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Jim Kubiak: How Brian Daboll's creativity is highlighting the best of Bills QB Josh Allen

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Bills Broncos football

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen scores a touchdown during the second half against the Denver Broncos, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Denver.

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Jim Kubiak has been analyzing the play of Buffalo Bills quarterbacks for BNBlitz.com. Kubiak is the all-time leading passer at Navy, has played in the NFL, NFL Europe and the Arena Football League, and has been a coach and executive in the AFL. He spent eight years as the radio analyst for the University at Buffalo and runs the Western New York Quarterback Academy to help develop the next generation of quarterbacks.

Quarterbacks are evaluated each quarter using a “Doing Your Job” grading system for every play that takes into account the quarterback’s responsibilities and outcome. The accountability system rewards a quarterback with a plus for a play in which he does what he is supposed to do, a minus for not doing what he is supposed to do. A quarterback can earn a plus-plus for an extraordinary play and a minus-minus for a play that hurts the team.  

Overview

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills dominated and demoralized the Denver Broncos, clinching their first AFC East title since 1995. Allen completed 28 of 40 attempts (70%) for 359 yards and accounted for two passing and two rushing touchdowns. Allen’s overall performance grade was 91.8%, as he completed passes to eight different receivers, including 13 to Stefon Diggs and 10 to Cole Beasley.

Denver was unable to disrupt Allen and the Bills’ offense, which dominated the time of possession, 33:50 to 25:40. The Bills converted 9 of 13 on third down and compiled 534 total offensive yards, the sixth most in franchise history. The Bills had their most yards since 579 at Seattle on Dec. 23, 2000. Buffalo has posted 300 or more yards in eight consecutive games, which has only been accomplished five times in team history.  

Allen was unflappable and consistently ahead of every defensive approach the Broncos attempted. Denver, known for its softer style of zone coverage, mixed up its schemes, at times blitzing safeties and linebackers and at other times rushing three or four defenders. The strategy, the coverage, the down and distance, none of it mattered as Allen meticulously diagnosed and subverted the Broncos’ defense with calculated decisions, accurate throws and timely scrambles.  

This game was wrapped up following Buffalo’s fifth offensive series, at the start of the third quarter. Allen led a seven-play touchdown drive, upping the score to 28-13 on a scramble when he faked to his left and rolled right with the intent to throw the screen back to the left. Allen recognized that the screen was covered and scrambled to the right for the 24-yard touchdown.

Denver coach Vic Fangio threw his hands up in exasperation and disgust as if to say, “There was nothing more we could have done to prevent that.” And he was right. The Bills averaged 8.2 yards per play to the Broncos’ 4.0 yards.

Coach Sean McDermott had the Bills prepared and ready to play, and his team answered with the maturity of championship caliber team.

First quarter

Play selection: 14 plays  10 passes, four runs.

Allen: 7 for 10 passing, 49 yards, one passing touchdown, one sack. One carry for 8 yards.

Performance grade: 86.7%.

Score: Bills, 7-0.

The Broncos missed a 51-yard field goal attempt on their first possession. Buffalo took over on its 41-yard line and put together a 13-play drive for the first touchdown of the game. Every week, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll creates another wrinkle that provides excellent opportunities for Allen. This week, he created this diabolical misdirection play that tricked the Denver defense into believing it was a screen to Diggs.

Diggs lined up in the backfield to the right of Allen. This was unusual, and the action of the entire offensive line and Diggs to the left pulled a majority of defenders to that side. Allen rolled right and had running back Zack Moss in the flat, tight end Lee Smith releasing late into the flat behind him, and Knox running a sail route toward the corner. Allen appeared to peek back at Diggs, but I don’t believe he had any intention of throwing the screen. Daboll’s design attracted everyone to Diggs while flooding the right side of the field with four receivers, as Gabriel Davis was the last crosser.

The Bills married a fake throwback screen to Diggs with a standard flood concept to the opposite side. Generally, a fake run is used to influence the defense, combined with a naked bootleg flood pass, but in this case, Daboll used Diggs and a potential screen to accomplish the same reaction. Rarely have I seen these two concepts used together simultaneously, which speaks to the depth of Daboll’s creativity.

Allen threw to Knox for the 9-yard touchdown.

Second quarter

Play selection: 17 plays  13 passes, four runs.

