Josh Allen, Brian Daboll, and a gameplan 800 days in the making
What the Bills did on Sunday night, what they’ve been doing this season, and why everybody should be terribly, terribly afraid (unless you’re a Bills fan!).
Sean McDermott and co. know they’re good. Like, really, really we-should-be-playing-in-February good.
They also knew entering Week Five that to get to February they would (probably) have to go through Kansas City. Playoff seeding, home-field advantage, 2020 revenge, sending a 2021 message, all of that was wrapped up in Sunday night’s game.
And so – as is obvious post-fact – McDermott, his offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and quarterback Josh Allen set to work constructing a carefully crafted plan. For four weeks, they laid a careful, schematic blueprint. On Sunday, they torched the thing and hit the Chiefs with an altered approach: Bills 2.0, if you will.
For four weeks, they ran one offense; on Sunday, they ran another. The Chiefs couldn’t adjust. By the time they were able to make some tweaks, the game was all-but over.
It was, in a sense, what one can only describe as a heist — in the finest interpretation of the word.
First: Let’s rewind to what Buffalo has been doing for much of the season prior to the Chiefs matchup.
Outside of Arizona, no team has embraced the principles of the spread more than the Bills. And we’re not talking about spread-option, hat-counting football here. We’re talking about old-fashioned, spread-to-throw, true Air-Raid stuff. They plant as many wide receivers on the field as possible, chuck them in as much space as possible, and then throw to the open man. Whether that’s 50 yards, 15 yards or 5 yards downfield depends on the defensive alignment and coverage.
Everything the Bills typically do is based out of slender personnel groupings and open, spread formations. An open formation means to have either tackle uncovered at the line of scrimmage. Rather than have a tight end covering up either the left or right tackle, the Bills will plant their tight end in the slot, shift him outside, slide him in the backfield or remove him entirely and stick an extra receiver on the field.
Daboll and the Bills offensive staff care not for the boom in the use of multiple tight end sets. Fullbacks? Nah.
They care not for the idea of creating extra gaps in the run game. They care not for running game diversity. Everything is built around getting as many receivers, weapons, and options on the field as possible for Josh Allen in the passing game.
Through weeks 1-4, the Bills were in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) or 10 personnel (one back, no tight ends) on 76 percent of their offensive snaps, a league-high. Even their 11 personnel package was somewhat of a sham. Dawson Knox, the team’s tight end, who is certifiably frisky, and is in the midst of a breakout year, is little more than a big-bodied wide receiver. He can offer some oomph in the run-game, but his job is to move around and to hunt matchups in the passing game: Buffalo aligns him all across the formation, including using him as the ISO man in 3x1 sets:
There, the Bills jump into a bunched look. By Daboll and Allen standards, that’s a narrow set of splits and a pseudo closed formation. Only, what’s that? It’s Knox flexed out in a plus-plus split, outside the numbers. Even in 11 personnel, even in the redzone, it’s still all about spreading it out to throw.
Two back personnel groupings absorbed just 14 percent of Buffalo’s plays through the first four weeks of the season. And from those two-back sets, the Bills had a 66 percent pass rate, a number that jumped to 70 in 10 personnel. That’s standard practice for 10 personnel looks, but it’s out of the norm for 10 and 11 personnel formations when a team is running 10 and 11 personnel at such a high volume. The Bills were (and are) signaling everything. They know they’re throwing the ball. The defense knows they’re throwing the ball. And the Bills don’t care. Try to stop us.
By going spread, the Bills try to force the defense to reveal its coverage pre-snap. If a team is sticking in man-coverage, then they’re liable to spin a player down towards the line of scrimmage to match the spread sets. If not, then Allen can go to work finding soft spots in zone-coverage. But he can get to work immediately rather than having to worry about some kind of bluff or combination coverage.
If he has time, he can bounce around the pocket and look to create, knowing that he has a whole batch of receivers who can move and uncover downfield.
