On Sunday afternoon the New England Patriots face their stiffest test of the early season, as they travel to Buffalo to take on an unbeaten Bills franchise that has shown some resilience through the first three weeks of the season. Buffalo has earned their 3-0 mark with some comeback victories over both the New York Jets and the Cincinnati Bengals, as well as a victory over the New York Giants that sent Eli Manning to the bench.
At the heart of the Bills and their hopes for 2019 is second-year quarterback Josh Allen. While many, myself included, were skeptical of Allen’s potential ability to transition into an NFL passer, the young QB acquitted himself well as a rookie. His arm strength was certainly as advertised, but it was his athleticism and ability to create with his legs that translated to the professional ranks better than many imagined. But there was certainly one area that he needed to improve upon as he entered his second season: His mind. Allen needed to get much faster with his reads and decisions otherwise life in the NFL would remain difficult.
Part of what is working against him is that arm talent. Allen has always been able to rely on his right arm to bail himself out of sticky situations, but using arm strength as a crutch can in a sense stunt the development of a QB’s mental approach. If your arm strength and velocity can make up the difference when you make a slow read or decision, you’ll keep relying on that right arm and not your mind.
This play from 2018 is a prime example of this concept:
The Buffalo Bills face a 3rd and 5 on their own 36-yard line against the Green Bay Packers. They line up using 11 offensive personnel and with Allen (#17) in the shotgun. The rookie QB looks to throw this speed out to the left to Andre Holmes (#18). Look at how long Allen waits to pull the trigger on this play. Allen knows presnap due to the defensive alignment and cushion that he will be throwing this route to Holmes, yet he waits to see the wide receiver’s break and to see him come open. By waiting this long, and even clutching on the throw, Allen gives the defensive back a chance to break on the route, and he also makes this a tougher throw to complete as Holmes is running out of real estate. He makes an impressive throw with great velocity, but by delaying, he makes a completion near-impossible.
Whenever I see a play like this I’m reminded of something Antonio Brown, of all people, said about quarterback play. During a stretch that Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Landry Jones was in the starting lineup, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the New England Patriots. During the broadcast Jim Nantz relayed something Brown had told the CBS broadcast crew about his interactions with the inexperienced quarterback: “If I see you throw the football, it’s too late.”
Holmes sees Allen pull the trigger on this play, and as you can see from the results, it was too late.
So as Allen enters year two of life in the NFL, I will be paying particular attention to when he is making throws, and if the timing and rhythm is better to his game. Something I discussed on today’s episode of The Scho Show. Coming out of Wyoming the fit in a timing and rhythm offense — like the one Brian Daboll looks to be operating — seemed a stretch but after his performance so far this season, and his timing, perhaps Allen is ready.
In Buffalo’s Week 1 comeback victory over the Jets, Allen completed 24 of 37 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown to go with a pair of interceptions. Both interceptions came off throws that were deflected by Bills’ receivers, so keep that in mind when looking at the box score, but beyond that, watching this game you can see signs that Allen’s mind is speeding up and the game is slowing down for him.
Anticipation throws are a critical component of figuring out whether a young QB is getting faster with his reads. Here’s one example of this. In the second half the Bills face a 1st and 10 with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Buffalo comes out with Allen under center and run what we can term 525, with curl routes on the outside and a slant route over the middle from the tight end:
Allen executes a five-step drop from center and as he hits his drop depth, he starts opening his hips up to the left. He is going to throw this curl route to John Brown (#15) on the left, and as this is going on the receiver is just getting into his break:
The timing on this is perfect, and Allen caps this play off with a well-placed throw toward the sideline, making this route impossible to defend:
Followers of my work know that I tend to use an old school approach, charting games and plays often with a pen and paper. At this point in my study I jotted down “Can Daboll turn him into a timing and rhythm-based passer.”
A few plays later I wrote this: “Holy [BLANK] Daboll is doing it.” It came on this play:
On this fourth quarter throw Allen throws a deep curl route from the left hashmark to the right sideline. Looking at the moment he releases this ball, his target is starting his break back down the stem. The timing and rhythm on this play is perfect, and when you add the cushion Brown has from the nearest defender, it is again impossible to stop this completion.
We even saw a bit of manipulation from Allen on throws to the middle of the field. It is easy to move a free safety with your eyes on a pair of vertical routes, and we can all identify when a QB pulls that trick off, but it is much tougher to move that free safety when you’re looking at throwing crossers in the middle of the field. That’s why this play stands out to me. Late in the contest the Bills face a 2nd and 10 at their own 36-yard line. Trailing by six with just four minutes left, this could be Buffalo’s last possession. They need a big play.
Buffalo lines up with Allen in the shotgun using 11 offensive personnel, and put two receivers and a tight end to the right and WR Isaiah McKenzie (#19) to the left. They run a Mesh concept underneath, with two deep crossers over the top of the mesh:
The routes to focus on are the inside crosser from Robert Foster (#16) and the deep in cut from Zay Jones (#11) on the outside. The Jets are in a single-high coverage here, and Allen needs to influence the safety to one of these routes and then throw the other. He takes a look at Foster in the middle of the field, and then throws the dig to Jones:
Watching this play from the end zone angle, you can see that last glance Allen gives Foster before coming to Jones:
A few plays later the Bills would score the go-ahead touchdown.
Allen’s growth from Year One to Year Two continued last week against theBengals. Building on the timing, anticipation and manipulation we saw in his season opener, we saw glimpses of Allen’s mind starting to speed up as he seasons in the NFL. Take this throw from the first quarter on an RPO design:
Allen knows before the snap of the football that he is probably going to pull and throw to Cole Beasley (#10) on this stop route. The QB knows this because of the defensive alignment. The linebackers are slid over towards the tight end side of the formation, creating a natural bubble to throw this route to the slot receiver. Provided the linebacker nearest Beasley reacts to the run action in any way, Allen can pull and throw:
So Allen has a good idea how to answer the questions before the test is passed out to him. But he will need to confirm this after the snap. He keys on the linebacker and once he sees him react to the run action, he makes the decision to throw. Yet he is actually faster on this snap than his receiver, forcing Allen to double-clutch on this throw as he waits for Beasley to get into position to receive this throw.
Here’s how that looked from behind the pocket:
Allen’s mental approach is on point on this play.
Here is one more play to examine from his Week 3 outing against the Bengals. The QB is going to read a two receive concept from his left between a slant route from Jones and an underneath pivot route:
The concern on this throw is safety Clayton Fejedelem (#42), who is down in the box in a linebacker’s alignment and will be an underneath hook defender in this Cover 3 Buzz scheme the Bengals employ:
Allen needs to read and throw off of what Fejedelem does on this play. If he gets depth under Jones’ slant route, Allen needs to throw that underneath pivot. But if the safety drives down on the underneath route as it crosses his face, then Allen has to throw the slant.
It happens in the blink of an eye, but as Fejedelem makes his decision so does the QB:
Here is the moment that the safety declares his intentions. Once Allen sees this, he gets the ball out:
This is again a very quick read and decision by the QB.
Allen showed some promise as a rookie, and his second season has shown signs of improvement through three games. Development is not linear at the quarterback position, but often in year two we see young QBs take a big step forward. If his these plays are any indication, Allen might be the next quarterback to join that list of QBs taking a leap in their sophomore campaign.
Of course Sunday against the mind of Bill Belichick and the talent of this Patriots’ defense poses a very stiff test of its own.