Allen: 9 for 13 passing, 127 yards, one touchdown. One carry for 24 yards, one touchdown.

Performance grade: 94%.

Score: Bills, 21-13.

The Bills took a 14-0 lead on their second possession of the game and went into halftime with an eight-point lead.

Four plays in the quarter highlight awareness, creative thinking and elite execution.

On the Bills’ first possession of the quarter, on third-and-4, Buffalo was in an empty formation with three receivers to Allen’s left and two receivers to his right. Diggs was in the slot to the right. Allen could see that Denver had four defenders on the left side and only two secondary defenders to Digg’s side. Diggs ran an option route, allowing him the freedom to sit in the open spot between the zone defenders. Allen knew exactly what Diggs was going to do and how much yardage was needed for the first down. 

Had the Broncos played man to man, Diggs would have broken away from his defender to the open area, or, in this case, he had to access the hole between defenders. The option route is a high-percentage solution that morphs to fit the situation. Diggs and Allen ran it to perfection.

Five plays later, Allen demonstrated his awareness on another third down.

When defenses blitz, they play man to man behind to cover the voided areas. The Broncos attacked with a five-man pressure and played Cover 2 man-under. Denver played two deep safeties over the top and man to man on everyone else. The problem with this philosophy was Allen. No one accounted for him, which he recognized and exploited immediately.

As Allen dropped back, he saw all the defenders go with their receivers down the field. The Broncos did not account for Allen in any way, and he ran 24 yards into the end zone for a 14-0 lead, literally surprised at how open the middle of the field was.

Denver reduced the lead to 14-7 by capitalizing on great field position due to the Bills’ only turnover of the game, a muffed punt by Andre Roberts. Allen and the Bills battled back on the next drive and were in position with first-and-goal on the 5-yard line with 2:45 remaining in the half. Daboll again reached into his bag of tricks and added a wrinkle to a basic run concept.

This touchdown play was erased because of a holding penalty, but the design is worth a closer look. Knox and Isaiah McKenzie are lined up to Allen’s left with Devin Singletary, Davis and Diggs to the right. The quick motion by McKenzie and the fake throw arm motion by Allen made it appear as if the play was going right, which heavily influenced the defense. Allen held the ball with his left hand behind his back for Singletary, who took it going the opposite way.

Players love this type of creative investment in a game plan. Allen and the running backs happily spent time this week practicing behind-the-back handoffs. Additionally a coordinator has to believe in and trust his players to get unorthodox in this fashion. Unfortunately for the Bills, a penalty nullified this sensational play call.

The Bills endured two more penalties and were finally able to score on an unusual second-and-goal from the 25-yard line.

Undrafted wide receiver Jake Kumerow lined up as the most inside player to the Bills’ trips formation to Allen’s left. The Broncos played another Cover 2 defense, as both safeties were responsible for their halves of the field. The play concept to Allen’s left was an outside release go route and a slot flat route, with Kumerow shooting down the middle of the field on a seam post.

This throw by Allen was one of his best of the game from a recognition, timing and velocity perspective. Having recognized the coverage, Allen knew Kumerow was going to be open from the snap. He dropped and fired the ball into the perfect reception area over the linebackers and in front of the safeties at exactly 22 yards of depth.

Sending Kumerow down the middle of the field illustrated that Daboll knew he would get a free release and his speed would get the receiver to that vulnerable, open area in the middle of the field versus Cover 2 more quickly than a tight end. The TD increased the Bills lead to 21-7.

Third quarter

Play selection: 21 plays  16 passes, five runs.

Allen: 11 for 15 passing, 155 yards. One carry for 1 yard, one touchdown.

Performance grade: 95.5%.

Score: Bills, 38-13.

Allen and the Bills dealt their knockout blow with a touchdown on their first possession of the third quarter. On the third play of the drive, the Broncos tried to disguise a Cover 0 blitz. 

Nickel safety Will Parks lined up at coverage depth with safety Justin Simmons “stacking” his position behind Parks. Safeties will stack behind blitzers to get themselves into position to play man coverage behind the rusher. Allen and Cole Beasley saw Parks blitz and reacted perfectly. Beasley likely adjusted his route into the flat away from Simmons, who had come down to cover him from the secondary. 