When they have typically gotten into closed looks, with Knox up on the line of scrimmage, Daboll likes to run ‘nub’ formations, with three receivers spread to one side of the field and the tight end closing the other side of the formation. It’s closed, but it’s still embracing spread principles:
It makes things easier on Allen. Teams will default to zone looks, and Daboll will stress the defensive shell by having Knox attack the middle of the field, making the reads for Allen easier; rather than scanning across the field he can play see-it-fling-it, instinctive football. If there’s a guy open, take the shot. If not, move until a guy comes open. If not, no bother: Allen just so happens to be the game’s second-most efficient scrambler (behind Daniel Jones!). He can pick up easy yards with his legs.
In 3x1 sets, teams usually like to isolate their top receiver on the backside to make the read simple: If that guy is doubled, then it’s one-on-one across the board to the other side; if he’s one-on-one, well, you’ve schemed open a one-on-one look for your best receiver. The Bills prefer to invert that. They’ll make Knox the isolated one-on-one threat, sticking Stefon Diggs in the middle to the trips side.
That helps Allen out, too: teams will check to quarters (or a cone) look in order to bracket Diggs in the slot, but that opens up all sorts of space for Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley to go to work. Through formation, Daboll and the Bills are forcing coverage looks. That allows Allen to pick his speed: He can play fast and get the ball out now or he can sit and survey the landscape, knowing full well it’s a four-deep zone look with access to the middle of the field shut off. That’s typically where the high percentage throws are. But all throws are high percentage throws to Allen, particularly if he knows pre-snap the area he needs to avoid.
The Bills are banking on Allen to make Super-Human throws at a normal person rate. Last season, he was third among in completion over expectation (CPOE) among quarterbacks with more than 100 dropbacks, per NFL Next Gen Stats. This season, Allen ranks tenth — he was so-so over the first two weeks of the season; he has been en fuego ever since. Buffalo is betting they get that top-three quarterback over the span of the season.
It’s an all-or-nothing approach. Outside of the Steelers in Week One, it has been a hit.
Daboll is encouraging Allen to follow his base instincts. If Josh wants to play hero ball, then why are we building in all of these quick rhythm throws from a whole bunch of personnel groupings? Let’s just lean into the superman style.
Toggling his setup is the Daboll trademark. He’s well versed in everything. He can run the veer-and-shoot, a true spread-option attack, or help craft quick-strike designs for Tom Brady and the Patriots rat-a-tat passing game. Everywhere he has been, Daboll has adjusted to his quarterback, building whatever infrastructure is necessary to manufacture success.
Moving to a trimmed-down playbook was a shift Daboll and the Bills embraced last season. Back in 2019, 30 percent (!) of the Bills offense still came from heavy personnel groupings: two tight ends; two backs; two backs and two tight ends; three tight ends. It was the system Allen ran in college.
The Bills tried to do the practical thing, to incorporate the concepts that Allen ran in college to make his transition to the pro-level easier. And then they woke up and realized that Allen was a bad college player. So why were they trying so hard to run all that heavy personnel and deep play-action stuff? If he was bad within that setup in college could they really be surprised that he was just as bad in the league?
In 2020, Daboll took the hand brake off, and – hey presto – Allen became an MVP candidate. Easy, right? Out went the concepts he struggled with. In came a real commitment to spread-to-throw football.
Daboll added a whole host of double-moves and isolation routes, banking on Allen to create his own time rather than rely on a pre-built rhythm. It’s tempting to say Allen plays at his own pace, but we usually attach that phrasing to slower guys. Allen is good slow and fast, depending on the concept. He plays at whatever pace serves him.
It’s a similar structure to the one Mike McCarthy built for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Bleep wonderful things like ‘winning through play design’ and crafting easy throws. That’s for teams who don’t trust their quarterback. Embrace the star nature of your star.
That was the theory, anyway — and we know how that wound up for McCarthy at the end.
Buffalo embraced the struggle. Here they had a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback who just happened to make once-in-a-lifetime throws with regularity. They leaned into it. Stick four or five receivers in the pattern, as often as possible, and let Allen try to create plays, be it hitting low-percentage throws at a high-percentage clip or creating all by himself with his legs. That was the 2020 plan.
Daboll and Allen continued to push the envelope at the start of this season. They paired things back even further. You can almost shut your eyes and picture it: How many times did we run that last season? Three? And we repped it every couple of days, every week? Dump it!
