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Sharp Team Previews

The Buffalo Bills are on the Precipice of Greatness

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: August 4, 2021, 1:01 pm ET

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In the offseason, Daboll considered these numbers. To most people, Josh Allen was a quarterback you win in spite of, not because of. His 6.7 YPA in Year 2 wasn’t anything to write home about. Daboll coached his completion percentage up from 52.8% his rookie year to 58.5% in 2019, but while the improvement was solid, the end result still wasn’t something special.

But Daboll realized this simple truth – if you build your offense to limit your quarterback, he’ll invariably be throwing most of his passes in obvious passing situations, the exact thing you’re trying to avoid putting him in. The truth is, the best time to pass is when the defense is expecting a run. And for every team in the NFL, and especially the Josh Allen-led Bills, that time is on first down.

Ironically, taking a quarterback with limited success and empowering them to pass on first down has a massive psychological effect as well. Their confidence is boosted, knowing you’re entrusting the game to them. The opposite – limiting him, passing only when necessary, working around your quarterback – further reinforces his lack of confidence knowing that even you (the playcaller) has very little confidence in him.

So the Bills shifted during the pandemic to a pass-first offense.

During the first two weeks of the season, Buffalo was 66% pass on first downs in the game’s first three quarters. That continued for the entire season.  Buffalo ended the 2020 season as the most pass-heavy team on first down. 

It wasn’t just first down either. Buffalo was the second-most pass-heavy team on early downs in the NFL last year. They were 22nd in 2019.

Buffalo wasn’t just a high volume pass offense, it was efficient. The Bills ranked third in early down pass efficiency.

It was a huge leap forward for Brian Daboll, Josh Allen, and the 2020 Bills, considering they ranked 31st in early down pass efficiency in 2019.

Daboll decided to pass more often, and he crafted an offense that would excel when passing with a quarterback who ranked below average in passing in his first two NFL seasons.

That ability doesn’t grow on trees. Not many offensive coordinators could get that level of improvement from a quarterback. It’s extremely valuable. And it’s part of the reason I believe Daboll should have been coveted as a head coach this offseason.

Behind the first down passing and overall early down efficiency, the Bills gained 20 first downs in every game of the season. In the annals of NFL history, such a feat has been accomplished only one other time, by the 2012 Patriots.

Buffalo punted only 42 times the entire season. There has been only one other team since the NFL shifted to 16 games to punt less than 42 times (1990 Oilers).

The Bills were not just a very good offense. They were historical in many of the key respects that we know matter in today’s game — not giving the ball back (punting) and gaining first downs. To see the shift in passing production from 2019 to 2020 was a thrill.

It allowed the Bills to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995 and to make their first AFC Championship game since 1993.

It was a BIG DEAL in Buffalo.

Aside from just passing more often on first down, Daboll obviously did a number of other things to jump start offensive efficiency.

First, it was a heavy usage of 10 personnel. The Bills used 10 personnel on four snaps in 2019. They used 186 snaps of 10 personnel in 2020 and gained 0.19 EPA/att from it, with success coming in the air and on the ground.

Second, it was more play action.  The Bills used play-action on 34% of their passes, the second-highest rate of any team in the NFL. When using play-action, the Bills averaged 8.5 YPA, 56% success, and 0.22 EPA/att. The Bills not only used play-action more in 2020, but their 2020 efficiency with play-action was both higher than in 2019 and higher than the NFL average (8.1 YPA, 56% success, and 0.10 EPA/att).

Buffalo increased play-action by 12.9% in 2020. No team in the last several years has increased play-action that much in one offseason.

Some teams also see more sacks on play-action and shy away from them. Buffalo dropped its sack rate on play-action from 6.5% in 2019 down to 2.8% in 2020.