Receivers will generally break away from the man coverage, as Beasley did into the open area to counter-attack the blitz. This was great recognition and execution by Allen and Beasley. Allen’s throw was perfectly placed to the outside, despite Parks bearing down on him, trying to disrupt the connection. Allen showed poise and patience, waiting for Beasley to break to the outside.

Four plays later, the Bills erased any hopes the Broncos might have had thanks to an example of Allen’s improvisation.

On first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Allen faked right and rolled right to set up a screen back to the left. This was another misdirection concept called by Daboll, designed to attract defensive flow to one side and throw to the other. Once Allen realized the screen was covered, he looked to run and juked linebacker Malik Reed. Reed was unblocked and appeared to have Allen for a timely sack until Allen made a move to the inside. Reed committed hard to Allen’s inside movement. Then, Allen went back outside and around Reed. Reed was not able to get a hand on Allen due to his deceptive movement. Allen waltzed around the unblocked linebacker for the touchdown and a 28-13 lead. Fangio, dismayed, threw his hands up in frustration, having watched his defense fail to control Allen in spite of the fact they were all in position to make the play.  

On the next series, defensive end Jerry Hughes picked up a fumble and did his best Allen impersonation, weaving and bobbing through would-be tacklers toward the end zone. Hughes scored on the fumble recovery to seal the game at 35-13. 

The Buffalo offense was not finished, however. Allen continued to attack the defense on the next offensive series. Diggs was the outside receiver to Allen’s right and blew by cornerback De’Vante Bausby on a go route.

The Broncos, prior to the snap, appeared to be playing zone, but at the snap, they locked up in Cover 1. This put Bausby in man coverage on Diggs. Bausby reacted to a stutter move by Diggs that slowed him down. This slight movement allowed Diggs to get behind Bausby. Allen saw the corner bite on Diggs’ stutter and decided to take a shot on first-and-10. His throw was perfectly placed over Bausby and to the outside shoulder of Diggs. This could not have been done any better.

The Bills eventually turned the ball over on downs as they failed to convert a fourth-and-short inside the Broncos’ 5-yard line.

On the next series, Allen found Diggs on a crossing route, again on third down and again against a blitz.

Diggs was the single receiver to Allen’s left and lined up tight to the left tackle. This tight alignment allowed him to cross the field quickly as Allen was under duress from a six-man pressure. The most impressive aspect of this throw by Allen was his recognition of the coverage and the trajectory of the throw over the undercutting defender Simmons. Allen knew he could softly release this throw high and to the outside as Diggs was screaming across the field. Allen was pressured and had to initiate the throw earlier than he wanted to. The combination of coverage recognition and an early, soft throw made it impossible for Simmons to make a play on the ball. 

Fourth quarter

Play selection: 12 plays – two passes, nine runs.

Allen: 1 for 2 passing, 27 yards. No carries.

Performance grade: 91%.

Score: Bills, 48-19.

Daboll ran the football on all but two plays in the fourth quarter as he milked the clock and protected Allen before Allen was replaced by Matt Barkley. The quarter’s only completion was this second-window slant to Beasley.

First, Allen used a dummy count to see what the Broncos’ intentions were. Once he knew the blitz was coming, he audibled to a Beasley slant from the exact area the blitz was coming from. Second, Allen held the ball longer than usual to wait for Beasley to clear behind linebacker Josey Jewell. Typically, a hot slant would be thrown immediately, but Allen knew he had protection and had the good sense to hold the ball for an extra second for Beasley to clear behind Jewell. This is known as a “second-window” throw and was the result of Allen’s sensing and seeing Jewell jump into the throwing lane.

Conclusion

The Roman philosopher Seneca gave us this famous and well-used quote: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This performance by Allen and the Bills was the result of great preparation. McDermott and Daboll had their players emotionally and intellectually ready for every blitz. He countered with smooth and relaxed throws in the face of desperate rushers. Allen and the Bills made the very difficult look easy with seamless adjustments and sensational plays down the field against two-safety defensive looks.

Allen was as prepared as I have seen him and Daboll called another outstanding game. Allen made his own luck, decisively knowing what to do in every situation and making sensational plays with both his arm and his legs. This result was not an accident or on-the-spot reactions from a great athlete; this performance was the result of tireless mental preparation and choreographed execution, and was Allen’s seventh game without an interception.

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