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Jim Kubiak: Innovative RPOs help Bills QB Josh Allen take advantage of improvisation skills

Jim Kubiak: Innovative RPOs help Bills QB Josh Allen take advantage of improvisation skills

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Bills Colts

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen throws against the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at Bills Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.

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

Emblematic of one of Sean McDermott’s favorite slogans for this season, Josh Allen “found a way” to win against a fast and talented Indianapolis Colts defense. Allen completed 26 of 35 attempts for 324 yards and accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).

Allen did not throw an interception or turn the ball over, but he almost fumbled it all away trying to avoid a sack late in the game that could have led to the end of the Bills’ season. 

Allen became the only NFL player ever to throw for 300-plus yards, have a 70-plus completion percentage and rush for 50-plus yards in a playoff game.

His QB Performance Grade was 97% as he earned the first postseason victory of his career.

Allen’s ability to run and improvise was the difference in the game as the Colts were able to compress the pocket and apply pressure mostly with their front four pass rushers. He was regularly forced out of the pocket and was able to inflict damage on the perimeter.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s game plan had Allen as a significant portion of the running game. Daboll ran Allen on quarterback draws and prepared him with multiple RPO and zone-read running plays. Allen finished with 54 yards on 11 attempts, making him the Bills’ leading rusher.

Field position, time of possession and the general lack of conventional rushing success made things difficult on the offense in the first half, but the Bills lead 14-10 at halftime. The halftime adjustments made by Daboll, combined with better drive starts, helped the offense find itself, leading to three consecutive scoring drives in the second half, with one touchdown and two field goals.

Allen didn’t have as many gashing plays down the field from the pocket, though his yards per attempt of 9.26 was among his highest of the season.

The Colts’ offense shortened the game, giving Allen fewer opportunities. That made every play mean more, as Allen rose to the occasion.

First quarter

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

Allen: 7 for 9 passing, 73 yards, one touchdown. One carry for 12 yards.

Performance grade: 100%.

Score: Bills, 7-3.

Buffalo started all of its first-quarter drives from inside its own 15-yard line (3, 14 and 11). That altered some of Daboll’s play calling as he tried to manage poor field position while remaining aggressive. 

On the Bills’ first possession, Daboll ran Zack Moss inside, lined up a short pass to Cole Beasley and saw Allen scramble right, eventually throwing the ball high and out of bounds. These were careful decisions by Daboll and Allen, and rightfully so. 

The next drive began on the Buffalo 11-yard line, and Allen was hit hard by Colts defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad on his first attempt. Muhammad should have been accounted for in his protection. Following a great scramble for a first down, Allen was able to find Stefon Diggs knifing down the middle of the field for a 37-yard gain and much-needed breathing room.

Here, Allen steps up into the pocket, looking down the field to his right when he sees Diggs late. Allen’s great vision and ability to adapt to Diggs’ adjustment demonstrated amazing synergy. Generally, quarterbacks are taught to never throw the ball late down the middle of the field. In fact, that is the worst place to be late on a throw. It appeared that Diggs ran a shorter route, and then instinctively took off to the open middle. 

Five plays later, on second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Daboll created another interesting concept. This was Allen’s first touchdown pass of the game to Dawson Knox. Daboll told reporters Monday that it was an RPO (run-pass option). Knox stalk-blocks his defender and releases for the back of the end zone.

Three tight ends were in the formation: Knox and Lee Smith to the right on the line of scrimmage and Reggie Gilliam as an up-back. The power formation to the right was designed to attract defensive attention. Look closely as Gilliam steps up, but doesn’t attack, and Knox, as he pretends to initiate a stalk-block and then releases. Allen always had the option to run it, but he took a long time to decide. Allen did an exceptional job of making everyone believe it was a called run. 

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The great design by Daboll gave Allen two options, run for the touchdown or throw what Daboll referred to as a “delayed pop pass” to Knox if his defender lost track of him upon the stalk-release. Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II gets caught looking into the backfield at Allen and forgets about Knox. 

This touchdown gave the Bills their first lead of the game, 7-3.

Second quarter  

Play selection: 15 plays – seven passes, eight runs.

Allen: 4 for 7 passing, 65 yards. Five carries for 31 yards, one touchdown.

Performance grade: 100%.

Score: Bills, 14-10.

The Colts’ offense again dominated the time of possession and the Bills went three-and-out on the first two drives. Allen made the most of his final opportunity before halftime. With 1:46 remaining, Allen led a 10-play scoring drive that gave the Bills a 14-10 lead.

Only a couple of humans can make a throw like this. Allen was turned around in the pocket and reversed course, eventually rolling to his left. Even though his momentum was taking him away from the throw, he was somehow able to find the strength and accuracy to drive the ball over the linebackers and in front of the safety on the sideline where only Gabriel Davis could make the play. Plays like these are why Allen belongs in the MVP conversation.

Five plays later, with 27 seconds remaining, Daboll sensed the Colts would be worried about the pass and called a timely quarterback draw.

Here, Daboll knows he has two timeouts and expected the Colts to keep five run defenders in the box against an empty formation. That’s what the Colts did. They had five in the box, with four defensive linemen and linebacker Bobby Okereke as their only defenders.

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The five offensive linemen can account for each player in the box. Daboll’s use of the empty formation strained a Colts defense intent on stopping a touchdown pass. Allen ran through the box virtually untouched and nearly scored. On the next play, the Bills took the lead again, 14-10, on a zone read. 

