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Jim Kubiak: Josh Allen reverts to old ways, but Steelers' defense deserves credit

Jim Kubiak: Josh Allen reverts to old ways, but Steelers' defense deserves credit

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Bills quarterback Josh Allen fires a pass during the fourth quarter during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Sept. 12, 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

Josh Allen completed 30 passes of a career-high 51 attempts for 270 yards and threw one touchdown in a disappointing, 23-16 loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. Taking nothing away from the toughness and perseverance the Steelers displayed, the Buffalo Bills’ offense helped the opposing defense with a lack of execution and some questionable coaching decisions from a normally steady and unflappable coaching staff.

Allen’s overall quarterback performance grade was 85.5%. Although he made some great physical plays, he missed opportunities that could have made the difference in the game, such as open receivers downfield and receiver screens, as well as opportunities to throw the football short and underneath coverage, which would have led to points on several drives.

The Steelers’ defensive strategy was to prevent big plays, rush Allen with four and sometimes five, and utilize their nickel secondary in deep zone coverage behind their confusing pressure designs. This had two important consequences: The pass rush, led by T.J. Watt, disrupted Allen in the pocket, while the Bills’ receivers struggled at times to separate down the field because of the crowded and deep secondary play. That was half of the equation.

Add a stadium full of diehard fans excited to see their $258 million quarterback make big plays, and you get a hyper-charged quarterback who was always looking for something better, rather than the simple completions that were available.

Allen reverted to his old ways, desperately reaching for more while not getting enough to win. Allen’s play reminded me of a time in his development when he went off the script to try to make things happen instead of methodically and surgically draining the defense one play at a time.

First quarter

Play selection: 16 plays, 12 passes, 4 runs.

Allen: 6 for 12 passing for 42 yards; one carry for nine yards.

Performance grade: 87%.

Score: Bills, 3-0.

The Bills were handed great field position on their opening drive, following a 75-yard kick off return by Isaiah McKenzie that led to a first-and-10 play at the Steelers’ 24-yard line. Allen completed an option route to Cole Beasley and then a bubble to Stefon Diggs, which lost yardage. On third-and-5, Allen’s pass was batted down and the Bills settled for a field goal. 

On the next possession, the Bills overcame two holding penalties on a 12-play drive.

Here, we see Allen uncharacteristically miss Beasley.

The Steelers overloaded the Bills’ offensive protection with a four-man pressure. This design was effective in creating confusion, as well as a free rusher against the  five-man protection. Allen was fooled and thought it was man-to-man coverage because of the blitzing defensive back, Tre Norwood. Norwood was lined up on receiver Emmanuel Sanders and blitzed off Allen’s right side. 

The beauty of the Steelers’ concept here was that before the blitz they lined up in a three-man front and rotated all three defensive lineman into different positions, moving Melvin Ingram from a down lineman position to a standup linebacker position.  Then Ingram blitzed to the Steelers’ blitz side, overloading the pass protection to Allen’s right. Allen must have felt like they were in an all-out assault with four weak defenders in pursuit. This unique defensive look also made him think the Steelers were playing man-to-man defense behind the blitz.  The Steelers did the opposite, dropping seven defenders into zone coverage, including linebacker Alex Highsmith, who subsequently lined up as the middle linebacker, then adjusted to the right defensive end position, and then dropped into coverage.

The Steelers only rushed four players, and they were all on Allen’s right side. Pittsburgh did not rush anyone to Allen’s left, which was unusual and brilliant. The complexity of this defensive look made Allen uneasy and he misread what Beasley was going to do.  Beasley tried to sit in the hole of the zone on his option route while Allen was expecting him to break to the outside.

Two plays later, on second-and-14 from the Bills’ 45-yard line, Allen overthrew a wide-open Sanders on a seam route.

This would have been a touchdown, but here Allen puts too much air under the football and overshoots his open target. Sanders was lined up as the most inside receiver to the three-receiver side and cut behind Beasley and up the seam. The twisting action by Beasley and Sanders created the opening.