The Bills ran n-o-t-h-i-n-g through the first four weeks. They sacrificed stylistic diversity in the name of efficiency. They had their plays, their formations, and they were happy to club people over the head with it. Layering? Sequencing? Pinching stuff from McVay, Shanahan, and LaFleur and the vanguard of the sport? No, thank you. We will do our own thing.
It’s a choice. Neither a good nor bad one, necessarily; just a style, a tactic. For Allen, it works. He is demolishing teams down the field: Allen has completed 41 of 74 throws of 10-plus yards for 883 (!!!) yards, 10 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The book has been written: If Allen has to be a slick, rhythm passer, hitting the underneath areas, he’s get-able. If he is pushing the ball downfield, he’s borderline unstoppable. So why sacrifice chances to push the ball down the field in the name of rhythm and stylistic divergence?
Daboll built a boom or bust system and then consistently pared it down to focus on the concepts that his quarterback felt comfortable he could boom far, far, far more often than he would bust — Allen has missed on 33 of his 74 throws over ten yards, but his completions have netted an average of 21.5 yards, a ridonculous total. During the first three weeks of the season, Allen was iffy, missing as much as he hit, even as the Bills racked up points and wins.
But that was the whole point: That up-and-down nature is built into the model. The Bills aren’t trying to run anything fancy or creative. It’s Daboll et al. knowing they have better players than you and pushing that idea to its limit. They only need to hit five to six explosives a game to win, and so they give Allen a shot to hit one of those five or six on each and every dropback.
It’s a style that could get the team into trouble. If a team can live in two-deep safety looks, choking the outside of the field while robbing the underneath, it reduces all access for Allen. The margin for error is much thinner for the Bills than for sides that use a steady dose of man-beater concepts to open up easy throwing windows.
Against the Steelers, the Bills’ offense turned to sludge. Pittsburgh had the talent up front to live in a four-man pressure world while keeping seven guys back in coverage. More importantly, they could move deep safety Minkah Fitzpatrick at the snap. That allowed the Steelers to get inventive with their coverage on the back end. They could roll or stay static. It could be a man-free look, with Fitzpatrick rotating to the middle to “Rob” the post, or he could roll all the way down towards the slot, or he could stay back in a two-high shell. They even ran a batch of ‘inverted’ looks, the safeties and corners exchanging responsibilities at the snap:
Those possibilities created doubt for Allen. And in that doubt is where he can struggle. He forced throws, he missed throws. He misread coverages, or he took too long to make a decision before the Steelers pass-rush got home:
That’s why the run-game remains so essential to what the Bills want to be. They’re averaging a Holy Bleep 6.5 yards per carry out of their spread out, 10 personnel looks, mostly thanks to Allen’s ability to pull the ball and create once the box has been lightened through the pre-snap formation. Teams need to stay in a two-high shell to have a chance. Against better players, they need to craft a numbers advantage somewhere. If they’re forced to play in a static, single-high look, pushing extra bodies into the box, they’re cooked:
Allen is too good. Most importantly: His receiving corps and o-line are too good. You cannot live in a man-free world against Stefon Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox. Not while Allen is getting the kind of time he is — or the time he can create for himself.
Teams need to create coverage doubt. That’s the only way. The Steelers performance a kind of blueprint: if you can live in a two-high world and slow down the Bills run game, then you can take away some of those pedestrian passing concepts — maybe (Stefon Diggs is really good!).
It’s one thing knowing it. You need the talent to execute it. Few if any defenses have the kind of move piece on the back-end and talent upfront as Pittsburgh. Teams have tried to live in a two-deep shell, to force Allen to make difficult throws. But that’s the thing: Allen is happy to hit difficult throws.
The Bills ran through the Dolphins, Texans and Washington to the tune of 118-21. Their offense, explosive. Their defense, suffocating.
And then: The Chiefs.
