Josh Allen: To blitz or not to blitz?
Will the Dolphins' Wildcard gameplan re-shape the thinking of Cincy's defensive staff?
Of all of the game-defining questions ahead of the Divisional Round (how the bleep do you stop the Niners 21/12 personnel grouping? Should the Jags body-up the Chiefs’ receivers? What style of defense will Wink run?), perhaps the most intriguing is this: Will Lou Anarumo light up Josh Allen?
Allen is playing weird football. Since he injured his elbow in Week 9, he has become increasingly reckless. The lack of talent surrounding the Bills’ superstar has been exposed: the Bills’ line cannot consistently push a defensive front of the ball; they run the ball at a decent clip, but not well enough for Ken Dorsey to lean on it as a foundational component of the offense; Stefon Diggs aside – and some fleeting Dawson Knox moments – the Bills’ receivers are intimidating no one.
What was billed preseason as a fresh, multiple, malleable group has become increasingly one-dimensional — save for Allen as an option threat. The passing game is sludgy. Allen has barfed up turnovers. He’s vacillated wildly between some of the finest football of his career and some of the lousiest.
Allen has indulged his worst instincts. He’s leaned into a bomb’s away approach. Prior to his elbow injury, Allen had an average depth of target of 7.5 yards, good for 11th in the NFL. Post-injury, that figure has ballooned to 10.5 yards, tops in the league.
It goes a little deeper than that, too. The Bills have had funky vertical spacing for the bulk of the season. Trawl back through some of the rougher outings for this offense, and you notice a trend: it is a vertically centered style that is consistently sending three or four receivers deep down the field without any intermediate outlet. The Bills are not sticking levels within their route concepts consistently – at least not having an intermediate threat hitting in the middle of the field. They’re pushing three receivers deep down the field and then getting out of the way and hoping Allen can uncork magic.
Logically, it makes sense. Josh Allen is an alien. Giving him a chance to score on every single damn play feels like the right idea. And maybe it is; maybe it’s overly precious to think every concept should have the prettiest spacing that allows an offense to look for a shot play or shuffle the ball down the field in 12-15 yard increments. Maybe running a purposefully high-variance style is fine. Allen does continue to spin magic among the mundane.
But outside of Allen’s sorcery, the Bills’ offense has no organizing principle. If Allen isn’t dealing downfield, the Buffalo offense can get stuck in the mud. No other offense in the league looks so consistently fractured while dumping 30-odd points on their opponents.
How much of that do you lay at the feet of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and how many slices of the blame pie should we hand to Allen? Who is in charge? Are they collaborators? If you slip on Dorsey’s shoes, and you see that your quarterback – a freakish quarterback, one with access to throws others can only dream of – is hellbent on hitting as many of those freakish throws as possible down the field, ignoring the safety valves underneath, is it better to continue to push the safety valves or to add an extra downfield option to the proceedings?
There’s not really a right answer. Either makes sense; it’s a matter of taste.
Allen’s latest performance was the shallowest to date. It was as if he had access to some intel that we did not. Does this dude know his arm is going to fall off in 40 throws? Did he lose some kind of bet? Why is he trying to win the game on every single throw? Is this a skills contest or a football game? Is this some Larry Bird shit where he can only shoot left-handed?
Allen slipped into the worst style of HeroBall, the one where the hero actually does the heroic things on occasion, slipping on the cape and cowl on a handful of plays while submarining the whole enterprise for the other 50 snaps.
The numbers are jarring. Allen attempted 21 (!!!!) throws of ten yards or more. He attempted 13 throws (!!!!!!!!!) over 20-yards. As a point of comparison, Dak Prescott, who had the top quarterback performance of the weekend, attempted only ten throws over ten yards and just four beyond 20 yards.
Part of that was due to Allen’s insistence on pressing the pedal to the metal even when the offense offered simpler solutions. Part of it was because of the Dolphins’ defensive gameplan.
