. Allen leads the NFL by far in attempts of 20 or more air yards with 96; Aaron Rodgers ranks second with 84. Last season, Allen attempted 87 such throws, and that included a divisional round game the Bills haven’t yet seen. The likelihood of Allen going over 100 explosive attempts this season, no matter what happens in the Bengals game, are worryingly high. That’s not entirely unprecedented — Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Patrick Mahomes have all eclipsed the century mark in recent years — but there has to be enough going on elsewhere to maximize the effects of those big-time throws.

If the Bills continue to lean on Josh Allen at the expense of balance and sense, the likelihood of the franchise winning its first Super Bowl ever, and its first league championship since taking the American Football League crown in 1965, are not great. Managing Allen’s nukes with more reliable weapons of defensive destruction should be Job One.

Story originally appeared on Bills Wire