Sometimes, when Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll calls for a scramble drill in practice, the offensive linemen have no clue it’s coming.
It’s Daboll’s way of creating as close to a genuine feel as possible for the many helter-skelter runs that rookie Josh Allen has made in piling up 335 yards in the last three games.
“He might just tell Josh to scramble, so we can just react to it,” offensive tackle Jordan Mills said Wednesday as the Bills prepared for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions.
By “react,” Mills is pretty much talking about giving chase because that’s all he and the rest of Allen’s linemen are left to do when Allen decides to take off.
On every pass play, the line’s mission is to protect the quarterback. The ideal way is to block defenders for as long as necessary (which is typically a matter of seconds) for the ball to be thrown before contact is made or any other disruption occurs.
However, the protecting doesn’t stop even when the quarterback starts running. In Allen’s case, that has happened 31 times in the three games since his Nov. 25 return from an elbow injury suffered in mid-October.
“You have to protect forever because you don’t know if it’s going to be three hitches or it’s running,” center Ryan Groy said. “You’re protecting for anything. And if your guy starts running once (Allen) breaks the pocket, are you going to catch up to him? Probably not, but you’re still running over there. What if (Allen) comes back around the other way?
“You’re really chasing anybody with the ball in case it comes out or (to provide) any kind of protection late. You’re always just trying to chase the ball whether it’s him or a running back or anybody going down the field, and you’re trying to finish the play.”
When it comes to pass plays, the offensive linemen rely on their eyes, ears and a mental clock as guides for what’s happening behind them as they focus on what’s in front of them. Mills listens for crowd reaction. When he doesn’t hear any sudden crescendo and doesn’t see the ball, he knows Allen is either still looking for somewhere to throw or is preparing to take off.
“And that clock in my head is telling me, ‘Oh, he’s about to make a play,’ ” Mills said. “And when my defender is just turning and running to the other sideline or the near sideline, I know Josh is out of the pocket running.”
As much as he has run the past three games and as successful as he has been at it, Allen insists his primary goal is not to beat opponents by constantly scrambling. He wants to complete passes, first, and only runs if he doesn’t see an open target or under duress.
“When option one, two, and three aren’t there, that’s when I kind of try to exploit a defense with my legs,” Allen said. “It’s been working the past few weeks. I know that it can’t happen repeatedly, over and over again, so we’re going to have to be very detailed in the passing game, get the ball out quickly.”
Whether that changes Sunday or in any of the three games left in the Bills’ season remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Allen’s linemen find themselves balancing feelings of nervousness and excitement.
“When you see him running and you see a defender and you’re 20 yards away — because when you notice that he’s running, he’s already 15 yards downfield — and you see that defender take a shot on him, you get a little nervous,” Mills said. “You don’t want him to run like that. Sometimes, he'll try to take on somebody and I don't know if he hears me, but I'll yell, ‘Slide!’ Or ‘Get down!’”
The other linemen say they yell the same warning.
They know they’re dealing with someone and something special that has provided a difference-making dimension the Bills haven’t gotten with the same consistency from anywhere else on offense.
“He’s like Houdini back there sometimes with some of the things that he's able to do, and he's just naturally talented in that way,” right guard John Miller said.
“It’s mind-boggling how fast that 6-foot-5 skinny kid can run,” said rookie left guard Wyatt Teller. “It’s nice that you don't have to do your job perfectly. He can kind of get you out of debacles. It’s not as easy as, ‘Oh, he’s going to get us out of problems,’ but the last couple of weeks he really has. They’ve been close games because of the effort he’s shown. Mistakes all over the field, and he’s been playing his butt off.”
Even with the constant worry that he’ll take a devastating hit, Allen’s linemen feed off of the energy that he generates when he’s running for first downs or touchdowns.
“He plays with a lot of passion and fire,” Miller said. “When he runs, good things happen. At the end the day, the goal is to go out there and win, however you get that done as far as rushing or passing.”
Teller is also a rookie and happens to be Allen’s closest friend on the team, so there’s probably a bit of bias in his perspective on what sort of impact Allen has had with his anything-goes approach. Nevertheless, it does seem to be shared by others.
“You want to protect whoever’s back there, because, obviously, that's your job and you'll lose your job (if you don't),” Teller said. “But you really do sell all out for a guy like that.”
“It’s something special and I’m excited about it,” Mills said. “But we tell him all the time, ‘If you take off, get the first down and get down. We know you’re trying to make a play … but just be safe.’”