Josh Boyer brought all of the gas. The Dolphins blitzed Allen on 40% of his dropbacks, including the bizarro third-and-15 call. These were not overly fancy designs; they barely tracked as part of Miami’s infamous read-blitz package. It was just a coach lining up as many players as he could get away with along the line of scrimmage and sending the house after the opposing quarterback.
It’s fair to wonder what was going on in Boyer’s mind. Did the Dolphins’ DC drop acid before the game? Did he think he was getting fired regardless of the result? Did he want to get fired? How else can you explain an all-out pressure on third-and-15, folks!?!
The Dolphins continue to run more cover-zero than any defense in the NFL. Against Allen and the Bills, it bordered on the obnoxious.
It kind of, sort of worked — sporadically. Boyer’s plan: To bait Allen into indulging his own worst instincts… and to wash out some eligibles from the Bills’ route concepts. It’s a two-fold idea: by crowding the line with bodies, the Bills were forced to keep in extra protectors, removing players from the route combination and pushing the Bills to lean further into the icky, all-vertical, all-the-time spacing.
And it pushed Allen into making a decision: Do I get rid of the ball quickly and move on with the game or do I look to torch these fools down the field, delivering a one-off knockout blow that will surely decide the game and get this buffoon to back off?
Allen, of course, opted for the latter. He wanted to deliver a hammer blow, not mess around with any of this rat-a-tat-tat, jabbing nonsense.
The handful of times Allen decided to take an underneath option versus pressure, he missed.
That, too, has been a lingering issue. Allen is still liable to deliver a handful of throws a game that makes you wonder whether the defense should even bother turning up, but his down-to-down accuracy has been scattershot. He’s made funky decisions. He’s bailing on the pocket when there’s no need. At times, it feels like there’s a lack of trust in the concept – with the only choice being for the Great One to hoist the ball to spots few other humans would dare.
The precision of a year ago – and early this campaign – has vanished. Where he used to dovetail the audacious throws down the field with the easy layups to the short and intermediate areas, now he’s ignoring or missing the easy stuff.
Since Week 9, Allen is 19th in the league in adjusted completion percentage on short throws. That figure rebounds in the intermediate area, where Allen has hit a God-like mark of 76.5%, putting him fourth in the league (behind Brock Purdy, Daniel Jones, and Andy Dalton. What a trio!) over that stretch. But that down-to-down consistency is offset by turnover-worthy throws, or passing up the area where he’s doing his best work to unload deep down the field — why score an 18-yard completion with a potential run-after-the-catch threat when you can deliver another 40-yarder crossfield into shell coverage? Pffft. Silly mortals.
By the latter portion of the game, Boyer was in Allen’s head. The Dolphins started to bail out of their pressure looks. They ran funnel concepts, dropping a defender underneath to play clean up knowing that Allen wanted to hold the ball to try to generate explosive offense down the field against the blitz. The Dolphins were more effective when they didn’t blitz later in the game but only because they had sent such a high-volume of pressure early in the game.
How much will the Dolphins’ wackadoo gameplan have influenced Anarumo? Cincy’s DC is one of the top week-to-week defensive game planners in football. He has never been burdened by orthodoxy. The Bengals toggle between defensive identities depending on the opponent.
Anarumo also just so happens to be one of the league’s top self-scouters. The Bengals are consistently laying down tendencies and then breaking those tendencies on crucial downs.
True, the Bengals run what they run more than they did last season. But Anarumo has mastered little tricks that play on that feat – subtle acts of cruel puppetry. Anarumo is aware of his group’s tendencies, and, in crucial spots, happily leverages those tendencies – what the opposing OC and quarterback believe the Bengals will run – into crafty disguises.
Showering Allen with heat would fit snuggly with Anarumo’s pattern this season. The Bengals defense hasn’t blitzed a whole lot. They haven’t needed to. They have, however, consistently swamped the line of scrimmage with bodies. They mug all across the front before bailing out.
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