What do we know about Steve Spagnuolo? He lives in a two-deep world. Tampa-2, from a whole host of weird and wacky concoctions, is his base. And he has a moveable piece: Tyrann Mathieu. The Chiefs will spin, rotate and move Mathieu from anywhere to anywhere. At his best, he is a coverage cheat code. It’s how the Chiefs were able to slow down the Bills just enough (mostly out of a DB heavy dime package) in last season’s AFC title game. The warning signs were there ahead of Week Five even as the Chiefs’ defense sunk to near-impossible levels of suckitude.
So, what did Daboll and Allen do on Sunday? They chucked it all out.
Well, not all of it. Not, really. But they dumped a big chunk of their 20-something-game offense and instead embraced a new, heavy, closed formation style. They stuck big bodies on the field. They condensed the pre-snap formation. They used motions and shifts to muddy the read for the Chiefs’ defense. They took their core tenants of their typical system and… flipped them upside down.
That’s from the first two drives of the game alone. I repeat: The first TWO.
Look how tight and congested everything is. Look how difficult it is for the Chiefs’ corners and linebackers to get a hand on the receivers at the line of scrimmage. Look how the Bills are able to create extra gaps in the run-game with two and three players in the backfield, all moving and roaming pre-snap. And think about all the options that can open up with play-action.
They didn’t try to spread the box out through formation. They invited players into the box and then rammed the ball down the Chiefs’ throat, before engaging an all-manner of man-beater goodness to spring their receivers in the passing game.
It was a marvel. The Bills mashed the Chiefs in the run-game. Their fullback/tight end/H-back, Reggie Gilliam, played 22 snaps. 22! The NFL’s charting data charted Gilliam as a tight end rather than a fullback (which is his designation with the team -- these personnel grouping figures can get funky depending on who’s doing the charting). Under those auspices, the Bills ran 12 personnel on 43 percent of their snaps – it was a veritable tight end party, by Buffalo’s standards. They ran only one play from 10 personnel. Daboll didn’t just give his team a chin tuck, he gave them a full-body transformation: There was Botox, lipo, and whatever those fake silicon ab muscle things are.
He changed the whole thing!
On the first drive, the Bills came out in tight, condensed formations, with extra bodies on the field, and ran the ball. Notably: they got Allen rolling in the quarterback run game.
Allen is one of the most effective running quarterbacks in the game. But Daboll has been judicious in how he uses the franchises’ most valuable player. More often than not, Allen is a scrambler more than a runner. In the redzone, they turn him loose. But after taking a bunch of shots last season, the Bills have stripped the design runs back this season.
Now, Allen scrambles early and runs with the ball only in short-yardage or must-get situations — in the redzone, on a must-score drive. It’s smart. They’re playing the long game.
Against the Chiefs, every drive is a must-score drive. So, Daboll and his crew got Allen rolling early and often. On the opening drive of the game, Buffalo called three designed quarterback runs. And, as they did all night, they went against their own tendencies:
There’s that same ‘Nub’ Formation from earlier. It’s trips to the right, spreading the field, with the tight end closing the formation to the quarterbacks left. All season, the Bills have signaled that this is a passing formation for them. They’re making the read easier for their quarterback or he’s going to pull the ball and try to create something with his legs.
Nope. Daboll and Allen engaged in some classic check-with-me, option football. Pre-snap, Allen has a choice. He checks the box count, checks the leverage of the outermost defender to the boundary, and then gets to pick whether to run the ball or throw the ball. By getting into a nubbed, spread formation, the Bills’ opened up a sizeable alley to the boundary — the Chiefs know the tendency, and they’re playing the tendency. With Allen as a legitimate running threat, the choice is easy. He checks the box: Eight hats on offense; seven on defense.
The Chiefs are out-leverage to the closed side. The Bills run a designed quarterback run: Power. The frontside center and guard wrap towards the boundary as the tackle and tight end seal the outside. Running back Zach Moss then inserts as a lead-blocker blocker – find the hole, hit it, then hit the first defender you see – while Allen dawdles in behind. The Chiefs over pursue and Allen zips upfield for an easy gain.
It was emblematic of the night. McDermott, Daboll and Allen knew they could paste a lowly Washington defense and the Tanktastic Texans without putting everything on tape. You don’t serve Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a family barbeque; you crush margaritas. They knew they could get by with their slender system and simple concepts, before unleashing the full thing against a hapless Chiefs unit that would spend the first half of the game trying to figure out if the right team had shown up.
