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Offense analysis: Josh Allen's improvement seen in empty formations

Josh Allen gave the Buffalo Bills exceptional production out of empty-backfield formations over the last six weeks of the season.

It was one of the encouraging aspects in the development of the rookie quarterback in 2018.

The Bills used an empty backfield – with all the receivers and running backs lined up in wideout positions – only 13 plays in the first 10 games.

After Allen returned from his elbow injury, they used it 66 plays the last six weeks.

The results:

Allen was 30 of 51 passing for 421 yards with two touchdown passes, two interceptions and four sacks. And he ran out of the empty set 11 times for 168 yards and a TD. (All but one of those carries were scrambles.)

The Bills averaged 8.53 yards a play with Allen in an empty backfield. They averaged 4.47 yards per play for the season. Allen averaged 14 yards a completion and 15 yards a carry out of empty.

Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said Allen’s improvement in understanding protections during the four weeks he was out due to injury, helped him run empty sets more effectively.

“When you line up in a spread out formation it does a few things,” Daboll said. “One, it puts stress on your line if you’re going to hold it a little bit because now usually you don’t have some double edges there to help. Two, it allows him to see the field and expand the defense.”

Shaq Lawson sacks former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. (Getty Images)

“I think one of the things he’s done a really nice job of, even when he was down with that injury, there’s a lot of things that go into empty protections, even though it’s just five guys protecting,” Daboll said. “So if you want to slide it one way, or you see another thing, I think he has a good knack and feel for that. I think that’s improved. Not that it wasn’t good, because he’s pretty sharp. But it’s improved. A lot of it is controlled by him. Where the line’s going. Getting it out quick. Recognition.”

Allen completed 58.8 percent of his passes out of the empty set. His overall completion percentage was 52.8 percent. Of course, given there’s only five pass protectors, empty sets lend themselves to quick-game throws. Pass rush schemes generally are simpler, and the defense is spread out more horizontally across the field.

“When you like up in empty is for the most part, it’s not a ton of downfield routes,” Daboll said. “You’re always going to have some type of vertical. But it’s a possession pass game. He’s got to make quick decisions. And he’s got to get the line and the protection set the way we need it. He did a good job.”

The Bills ran empty sets on 7.8 percent of plays overall in 2018 and 16.7 percent of their plays the last six weeks. That would be about the league lead for a full season. In 2017, Arizona led the NFL in using empty sets 17 percent of plays, and the league average was 8 percent.

Running a lot of empty sets on third-and-long situations becomes problematic, because against good pass-rush teams the quarterback often gets hit before the receivers reach the first-down sticks.

The Bills went empty on 5.6 percent of plays in 2017, and Tyrod Taylor had much less production than Allen. Taylor was 18 for 39 for 160 yards and ran seven times for 46 yards.

Here are some other analytic breakdowns of the Bills’ offensive production – or lack thereof – in 2018:

Bills fans in Tennessee got a huge kick out of Lee Smith catching this touchdown pass against the Titans during the 2019 season. (Getty Images)

Late-season improvement

The Bills averaged 24.7 points and 363 yards per game over the last seven weeks of the season, starting with the 41-9 victory at the Jets.

Over the first nine games they averaged 10.6 points and 248 yards a game.

The improvement was real but Bills management shouldn’t get carried away with the upswing in its talent evaluations.

The schedule got a lot easier. The average ranking of the first nine defenses the Bills faced was 9.6. The average ranking of the last seven defenses: 20.6.

WR shortfall

The Bills finished with the second-fewest catches in the league by wide receivers (149) and the fifth-fewest yards by wideouts (1,989). Washington was last in both categories (146 for 1,667).

Thanks to the emergence of Robert Foster, it was a big improvement over last year, when the Bills had a league-worst 115 wideout catches.

Still, the NFL average in 2018 was 197 wide-receiver catches per team. The Bills have a long way to go to make their receiving corps championship caliber.

Buffalo finished 31st overall in passing yards (174.6), behind only Arizona (157.7). The Bills have ranked in the bottom 10 in passing yards 13 of the last 16 seasons.

