Brian Daboll is not going to be boxed in by labels when talking about his offensive philosophy.
“Each week is like its own season,” Daboll said.
That strikes to the heart of Daboll’s approach as well as anything.
Daboll is unfazed by the fact the Bills ran the ball the fourth highest percentage (46.4) of any team in the NFL last season. Does that mean he’s more run-conscious – conservative, if you will - than the average play-caller? Certainly not.
The Bills didn’t use two-tight-end sets much last year – 12.7% compared with the NFL average of 16.5%. Would Daboll like to take more advantage of two tight-end sets this year? “Maybe, maybe not,” he said. Depends how the Bills’ tight ends are playing and how the defenses they’re facing are defending them.
The Bills used their quarterbacks under center more than average last year – 44% compared with the average of 37%. Does he philosophically like the QB under center? Daboll smiles and shrugs with a look that says: It’s not that relevant a question.
What is relevant to the Bills’ offensive coordinator? Matchups.
Daboll’s philosophy is a week-to-week proposition, based on how he thinks his team’s strengths going into each game match up with the opposing defense’s personnel and scheme.
“That’s how I was raised in this business, from the older coaches and head coaches that I’ve learned from,” said Daboll, who spent five years as the receivers coach on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England.
“The NFL is such a week-to-week league,” Daboll said. “Regardless of what you do one week, whether it’s a lot of throws, a lot of runs, there’s so many things that factor into that week of preparation. You’re always going to try to do what you do best. But you’re also going to look at what they do really well, who they have and who’s injured, and all those things that go into it.”
Daboll tries to bend his philosophy to the advantageous matchups, not the other way around. It’s the New England way.
“He knows this is a game of matchups,” Bills quarterback Matt Barkley said. “That’s what New England does really well, too, and it’s where he learned that.”
Consider: The Patriots led the NFL in two-tight end sets in 2011 (when they had Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez). Like the rest of the league, they’ve embraced a heavy dose of three-receiver sets the past five years. Yet after adding first-round pick Sony Michel to their fleet of runners last season, the Pats ranked second in the NFL in two-back sets.
“He’s not locked in, and he doesn’t let his pride get in the way of the right call or the right game plan,” Barkley said of Daboll. “It’s not going to be like: This is how I’ve done it for all this time, so this is how we’re going to do it. He knows the why behind it, and he’s humble enough to admit this way would be better. Some other coaches get stuck in: This is how we do things. They don’t really know why they do it, but that’s all they know. So that’s what they stick with.”
What can we expect from the Bills’ offensive coordinator in 2019?
It starts with the matchup advantages the Bills’ roster offers.
Vertical stretch: The Bills have a quarterback in Josh Allen with one of the biggest arms in the NFL. Last season, the Bills ranked second only to Green Bay in the NFL in most throws 20-or-more yards downfield (5.5 a game), according to ESPN’s Matchup Show.
Allen got a lot better over the last six games last year, after he returned from his elbow injury and once Robert Foster asserted his presence on the roster. Allen completed only 22% of his first- and second-down deep throws the first six weeks. The last six weeks he hit 47% of such throws, according to Sharp Football. (For a frame of reference, Kansas City ranked best among the top-10 deep-throwing teams on all downs, with a 44% completion percentage.)
The Bills have added one of the better deep threats in the league in John Brown, who has 4.34 speed in the 40-yard dash. Foster, who runs a 4.41 40, had nine catches of 25-plus yards over the last seven games last year, fourth in the NFL.
Defenses are going to have to respect the Bills’ ability to vertically stretch the field.
“There’s so many things you can do,” Daboll says, “whether you want to get big and crowd everybody up and throw shots down the field. Or if you want to spread guys around and pick a matchup.”
Horizonal stretch: The Bills ranked 30th in passing yards last season. They were 28th in pass attempts per game. The Bills had the fourth fewest pass attempts in 2018 on throws within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage (14.8 a game), according to the ESPN NFL Matchup show. There’s a long way to go before they become an aerial circus.
However, the addition of prototypical slot receiver Cole Beasley figures to help the Bills’ horizontal passing game.
Given his New England pedigree, Daboll wants to have a capable possession passing game, because Tom Brady and the Patriots are the gold standard for it.
Beasley is adept at the option-route – or pivot-route – that Julian Edelman and (before him) Wes Welker have run for years in New England. It was encouraging during the preseason that Allen seemed to be on the same wavelength as Beasley, because the free agent from Dallas is a huge piece of the Bills’ blueprint.
Can Allen be accurate enough on those underneath throws? Daboll said he’s confident.
“I’ve never felt bad about it,” he said of Allen’s accuracy. “We’re working on things every day. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Josh.”
Empty sets: Look for the Bills to continue to help Allen with the horizontal game by putting him in empty sets, with five receivers spread out and no one in the backfield. It spreads the defense out and it helps Allen find more openings in the middle of the field. Against zone defense, Allen is throwing to spots on the field. It’s an easier throw, if he’s reading the defense correctly. And it allows Allen to shift line protections and recognize when it’s on him to unload the pass quickly.
Last year, the Bills used an empty backfield only 13 plays in the first 10 games, according to News statistics. After Allen returned from his elbow injury, they used it 66 plays the last six weeks.
