The Buffalo Bills entered the season as Super Bowl favorites, in big part due to their MVP candidate quarterback, Josh Allen. The defense, bolstered by new draft picks in the secondary and the addition of Von Miller up front, was meant to be an overwhelming complement to the Bills’ potentially unstoppable offense.
What’s Wrong with Josh Allen and the Bills?
The offense and defense are still high-quality units, but they aren’t playing like they did to begin the season. Before the Bills’ bye week in Week 7, they ranked first in point differential per game by a wide margin, ending games with a 15.8-point lead on average.
The distance between them and the second-place Eagles, at 9.3 points per game, was the same as the distance between the Eagles and the ninth-ranked Giants, at 2.9 points per game.
But since then, the Bills have ranked 12th in point differential per game at 3.0 per game. Much of that has to do with some drop-off on the defense, but the bigger concern for the Bills might be what looks like a drop-off in the quality of play from their quarterback.
Since Week 8, Allen has thrown six picks and has averaged just 7.36 yards per attempt. He’s taken more sacks in his last four games and had issues creating scores. That’s resulted in an adjusted net yards per attempt of 5.04, which ranks 26th of 34 quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts since Week 8.
His play on third down and rushing potential has helped – he ranks 16th in expected points per dropback, which has buoyed those worrisome passing numbers.
But it certainly feels like something has gone sideways with Josh Allen. While some of it could be explained by the UCL injury, not all of it can; Allen suffered the injury in the final drive of the Jets game in Week 9, meaning that his performance in that game and the game prior cannot be explained by his elbow.
It does make sense to give him some leeway, given the fact that he’s playing through this injury, but even some of his worst passes look more like poor decisions than bad throws.
This is one of the worst stretches of play from Allen since he improved to a near-MVP passer in 2020. But that’s not driving all of the concern surrounding Allen’s play. He has had bad games outside of that stretch, including a performance against the Miami Dolphins where he threw six interceptable passes. But it’s the last four games that are the most alarming.
Allen has always been a bit of a high-risk quarterback, and he’s developed a reputation for having great games ruined by dumb moments, but it’s been particularly egregious this year.
Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills have a Red Zone Problem
In particular, the compressed field in the red zone has caused problems for Allen. As Trumedia data shows, Allen ranks 28th among quarterbacks in EPA per dropback in the red zone, and he has the second-highest interception rate at 5.6 percent in the red zone, just behind Mac Jones.
His completion rate in the red zone ranks 32nd of 34 quarterbacks, and his red zone touchdown rate is only 15.6 percent, 25th in the league.
Compare that to the open field, where his interception rate is league average, his completion rate and touchdown rate rank fourth in the NFL, and he’s second in expected points added per dropback.
Even if we only look to the last four weeks of play, his open-field performance has been great; he ranks sixth in expected points per dropback and seventh in yards per dropback.
So if the issue is the red zone, we can look at his red zone interceptions to see if there’s a pattern, which might give us an idea of what’s causing this problem.
At first, one clear pattern that sticks out is that three of his red zone picks occur while he’s on the run, moving to his right. That doesn’t explain the first or the last pick, but that might offer a clue. Throwing on the run isn’t a weakness of Allen’s, however, so that alone cannot explain it.
The bigger issue is that in four out of five of these plays, all the receivers are covered, and Allen doesn’t have a great throw at the top of his drop. As he waits in the pocket for someone to open up, he feels pressure and bails from the pocket, which would explain why he had so many throws on the run.
The first pick in Pittsburgh was the right read and right timing, just a bad throw and a good defensive play – so that’s not part of the pattern.
But the rest of the interceptions feature players having a difficult time getting open. The receivers Buffalo has are talented, and Stefon Diggs has been a consistent red-zone performer in the past, so receiver capability could only explain some of the issues there as well.
It’s easier to identify the pattern when broadening the scope and looking at all red zone throws – it’s not just on interceptions. In the open field, with more than 20 yards of grass to explore, it’s a lot easier for receivers to find space, which is true on any team.
But the Bills experience a huge difference between receiver separation in the red zone when compared to plays in the open field. And the issue there might be the departure of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
The Bills Are Still Excelling Outside of the Red Zone
When looking at other splits in the open field – man coverage versus zone coverage, play-action versus standard dropbacks, two-high safety versus one-high safety, blitz versus non-blitz – nothing stands out. This problem is unique to the red zone, and Allen’s play in the open field has been extraordinary regardless of the defensive approach.
New offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is doing a pretty good job using Allen in most situations, even if he could do a better job designing running plays for him or making sure that routes are run at all three levels more often.
But in the red zone, it seems as if their preparation and planning fall short. Man-beaters are called when the opposing defense is playing a traditional zone or Allen becomes unaware of the positioning of the defenders.
The interceptions against the Jets and Packers both featured plays where Allen seemed to be surprised that there were defenders where he threw. Because reads in the red zone are so quick, this isn’t necessarily a huge shock; against the Jets, Allen must have expected that Whitehead would bite on the play fake and keep the short option open.
This happened more than once outside of interception scenarios, so it seems as if the red zone practices aren’t doing a good job of anticipating how the defenders they’ll play will actually act.
Just because there seems to be an explanation for Allen’s poor play in the red zone doesn’t mean he’s not also at fault. There needs to be better playcalling and better play design, but Allen needs to make sure that he sees the field before following his instincts. Anticipating where a defender should be is not the same as knowing where they are.
Despite the compressed area of the red zone being an area where teams often see more pressure, Allen sees a lot less pressure than in other areas of the field. He might be instinctively hurrying up his process more than necessary, which could also contribute to the problem. The offense should also mix in some slightly slower-developing plays as well as drill Allen to be a little bit more patient in the pocket.
Pressure is not good, but inviting pressure and waiting for the defense to reveal itself is preferable to throwing blind.
Because he and the Bills’ offense enter the red zone so often – second most red zone trips per drive in the league – they’ve still maintained high scoring rates and have papered over some of their issues through sheer volume.
But it also brings some of his individual failures into sharp focus when so much more is expected of him.
The Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen Can Fix This
Allen and Dorsey need to scrap the way they run the red zone offense and come up with a new way to do it. That sounds difficult, but it can be done and has been done before. The Bills have already acknowledged this issue.
Red zone performance is typically “random” insofar as previous red zone performance does a poor job of predicting future red zone performance. But that doesn’t mean variance explains all the differences in outcome.
Rather, teams struggling in one area will devote more time and attention to that area until the problem is resolved. The result is something that statistically looks like regression but can sometimes be a product of a concerted effort made in the film room and during practices.
Just as the Patriots improved their red zone production from bottom-five in the first half of the season to top-five in the second half of the season last year, the Bills can make a leap to be a crushing offense with just a little bit more improvement in the red zone.
For the Patriots, it meant more commitment to motion, fullback Jakob Johnson, changes in Jonnu Smith’s role, and isolating Kendrick Bourne in one-on-one situations. The Bills could do something similar and recommit to fullback Reggie Gilliam, but they will do a better job focusing on what they did well than what the Patriots did last year.
So, is Allen playing worse now? In some ways, yes. But his issues are localized to the red zone. He may have found himself running behind in the MVP race, but if he and the Bills can fix their issues close to the end zone, he could find himself roaring back into MVP contention while the Bills claw back the divisional lead before it runs away from them.