Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has an interesting history.
He started his coaching career as a “restricted earnings coach” for William & Mary in 1997. What the heck is a “restricted earnings coach,” you may ask? Well, it was a coaching category created by the NCAA in 1991 to stem the cost of athletic departments by forcing graduate assistants to work for no more than $16,000 per year. The reason you don’t hear about this position anymore is that it’s now illegal.
Ah, the NCAA. In any event, after two seasons as a graduate assistant at Michigan State under Nick Saban, Daboll worked for Bill Belichick’s Patriots as a defensive coaching assistant and receivers coach from 2000-2006 before becoming the Jets’ quarterbacks coach in 2007. He had short stints as the offensive coordinator for the Browns, Dolphins, and Chiefs before another stint with Belichick from 2013-2016, and a second go-round with Saban as Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017.
Anyone who can perform double duty with two of the most successful and demanding coaches in NCAA and NFL history, respectively, must have something on the ball. Daboll’s most recent job started in 2018, when the Bills hired him to take quarterback Josh Allen from where he was (a physical marvel with a howitzer arm who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat) to a place where the team could rely on him to be at least reasonably consistent with plays outside of structure.
Results were mixed through Allen’s first two NFL seasons. The seventh-overall pick in the 2018 draft had a head-shaking mistake for every mindblowing play, and that extended through the end of Allen’s second season — a total disaster in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In a 22-1 loss to the Texans, Allen completed 24 of 46 passes for 264 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and several decisions you would expect out of a Division III rookie who had been inexplicably pressed into service.
“Every possession matters,” Allen said after that game. “We’ve got to find ways to clean it up. I’ve got to find ways to clean it up, and it’ll be something I work on in the offseason. Like I said, it’s going to be a long one, but this one is going to hurt and sting for a little bit, but life goes on. We’ll learn from it and move on.”
So far, it appears that Allen learned a lot in a very weird offseason for everybody. Through his first two games of the 2020 season, Allen is the fourth quarterback in NFL history to rack up at least 700 passing yards, six touchdown passes, and zero interceptions in his team’s first two games. The other guys? Peyton Manning in 2013, Tom Brady in 2015, and Patrick Mahomes last season.
Now, there is a caveat in that Allen did this against the defenses of the Jets and Dolphins, two of the league’s worst against the pass so far this season. The legitimate counter-argument is that Allen helped to make those defenses look as bad as they are.
There are two other factors that have helped Allen reach the next level: New receiver Stefon Diggs, and Daboll’s ability to game-plan against man coverage.
Diggs, who the Bills acquired from the Vikings in exchange for their 2020 first-round pick, is tied with Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley for the third-most receptions (16) and the most receiving yards (239) in the league. Diggs has just one touchdown to Ridley’s four, but that’s more about the team’s receiver depth than any red zone issues on Diggs’ part.
On 22-yard touchdown in Buffalo’s 31-28 Week 2 win over the Dolphins, watch how Diggs turns Miami’s man coverage into an absolute mismatch. He’s in the left slot after moving across the formation to give away the man coverage concept. Diggs is covered here by rookie cornerback Noah Igbinoghene with what we would not exactly call “help” from linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who’s assigned to cover running back Devin Singletary out of the backfield. Igbinoghene and Van Noy collide on the cross, and Diggs is indicating his “wide-ass open” status about five steps into his route.
This is an obvious man-beater, and it’s clear to me that Daboll has designed a ton of route concepts to align with the increasing use of man coverage in the NFL these days. With teams relying on the quick passing game, there’s often not enough time for even the most skilled pass-rusher to get to the quarterback before the ball comes out. The solution? More press and man coverage to disrupt receiver routes from the line of scrimmage.
It’s a great strategy if you have the personnel to do it (like, say, the Patriots)… and a really bad idea if you don’t (hello, Detroit Lions). Per Sports Info Solutions, the Dolphins have allowed 12 catches on 12 targets for 133 yards when playing pure man coverage this season, so it’s quite possible that they don’t.
Another advantage to facing man coverage if your offensive coordinator has cracked the code is the ability of your quarterback to more easily define one-on-one matchups — especially when he’s pressured. And that’s another way in which Allen has developed exponentially in the young season. Pre Pro Football Focus, Allen and Russell Wilson are the only quarterbacks to throw four touchdown passes and no interceptions when under pressure. All four of Allen’s touchdown passes this season have come against man coverage, putting him behind only Russell Wilson (six) and Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger (five).
This 46-yard touchdown throw to receiver John Brown is a good example of how Daboll is helping Allen’s sight clear against man, and even under pressure. He has the pre-snap man indicator, and Daboll designing it so that Brown runs the deep over route from right to left from underneath the stack formation while Gabe Davis runs an in-cut is an excellent way to throw man coverage concepts right out of whack.
After the game, Brown explained how Diggs also helped the play come open, running an out-and-up to the left side.
“Stefon Diggs, the route that he ran, the safety ended up closing down on it. I took my route deep enough to get across the field and it was a great throw by Josh and a great block by the offensive linemen.”
Earlier in the week, Diggs said that knew what was coming from Miami’s defense.
“They’re an athletic group, fast group. You’re going to see press man-to-man. I went against [cornerback] Byron Jones a little bit in Dallas, but in this kind of system, they’re going to play a lot of man. If you’re going to beat man-to-man coverage, you’ve got to beat man-to-man coverage. You’ve got to just execute at a high level as far as doing everything you need to do to get open.”
The Bills are doing everything they can to get open — formation, scheme, and execution. And Josh Allen is benefiting as he has never benefited before.