Allen was 30 of 51 passing for 421 yards with two touchdown passes, two interceptions and four sacks out of empty. He completed 58.8% of his passes out of empty.
The Bills’ speed helps out of empty, too, even though most of the throws are shorter. Daboll likes to align the receivers tighter to the line, which gives them a “two-way go” – inside or outside – and helps keep the cornerbacks honest.
Allen’s mobility: Allen rushed for 90 or more yards in four of his last six games last year. He had 16 gains of 10-or-more yards, six of which were for 25-plus yards.
“He’s an athletic guy,” Daboll said. “That’s part of his game that I would never want him to hesitate using if he needs to.”
Allen’s running ability should give defensive coordinators pause, too.
If they want to play man coverage and send the blitz, it better get home. Because if Allen eludes the rusher, he’s going to be scampering downfield. In empty sets the last six games, Allen ran 11 times for 168 yards and a TD. (All but one of those carries were scrambles.)
“You can’t really just play 2-man and leave the middle wide open,” Barkley said, “because he’ll take off.”
The run game
Presuming Allen has some early success throwing downfield, defensive coordinators are going to have to protect deep, whether it’s playing two-deep or quarters coverage or shying away from heavy blitzing.
That should open up room for the running game.
The Bills were the fourth most run-heavy team in the NFL last season.
The play-calling was conservative. The Bills called run plays on first and second down in one-score games a league-high 60% of the time, according to Sharp Football. The league average was 48%.
Given that Daboll had a rookie quarterback, the reliance on the run was understandable.
Unfortunately, teams did not respect the pass enough, and the offensive line struggled. The Bills were 29th in the NFL in rushing yards by running backs.
The Bills relied a lot on inside zone runs. The line was not especially athletic. Richie Incognito had been superb at pulling and leading the way for LeSean McCoy from 2015 to ’17. Last year’s guards, Vlad Ducasse and John Miller, simply did not have the athleticism to pull and wipe out linebackers.
In theory the Bills are a lot more athletic up front. Cody Ford did a lot of pulling in college for Oklahoma. Center Mitch Morse is an athlete in the Eric Wood mold. Guard Quinton Spain is more of a mauler at the point of attack.
Just as in the passing game, Daboll wants to be able to do it all. If a defense is weak at edge defending, he wants to get outside with gap-scheme runs or outside zones.
Frank Gore is adept at inside zone runs between the tackles, but Daboll made sure to show an outside zone with him in the Detroit exhibition. He doesn’t want any one of his backs to be a tell for the defense.
Daboll tried to keep defenses honest on inside zone runs last year by running split-zone schemes. That’s when the tight end pulls behind the line of scrimmage and picks off the weak-side edge defender. Expect to see a bunch of that again this year.
“Whether we have an outside zone or inside zone or gap scheme or move the pocket or pull or trap scheme, these guys are smart, tough,” Daboll said of his line. “Do we sit there and major in one thing? I think we have the ability to do what we need to do each week, whatever it is.”
The Bills ran 11 personnel – one back, one tight end, three receivers – on 69.8% of their snaps last year, eighth most in the league. That was up from 56% under coordinator Rick Dennison in 2017. With Beasley working in the slot, expect about as much 11 personnel. The NFL as a whole has increasingly embraced spread, three-receiver sets. The league-wide rate was 64.2 percent last year, according to Football Outsiders.
“You just look at what is happening from the high school level up,” Daboll said. “You look at it in college. It’s a space game in college. And that impacts the NFL.”
How much can the Bills use 12 personnel – one back, two tight ends, two receivers? The uncertainty of the tight-end position makes it a potential weakness.
Clearly, Daboll likes having well-rounded tight ends who can both catch and block. Both Bills rookies, Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney, fit that mold. How fast can they develop? And can veteran Tyler Kroft overcome his foot-injury problems?
The two-tight-end set is an advantage the Patriots have exploited the past nine years with Gronkowski. If the defense played the Patriots with regular personnel (4-3 or 3-4), the Pats had a passing-game mismatch. If defenses play five DBs, Gronkowski provided a big advantage run blocking.
“When people go 12 personnel, that’s an interesting matchup across the league,” Daboll said. “You study and prepare to see what the defensive coordinator’s philosophy is. But there’s a lot of mental gymnastics that go into that game.”
With Charles Clay struggling last year, two-tight-end sets were not that effective for Daboll.
“The tight end position is a difficult position to play in this league,” Daboll said. “From where it is now in high school and college is a little different than where it is in the league. If you have guys that can run block and pass block, it’s good. So the defense is not just focused on one thing.”
The Bills used 21 personnel – two backs, one tight end, two receivers – on 10.3 percent of plays last year. That was roughly the league average. But two-back sets are impacted a bit more by game situations. If you’re protecting a lead in the fourth quarter, you might use more two-back sets. The Bills were not often protecting a lead last year.
The Bills are relying on Daboll to squeeze a lot out of the personnel. Just one Bills offensive player – Gore – has been to a Pro Bowl. There are no Bills on the NFL Network’s ranking of the top 100 players in the league.
When talking personnel, Daboll said he’s not concerned with exactly where the percentages fall at the end of the year.
“The biggest number is winning,” Daboll said. “Whatever we need to do to try to accomplish that, I’m all for.”