On the Bills’ third offensive series of the game, with the lead 3-0 and on their own 37-yard line, Allen faced the same four-man pressure that the Steelers had success with earlier in the quarter.

In the video, Allen appears to be trying to decipher who is going to rush and from where. The Steelers again brought Ingram and a defensive back to the same side while playing a seven-man zone in the secondary. Again, this was pure genius and caused Allen to throw another incompletion. The confusion caused by this concept resulted in less efficiency as he completed just 6 of 12 attempts in the quarter.

Second quarter

Play selection: 22 plays, 14 passes, 8 runs.

Allen: 10 for 14 passing for 109 yards, one touchdown, one sack, one lost fumble; five carries for 19 yards.

Performance grade: 91%.

Score: Bills, 10-0.

On the Bills’ first possession of the second quarter, it became clear the Steelers’ strategy was to rush with two down linemen, a linebacker and a defensive back to achieve their four-man pressure, and drop the remaining seven defenders into deep zone coverage.

Here, we see Norwood again lined up on Bills’ slot receiver Beasley, blitzing off the edge. The concept of utilizing a defensive back in a four-man pressure creates problems for quarterbacks and offensive linemen. They have to communicate to pick up rushers outside of their traditional defensive box.

This strategy was particularly effective against a team like the Bills, who utilize “option” routes, because the option concept adjusts on the fly according to the defense being played. Option routes traditionally sit between defenders in a zone defense, and break away from defenders in man-to-man coverage. Allen and his option route receivers have to be on the same page, identifying the same reads at the same time. The Steelers’ defensive strategy interfered with this synergy. They did a superb job of creating doubt in Allen’s mind, which affected his ability to read and anticipate.

Four plays later, the drive ended with this throw on third-and-3.

Here, Allen attempted to sling the football to Beasley with a side-arm motion. There didn’t appear to be any reason for the low-elbow delivery, as this type of alteration in arm angle creates inaccuracy. Unfortunately, this unforced error resulted in another missed opportunity for the Bills’ offense.

On the next drive, with a third-and-13 from the Steelers’ 38-yard line, Allen passed up a sure completion to Diggs and a chance to kick a field goal. Instead of taking the sure thing, Allen held onto the football despite the pressure from Watt and was flushed to his left. Watt stripped the football from Allen during the sack.

Here, Allen was trying to make something happen down the field, rather than take the easy, uncontested option route to Diggs, who was wide open from his left slot position. This was flawed thinking. The Steelers again dropped seven defenders into deep zone coverage, daring Allen to play for the field goal. Simply taking what the Steelers were giving would have most likely resulted in another three points for the Bills.

The Buffalo defense held the Steelers to a punt following the turnover, and the Bills took over with 6 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Allen put together the Bills’ only touchdown drive of the game, a 13-play possession that put the Bills into the lead 10-0 at halftime. 

Allen was flawless on the drive, completing 7 of 8 attempts, with his only incompletion being a throw away.

On third-and-goal, Allen found Gabriel Davis as he made a move to the inside and then broke back toward the corner of the end zone.  Allen made a sensational throw over tight coverage, putting the football in a location where only Davis could make the play.

Overall, Allen completed 16 of 26 attempts in the half for 146 yards. Before the final drive of the half, he was just 9 of 18. 

Third quarter

Play selection: 17 plays, 11 passes, 6 runs.

Allen: 4 for 11 passing for 37 yards; 2 carries for 14 yards.

Performance grade: 76.5%.

Score: Bills, 10-6.

Following the Steelers’ first points of the game, a field goal on their opening possession of the third quarter, Allen and the Bills’ offense marched down the field on another long drive.  They reached the Steelers’ 35 but failed to convert on third-and-8.

Here, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll gave Allen pass blocking help, using tight end Dawson Knox and running back Devin Singletary in the protection. This provided a seven-player cushion, eliminating any chance the Steelers could overload a side, but it also allowed the Steelers to bracket Beasley in the slot. 

Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden double-teamed Beasley. It is my belief that Beasley had the option to break inside, outside, or up the seam on this option route.  Beasley recognized Fitzpatrick had taken away his inside and Haden was waiting for him to break outside. The only choice was for Beasley to stutter and try to get behind Fitzpatrick in the seam. The effective defensive strategy caused Beasley to choose the more difficult route. Beasley and Allen were not able to connect over the top of Fitzpatrick and the Steelers’ defense prevailed.

Last season, the Bills were 8 of 10 on fourth-down conversions, the highest percentage in the NFL, so Sean McDermott must have been confident in his team’s ability to convert, but he should have attempted the 53-yard field goal. Three points would have answered and nullified the Steelers’ field goal and expanded the Buffalo lead back to 10 points. Allen again forced a seam route into the teeth of the Steelers’ coverage and was nearly intercepted.

The Steelers capitalized on the Bills’ failure to come away with any points on the drive by kicking a field goal on their next possession. This six-point swing was significant to the psyche and momentum of the Bills.

Fourth quarter

Play selection: 21 plays, 14 passes, 7 runs.

Allen: 10 for 14 passing, 82 yards, two sacks. One carry for two yards.

Performance grade: 87.5%.

Score: Steelers, 23-16.

Buffalo had a 10-6 lead and the football on the Steelers’ 41-yard line. They decided to again go for it on fourth-and-inches.

Rather than run the quarterback wedge with Allen or any high-percentage play to gain several feet, the Bills opted for the razzle-dazzle call. Here, Allen puts his only wide receiver, McKenzie, in jet motion. Daboll said Monday that the Bills expected the defender on McKenzie, Cameron Sutton, to cross the formation. Sutton did not and he was in perfect position to make the play on the lateral to Breida. 

This ill-considered play at a critical time was another questionable decision by the Bills. Perhaps there was some evidence in the film preparation that Sutton would cross the formation, but to leave the entirety of the play's success on that belief was risky. The Bills’ failure to utilize their own strengths breathed life into the Steelers, who capitalized with a touchdown on their next possession and took their first lead of the game, 13-10.

The Bills went three-and-out on their next possession because of another great defensive play by the Steelers.

Allen drives the football perfectly in the seam to Sanders on second-and-6. Steelers cornerback James Pierre made a tremendous play to break it up. Again, Pittsburgh’s deep zone defense prevented Allen from going down the field, while their potent four-man pass rush pushed the pocket into Allen.

Allen was sacked on the next play and Buffalo was forced to punt. 

Unfortunately for Buffalo, the punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 10-point lead with 10 minutes remaining.

On the next drive, Daboll called six consecutive runs, five to Singletary and one quarterback draw as the Bills marched down the field. They settled for a field goal on first-and-20, following a Buffalo holding penalty with 46 seconds to play. This was the right coaching decision in a two-possession game. The field goal by Tyler Bass reduced the lead to a touchdown and gave the Bills one more opportunity with an onside kick, but the Steelers foiled the attempt.

Conclusion

First, as the Bills coaches and Allen have said repeatedly in the aftermath of the loss, give the Steelers credit. They executed a great defensive game plan with four-man pressures and deep zone coverage in the secondary to take away big plays, and oftentimes the bread-and-butter option routes while simultaneously overloading Allen’s pass protection with creative schemes.

Second, the Bills’ two fourth-down coaching decisions sapped two important opportunities for points. McDermott’s call to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Steelers’ 36-yard line, and Daboll’s cutesy jet motion pitchout were self-sabotaging.

The blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown by the Steelers in the fourth quarter not only sealed the game, but visibly took the life out of the Bills.   

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the Bills, Allen's performance was a reversion to a big-play mentality. He was constantly pressing the football down the field and into the teeth of the zone coverage, instead of patiently and methodically carving the defense piece by piece. This is concerning for the Bills because their success hinges upon disciplined quarterback decisions. 

I believe it is fair to say the Buffalo Bills lost this football game more than the Steelers won it. It was a perfect concoction of poor decisions and shaky execution. In short, there were too many missed opportunities for any amount of talent or energy to overcome.

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