Third, it was more pre-snap motion.  Daboll increased the Bills’ rate of pre-snap motion substantially in 2020. Over the past three seasons, the average NFL has used pre-snap motion on 44% of offensive snaps during the first three quarters. The Bills went from 28% usage in 2019 to 45% usage in 2020. Once again, like play-action, shifting from below average usage to above average usage.

While Daboll made some noticeable adjustments to the Bills’ offensive strategy in the offseason, such as dramatically increasing all of the following: early down pass rate, usage of 10 personnel, play-action rate and pre-snap motion rate…. the Bills also improved even when not being aided by such edges.

For example, examine the passing splits when the Bills didn’t use either play-action or pre-snap motion:

2019: 6.2 YPA, 38% success, -0.12 EPA/att on 387 att
2020: 8.3 YPA, 58% success, 0.26 EPA on 330 att

There is no simple crutch to support this level of passing improvement. This improvement comes from a combination of everything. All the work this offseason away from Orchard Park that Josh Allen put in, better scheme, more intelligent decisions from Daboll on when to call passes, and better personnel.

Speaking of the improvement from Allen, we can easily see that not just on the +EV simple throws Daboll was calling as replacement for run plays. We can also see it on the deeper throws. Using Sports Info Solutions charting of throw type, they group throws based on trajectory. Level 1 is a throw on a line (typically 3-8 yards downfield), Level 2 is an up-and-down throw (usually over the LBs but in front of the DBs, typically 10-20 yards downfield), and Level 3 is a high-arc pass that’s usually reserved mainly for deep balls (typically 25-35 yards downfield). 

Allen improved across the board, but Level 1 throws don’t require the same mechanical improvement to see a leap in success. In 2019, Allen averaged 0.12 EPA/att on the Level 2, up -and-down throws over LBs but in front of DBs. In 2020, he improved to 0.40 EPA/att. Allen’s Level 3 throws improved from -0.23 EPA/att in 2019 to 0.22 EPA/att in 2020.

The Bills are unlikely to go 5-1 in one-score games again in 2020, but aside from that, this team  really didn’t win “lucky” in 2020. They were just +4 in overall turnover margin. They ranked 26th in field goal luck, seeing opponent’s make the fifth-most field goals over expectation (after 2019 saw opponents miss the most). They ranked 23rd in fumble luck.

Buffalo is a team a lot like Baltimore in my mind. They’re at the precipice of being truly great, but they don’t have much time left before their quarterback gets paid big money. While you can still win after paying a quarterback, it absolutely gets harder and the margin for error is smaller. This is a massively important year for the Bills and they must capitalize on it.

It won’t be easy. I forecast the Bills to face the 12th toughest schedule of pass defenses and their schedule gets much harder than it was in 2019, and not just from an opponent perspective. Buffalo plays five games when their opponent has over a week to prepare for them. Buffalo also plays two short-week road games.

While it should get easier to play defense with halftime leads in 13 of 16 games, Buffalo’s defense fell off in 2019, dropping from 12th to 27th in EDSR defense. They fell from fifth to 15th against the pass. That was despite playing a below average schedule of opposing passing offenses. Buffalo addressed the defense with their first two picks in the draft and the Bills need improvement on that side of the ball.

Opposing defenses have a better idea of what to expect from the Buffalo offense. The Bills don’t need to run more often, but they need to be more efficient when they do run. They need to punish defenses that use light boxes against them. They need to figure out a better approach when in heavier personnel groupings. They need to get better improvement when running to the right of center, as these runs were a train wreck in 2020.

Like the Ravens offense coming off of the 2019 season, it’s easy to point out all the greatness that we saw unfold and the huge leap forward in so many elements of the team. But like the Ravens offense found in 2020, defenses adjust and you need to step your game up even after a great season if you want to reach the ultimate goal. Right now, the Bills are -155 to win the AFC East at PointsBet and +600 to win the AFC Championship.  After tasting the AFC Championship last year, I can tell you, the Bills won’t be satisfied without a trip to Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI in February.  

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.