Down in the redzone, the Bills jumped into a two-back set, but did so by sticking a traditional 11 personnel grouping on the field. Isaiah McKenzie, a wide receiver, was shoved into the backfield as a second back in a split-back look.
The Chiefs were unsure how to match. Suddenly, there were two new parts to the equation: A two-back set that could shift and the quarterback as a true ‘option’ running threat.
It’s two-back, so should they get heavier personnel on the field? But that’s a receiver, so if Allen and Daboll want, they could change the play at the line of scrimmage and spread the Chiefs’ big grouping out? What to do?
Spagnuolo couldn’t find an answer.
Touchdown. From a vintage, two-back, split-back, ‘veer’ formation, the Bills ran quarterback-counter: The flow goes one way (with the backs), the quarterback rides the exchange, the linebackers roll with the backs, the quarterback pulls the ball and folds around to follow a pair of lead linemen running counter. Allen cruised into the endzone.
Before the Chiefs could even blink, they were down. And they were facing a system that the Bills had yet to stick on tape. When Spagnuolo tried to match strength-with-strength, rolling to single-high looks, well, you know the deal by now: It was easy pitch-and-catch work for Allen and his receivers:
Look at that! There’s a fullback/tight-end/H-back/whatever they classify him as running a return motion! This is the Bills, people. You have not been fooled. And that quirky fullback motion is paired with two-back personnel and tight receiver splits.
Against the Chiefs, the Bills radically reduced those receiver splits, embracing the Rams-Niners-Ravens style. From tight splits, it’s tough to lay hands on wide receivers at the LOS. That’s where a team can craft all those rubs and picks and mean-beater actions. Yet rather than run the typical crisscrossing routes that form the backbone of those reduced passing games, the Bills stuck with their traditional vertical offense.
Take Emmanuel Sanders’ first touchdown. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats dots do a delightful job of illustrating the point:
Buffalo sprang into a condensed formation, sticking all of their receivers inside the numbers. They stacked the left side, with Sanders tucked in behind Cole Beasley to grant Sanders a free release. They motioned Dawson Knox from the left side in a ‘wing’ position, hugging the hip of the team’s left tackle, into the slot on the right side to confirm the coverage. It’s nothing exotic. But for Buffalo, it’s different.
It’s not a different concept, that’s important to note, but it’s a different access point to get to that concept, making things tough on the Chiefs while keeping the read easy for Allen. It’s still a series of vertical routes that play off each other but that do not intersect, which can clog up the middle of the field. Most quarterbacks like crisscrossing routes because they can spring open throws. Not Allen. He likes to bounce one, to two, to three independently. And then he launches.
On the Sanders touchdown, the Bills paired a vertical hook with an out-and-up to the stacked side. On the backside, Stefon Diggs had a go route. The vertical hook is there to draw the eyes of both safeties towards the high hole/post zone. If either safety bites on the hook, Allen can launch it vertical to that side. If both safeties split out to cover the vertical routes, Allen can fire it to the hook.
At the snap, Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (#38) backed up towards the sideline. The safeties tried to bracket Diggs on the go (the most dangerous player) and the slot (the most dangerous route). Sanders broke out then up, roasting Sneed for the simple touchdown.
After they jumped out to a 24-10 lead, the Bills straddled between two worlds: The new, condensed style and the old, spread-out style. The Chiefs couldn’t get a beat on what was coming. They were constantly playing catchup, and they don’t have the horses to play anyone without a pretty heavy schematic advantage. Turn that advantage into an active disadvantage and you get a mess. Allen averaged 21 yards per completion, blending the new style with the old.
A long con or a one-off, gameplan-specific switch? Either way, it was brilliant. The Chiefs’ defense is brutally bad; it looked incompetent against the Bills because they weren’t prepared for what was coming. A gameplan 800-odd days in the making caught KC flat-footed and handed the Bills a path to the #1 seed in the AFC.
It was hard not to come away from Sunday night believing two things: A) Everyone in the AFC should be terribly, terribly afraid; B) There’s so much more to come.