Eliminated from the playoffs, the New England Patriots will host the team that dethroned them from atop the AFC East on Monday night as the Buffalo Bills come to town. That means the Patriots defense will be squaring off with Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and the rest of the Buffalo offense. Preparing for Allen offers lessons not just for this game, but perhaps the future of the Patriots organization.
First, let’s deal with defending Josh Allen. It’s been hard this season. Early in the year teams were trying to play him with man coverage. That... did not fare well. In this video from earlier in the season you’ll see Allen carving up man coverage using crossing routes:
It's time to watch some Josh Allen— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) September 21, 2020
*Layering in throws
*Trusting Crash Davis...err...Brian Daboll
*Working the middle of the field
*Processing speed and manipulation pic.twitter.com/ST0TOthekX
Then later in the year, teams starting to use zone coverage against him. That worked for a while, but eventually Allen started to have the same level of success. Here’s a look at what he did against the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Slow start for the Bills offense Sunday night but these three throws from Josh Allen stood out:— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) December 14, 2020
*Attacking off run action
*The relationship between QB and WR
*The Davis TD using manipulation, with a nod to Beasley (and a H/T to @cover1) pic.twitter.com/QlO1hZ2MXO
And most recently, their division-clinching win last Saturday over the Denver Broncos:
The Buffalo Bills clinched the AFC East with a win Saturday evening. Let's look at three throws from Josh Allen:— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) December 21, 2020
*Working progressions and staying in rhythm
*Placement to the boundary on the 5 route
*Splitting the safeties with the seam for six pic.twitter.com/BPkA5m9z80
So yes, the Patriots defense is going to have its hands full Monday night, and in all likelihood for the next few seasons to come.
That is where the conversation should head now, in my opinion.
Because anyone following the Patriots knows that the quarterback position is a question mark for the next season and beyond. Is Cam Newton going to be the answer next year, Jarrett Stidham, or someone not even on the roster? A free agent signing perhaps, or maybe the Patriots look to the incoming rookie class?
If the Patriots do indeed go the rookie quarterback route, then lessons from the development of Josh Allen — and in a parallel sense the immediate success of Justin Herbert — should be instructive.
With respect to Allen, I think there are three lessons to take from his three-year pattern of development should the Patriots go the rookie quarterback route.
First, athleticism matters at the quarterback position. Mobility is a must for quarterbacks in today’s game, given the athletic ability on the other side of the football. So in pure terms it is a matter of survival. But it is also a means of getting a young quarterback on the field and changing the numbers game. You can use their legs on run designs, and force the defense to have to play 11-on-11 instead of the more traditional 11-on-10 when the quarterback is not a factor when the ball is kept on the ground.
Furthermore, the ability of a quarterback to extend plays with his legs while trying to scan for a receiver is critical for any QB, but especially younger quarterbacks. Assuming that the decision-making process is going to be slower (more on that in a moment) then the ability to keep plays alive while working through reads is vastly important. The days of the battleship in the pocket are behind us.
Thankfully, most of the incoming class of quarterbacks checks this box.
The second lesson is this: Arm strength matters more than some of us care to admit. I would put myself in that category of people who often viewed arm strength as a threshold matter. If you have enough, you are going to be find. But watching Allen’s career unfold there are instances where elite velocity can alter the development arc, and he is perhaps the prime example.
Take two quarterbacks, Allen and any generic NFL quarterback with what you would consider an average NFL arm. Say they are both throwing the same route, a dig route in between the numbers against a Cover 2 look.
Allen will have a beat or so longer to make up his mind than the other QB, and the ball can get there at the same time. Because of the arm strength.
This provides two benefits for Allen above other quarterbacks. First, it expands what I’ve come to call the “decision window.” This is the period of time during which the quarterback makes up his mind about where the throw the ball on a given play. Smart coaches and offensive coordinators do what they can to expand the decision window, adding motion and shifting and personnel adjustments and more into the pre-snap phase of the play, expanding that window beyond the traditional “2.5 seconds snap to throw” timeframe through which we often evaluate the position. That expands the window on the front end.
But Allen can expand it a tiny bit on the back end, given his arm strength. That gives him just a tiny bit more time to make up his mind on a given play, which in some cases can make a huge difference.
Then there is what that allows him to do with that extra time. Perhaps look off a defender or be sure of a read. A prime example of this is the final play highlighted in the video of his game against the Broncos. Allen takes the time to freeze the backside safety in a quarter-quarter-half coverage look, preventing him from “pushing” to the receiver running the route splitting the safeties. Then Allen unleashes an absolute rocket for the touchdown.
Decision window, expanded.
Finally, the third lesson is this: Pack your patience. It might not happen overnight that a rookie quarterback produces. Development is not linear. Perhaps he will have the immediate success we have seen from Herbert. Or perhaps he has a much rockier start, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, completing just above 50 percent of his passes, and posting a sub-five Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.
Like Allen did his rookie season.
So when you’re dreaming of a Zach Wilson or a Mac Jones or a Trey Lance or another rookie quarterback to solve New England problems, keep these lessons in mind.