Worst RB production ever

Here’s another reason to be encouraged for Allen’s sophomore season: He surely will get more help from the running game. Right?

Allen finished second among NFL QBs in rushing yards with 631 yards, behind only Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson at 695. The Bills ranked ninth overall in rushing yards.

But that was misleading. If you subtract quarterback carries, the Bills finished 29th in rushing, at 81 yards a game. The Bills average yards per game by running backs (77.3) was the lowest in the 59-year history of the franchise.

By any measure, the Bills almost never got the run game going, and they sorely missed retired guard Richie Incognito and retired center Eric Wood. Using a guard to pull and run outside the tackles was a go-to, successful play the previous three years. Lacking the athleticism and mobility of Incognito and Wood, the Bills rarely did it in 2018.

On first-down runs, the running backs carried 173 times for 609 yards, just a 3.52-yard average. (That doesn’t count goal-line plays.)

In 2017, the RBs rushed for 786 yards on first down and averaged 4.12 a carry. In 2016, when the Bills led the NFL in rushing, the RBs rushed for 1,091 yards on first down and averaged 5.7 a carry.

Taylor got a lot more support from the run game the previous two years than Allen did this year.

The Bills simply were not able to power up and run.

They ran only 8 percent of plays out of “regular” or two-back sets, with one tight end and two receivers. Running backs averaged only 3.3 a carry out of two-back sets.

In 2017, RBs averaged 4.06 a carry, and the Bills used two-back sets 15 percent.

First-down improvement

The lack of running consistency and the lack of go-to receiver threats combined to put the Bills 29th in yards per play on first down, at 4.93.

However, the final picture wasn’t as bad as the ranking indicates.

Over the last six games with Allen at QB, the Bills averaged 6.06 yards per play on first down. That would have ranked 10th in the NFL if the Bills could have sustained it for the full season. The Los Angeles Rams led the NFL by averaging 6.77 yards on first-down plays.

Snap counts

Here were the playing time percentages for the most-used players in 2018:

OFFENSE – QB: Josh Allen 67.9, Nathan Peterman 14.0. RB: LeSean McCoy 46.2, Chris Ivory 18.5, Marcus Murphy 18.5, Patrick DiMarco 15.9. WR: Zay Jones 88.9, Kelvin Benjamin 48.3, Robert Foster 42.1, Andre Holmes 26.6, Isaiah McKenzie 20.9, Ray-Ray McCloud 11.4. TE: Charles Clay 47.6, Jason Croom 36.6, Logan Thomas 26.8. OL: Dion Dawkins 99.8, Jordan Mills 95.5, John Miller 83.4, Russell Bodine 55.5, Vlad Ducasse 53.2, Ryan Groy 49.9, Wyatt Teller 44.9, Jeremiah Sirles 13.0.

DEFENSE – DL: Jerry Hughes 65.9, Kyle Williams 64.7, Star Lotulelei 46.9, Trent Murphy 43.4, Shaq Lawson 43.3, Harrison Phillips 38.5, Eddie Yarbrough 30.2, Jordan Phillips 26.4. LB: Tremaine Edmunds 91.3, Matt Milano 73.0, Lorenzo Alexander 62.0, Julian Stanford 8.8, Corey Thompson 7.9. DB: Jordan Poyer 99.5, Tre White 94.7, Micah Hyde 86.8, Rafael Bush 44.5, Levi Wallace 40.9, Taron Johnson 39.9, Philip Gaines 36.2, Ryan Lewis 14.8, Lafayette Pitts 8.2.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Deon Lacey 68, Lafayette Pitts 64, Siran Neal 57, Patrick DiMarco 53, Andre Holmes 53, Julian Stanford 51, Logan Thomas 43, Lorenzo Alexander 39, Ramon Humber 39, Jason Croom 33, Rafael Bush 33, Matt Milano 32, Reid Ferguson 32, Stephen Hauschka 28, Micah Hyde 26, Corey Thompson 24, Jordan Poyer 23, Taiwan Jones 21, Tre White 20.

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