Allen had a choice on this running play. The offensive line was blocking the zone run to the left for Moss. Colts defensive end Denico Autry was purposely left unblocked so Allen could make the decision to either give the ball to Moss or to run it himself. The theory of a play like this is to put one player, in this case Autry, in a position to have to cover both. Allen’s job was to read Autry and react to his movement. Autry reacted to Moss’s run, and as soon as he committed, Allen pulled the football and ran around him for the touchdown.

The simple design here gives Allen the best of both worlds, two running plays simultaneously executed with one player to read and react to.

Until that final 10-play drive, the Bills’ offense had only run 12 offensive plays. Field position was part of the reason, but the Colts had the ball for 19:41 of the half. The Bills, who led the NFL in third-down conversion rate in the regular season, didn’t help themselves by converting only 1 of 4 on third down.

Third quarter

Play selection: 14 plays – seven passes, seven runs.

Allen: 6 for 7 passing, 57 yards. Four carries for 11 yards.

Performance grade: 100%.

Score: Bills, 17-10.

At the start of the second half, Allen found a solid rhythm as he completed 3 of 4 attempts on an eight-play drive that resulted in a 46-yard field goal and a 17-10 lead.

Daboll called another RPO on this first-and-10 play. The theory involved again was Allen choosing to either hand the ball off or throw the slant to Beasley. 

The running play concept that Daboll used on this play to the right utilized a pull from center Mitch Morse and right guard Jon Feliciano. Tight end Knox was also lined up to the right side, influencing the defense to that side.

The Daboll design here makes it simple for Allen to see and read.  If the linebackers reacted to the run, which they did, he had a double-slant concept to throw on the opposite side, to his left. Daboll was giving Allen the option to attack the weakness within the defense.

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On the next series, Allen went back to work, leading a second consecutive scoring drive. 

This play highlighted Allen’s maturity and patience as he wisely checked the football down to Moss underneath the coverage.

On this second-and-8 play, the Colts’ defense rotated back into Cover 2 and Allen saw the linebackers retreat.  Allen calmly took what he knew was guaranteed to be open with the checkdown, rather than force the ball down the field into coverage. This willingness to consistently take what is given has separated Allen from other athletic quarterbacks. He has an elite mixture of scrambling ability and pocket presence.

Fourth quarter

Play selection: 15 plays – 12 passes, three runs.

Allen: 9 for 12 passing, 129 yards, one touchdown, two sacks. One carry for zero yards. One fumble, recovered by the Bills.

Performance grade: 88%.

Score: Bills, 27-17.

Allen’s success continued into the fourth quarter, including a perfect throw to Diggs on a go route for a 24-10 lead.

Here, Allen knows that he has enough players in protection to account for the Colts’ six-man blitz.  He also recognizes that Diggs has the ability to blow by T.J. Carrie, a backup cornerback. Allen made the fake and checked safety Julian Blackmon, making sure he was not able to get across the field and over the top of Diggs’ go route. This was again tremendous recognition and vision in the moment by Allen. He attacked the weakness of the defense with the best receiver in the NFL. Diggs ran by Carrie as if he were standing still, while Allen knew he had to freeze Blackmon and hold him in the middle of the field. 

The Colts came roaring back with a touchdown, making the score 24-16. 

Allen and the Bills then moved into field goal range on six plays. Allen completed 4 of 5 attempts, and Daboll continued to put the Colts in difficult situations.

Here, Diggs aligns as the inside receiver to Allen’s right. Daboll knew that the Colts would play the trips formation with a two safety defensive shell and that a linebacker would be responsible for Diggs. 

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By aligning Diggs as the inside receiver, Daboll put his most dangerous weapon in a position to run by linebacker Anthony Walker (No. 54). This was another impressive play call by Daboll, using Diggs as an interior receiver to attack slower linebackers.

Wide receiver screens are quick and immediate throws that do not require a quarterback to decipher the defense. His responsibility here is to get the ball to Diggs as quickly as possible. Plays like this can become an extension of a modified running game. They are high percentage perimeter attacks that stretch the defense horizontally across the field.

This Bills drive resulted in another Bass field goal to make the score 27-16. The Colts would not go quietly and quickly scored another touchdown, closing the gap to 27-24 with 6:13 remaining.

It was in this moment that Allen made one of his only mistakes. He had led the Bills down the field on a series of tremendous plays, overcoming a sack and a second-and-15 hole with a scramble. But in the most important situation of the game, on first-and-10 from the Colts’ 34, he made what could have been a season-ending mistake.

Allen fumbled and the ball was recovered by left tackle Daryl Williams. In fairness to Allen, he is a great playmaker and he was trying to make a heroic escape under the Colts’ pressure. He had played error-free football up to that point and his quarterbacking abilities were one of the only things keeping the Bills in the game. His unwillingness to go down was influenced by his belief in himself that he could make the impossible become possible.  This is the special element that makes him both great and, at times, reckless. However, taking this sack could have been as impactful a play as Allen has made all season.

After the fumble recovery, the Bills were able to burn almost a minute off the clock before the Colts used their final timeout before a Buffalo punt. 

The third-and-33 completion to Devin Singletary was critical in forcing the Colts to take their final time-out as the Bills would have taken the game clock to the two-minute mark.

The lack of timeouts for the Colts on their final drive significantly hindered their play selection as they were trying to plan a game-tying field goal without the ability to stop the clock.

Conclusion

Allen and the Bills exorcised their playoff demons by overcoming their own self-doubts, scoring 27 points on only nine offensive possessions against perhaps the best defense they have faced all season. The Bills are legitimately and deservedly contenders for a Super Bowl championship. This fact is almost entirely because of Allen’s astonishing abilities.

As the Bills continue their ascent to the top of the mountain, the majority of the offensive success rests squarely on Allen’s shoulders, and I have a feeling that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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