The numbers don’t look good for the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line.
The team’s quarterbacks have been sacked 11 times in two weeks, a figure that ranks as second most in the NFL behind only Seattle (12). It’s easy to point the finger at the beleaguered offensive line for that number, but it’s not entirely fair, according to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
“Obviously, more than half of those sacks aren’t the offensive line,” Daboll said this week. “We can do a good job with setting the table, getting things set to where we need to get them set to. Those guys have protected inside out for the most part in pass protection. There have been some free runners that you guys have seen. It’s not all on the line, no question about it.”
Judging responsibility for sacks can be subjective sometimes without knowing each player’s responsibility, but Daboll saying “more than half” of the sacks aren’t on the guys up front is significant.
“It's never one guy,” coach Sean McDermott said. “There's timing involved in the passing game. There are protections that involve the running backs and tight ends, so I think overall we just have to continue to get a better feel for who we are. This is what happens when you've got some young guys on the field.”
Chief among them is rookie quarterback Josh Allen. Of the five times he was brought down against the Chargers, it looked like three or four of them could be pinned on him.
“Things are going to get cleaned up,” Allen said Wednesday. “I’m in the film room with coach Daboll and our offensive linemen. That’s something that’s fixable, and it’s something we’re working on.”
Understanding his protection, making sure the offensive line is set the right way and knowing when to step up in the pocket instead of escaping it are all areas Allen identified as things he can improve.
“He’s a work in progress and he knows that,” Daboll said. “Look, some is just instincts for him, since he is so big and strong. The consistency with his drop and the timing of his throws and the amount of hits he needs to take, and there were a lot of good examples on tape from him doing that. There were some where, whether the play broke down or we had a free runner that he had to go and try and make a play.”
Allen’s best attribute is his arm strength. It makes sense, then, that the Bills would want to take advantage of that by running more intermediate and deep routes. Through two weeks, Allen’s average intended air yards is 12.0, which is tied for second with Houston’s Deshaun Watson in the NFL behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (12.1). Those routes obviously take longer to develop, which puts Allen at more risk.
“Regardless of the arm strength -- arm strength is important -- but you still have to play the game,” McDermott said. “We're not going to just throw the ball down the field because he's got a strong arm. You've got to play the game within the game and that means putting ourselves in good position to move the chains and then throw some things down the field if the opportunity presents. It's whatever the game plan is and whatever the situation dictates.”
When Daboll does dial up those shots, though, Allen needs time to let his receivers get down field.
“At the end of the day, we need to protect him,” center Ryan Groy said. “Whether we're going deep or we’re throwing it 5 yards, it doesn't matter to us. We've got to do a better job of communicating and picking things up.”
Allen’s average time to throw, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, is 3.36 seconds – most in the NFL. That can mean a couple different things. No. 1, the Bills are running longer routes – indicated by his averaged intended air yards. No. 2 is that Allen may not be fully trusting what he sees yet, and thus is holding onto the ball maybe longer than he should.
“The speed of it, the tempo, eye control, the footwork, fundamentals, those are all things we have to continue to harp and work on each week,” Daboll said. “He’s a good, young pro and we’re looking forward to getting him better each week.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer heaped praise on Allen during a conference call this week with the Western New York media.
“He’s got a big-time arm,” Zimmer said. “He’s a really good athlete. He uses his legs. I think he moves well in the pocket, tries to move to throw, but if not he’s not afraid to run. I think they’re doing a good job working him in with things he feels comfortable with.”
The Vikings have seven sacks through the first two weeks, which is tied for fifth in the NFL.
“Obviously, being a rookie, they’re going to try and throw things at you that maybe I haven’t seen before,” Allen said. “A couple of the so-called sacks (last week) were easy things that I could’ve fixed and could’ve protected, so I have to do a better job of that and just protecting our offensive line and ultimately, protecting myself.”