The Buffalo Bills were shut out against the Green Bay Packers, and the question on everyone’s mind right now is “who should we blame?” With nearly ten years since the last shutout, Sunday was an especially rare occasion. While the wide receivers and offensive line made mistakes, and Brian Daboll criminally underused his running backs when distributing touches, the real cause of this loss was Buffalo’s rookie quarterback, Josh Allen.
I’m not going to sugar-coat things. As well as Allen played within the structure of the play against the Minnesota Vikings, he was that much worse in this one. Allen reverted to bad habits from college in this game. He refused to take what the defense gave him—either enticed by false promises or because he felt the pressure of a mounting deficit. He tried “hero ball” and made costly mistakes. He misjudged pressure and pass rushers and paid the price with several bad sacks.
The short of it is that Josh Allen was terrible on Sunday. As bad as he appeared to play live, his performance looks even worse on the All-22 film, as the offensive line doesn’t look truly bad, and Zay Jones and LeSean McCoy were having good days on their routes. The problem was that Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine had him spooked. It didn’t help that Kelvin Benjamin delivered his game through the U.S. postal service (he mailed it in).
This first breakdown is where I think the wheels came off. At this point in the game, we’re nearing the end of the first quarter. Josh Allen had been decisive, but inaccurate, as Buffalo went three-and-out on their first two drives. Now, with the score 6-0, the Bills were seven plays into a drive that had started at their 25-yard line and moved into Green Bay territory. The Bills faced a second-and-five situation—still outside field-goal range, but at a favorable down-and-distance for an end-zone shot play if they had the right look. Coming out in a 2x2 look with a tight end off left tackle and empty backfield, the Bills split running back Taiwan Jones wide right. He was manned up against linebacker Antonio Morrison, a favorable match-up for the speedy back and a cue that the Packers were in some sort of man coverage, with a single high safety. To this point in the game, the Packers only ran one play with two deep safeties, but a single center fielder would suggest that, initially, the Bills had a winning match-up for a deep shot. In reality, Pettine had designed a blitz that made Allen reconsider what his eyes told him.
Both linebackers between the tackles blitz up the middle after the ball is snapped. The left defensive end does a great job preventing John Miller from passing him off to Jordan Mills, and there’s no one to pick up the blitz.
Allen initially is looking left after the snap. I can’t tell if he has a hot route against the blitz on that side, or if he’s trying to look off the safety for his deep shot. He turns right but overlooks the blitzers, setting up to throw. As they come in, he tries to muscle in a deep throw, taking a huge hit in the process.
Now, kudos to Mark Schofield of Inside the Pylon who noted what this does to a quarterback’s psyche. It’s 3rd and 5, still in opponent’s territory, still a doable play. But now, the puzzle box has been opened. The demons are loose. Allen wouldn’t be the same from now on.
This time, the Bills line up and Pettine looks like he’s dialing up the same idea as the previous play, only worse. The two linebackers are “sugaring” the A-gaps as potential blitzers. A safety is stacked over the slot receiver, suggesting the slot corner will also blitz!
But this is a lie. Right before the snap, the safety backs off, a linebacker moves backward, and at the end it turns out to be a “zone blitz” with only three real rushers—something Bills fans were well-acquainted-with in 2013.
Allen has three receivers running deep routes and two outlet options—a tight end to the right, and LeSean McCoy (who runs a route after chipping, if necessary) to the left. His protection holds up, but he sees phantom pressure and immediately runs out of the pocket.
Luckily, he chooses not to throw to Charles Clay, which could’ve been picked off by the spying linebacker peeling off from his pass rush. Initially I thought this was a true zone blitz, which is what I wrote in the GIF above, but I now think the linebacker is just a typical spy reading the quarterback’s eyes and movement.
Unfortunately, Allen gives up on his reads, tries doubling back to the left, and eventually forces a throw to McCoy that falls deep. Awful process, lousy result.
Now we’re onto the next drive. It’s 13-0, and the Bills start with a four-yard gain from a McCoy run. On second and six, the Bills would really like a first down to build some momentum. They run this play.
This play is very similar to a design we’ve seen Buffalo run a lot—clear out one side of the field and put a receiver in the flat on a swing pass. The wrinkle here is that the receiver is Ray-Ray McCloud III, who starts wide left, motions into the backfield, then motions out to the flat at the snap. It’s very clear that there’s a defender in man coverage on McCloud, and that he’s not in position for an easy tackle.
To me, this is a no-brainer. Yes, there are other routes on this play (Allen’s looking for McCoy on a deep angle route), but you have free yards staring at you. McCloud’s a natural punt returner. Give him the ball in space, and he’ll get you five yards. I think Allen should’ve known the down-and-distance, seen the man coverage, and taken the short completion.
Allen hesitates as McCoy’s route takes time to develop, and a free rusher (that wasn’t chipped) hammers him into the ground for a sack.
I’m not going to break down Allen’s first interception at the end of the half. You’ve seen the deep looks, but it’s more of the same—know the down-and-distance, know the score and time, and take what the defense gives you (or throw it away and settle for three points). But we can go into the second half. In general, Brian Daboll’s done a solid job preparing halftime scripts for the offense to run, adjusting to what the defense showed. This one started well enough, with an 11-yard McCoy run. Then—a false start. The next play was a quick pass to receiver Andre Holmes for three yards. A bit behind him, but fine enough. Then a five-yard check-down to Khari Lee when no one else was open. Good. 17 yards to Clay! Now the offense was moving, and credit to the offensive line holding up against some strange fronts. On a play-action pass from a heavy set, Allen finds McCoy on a check-down for another first down, but a holding penalty negates that gain. The Bills call a quarterback draw, but Pettine was ready for it, and a spy helps tackle Allen for no gain. On second-and-20, the Bills run a pass play, but everyone is covered, and Allen scrambles for three.
Finally, we get to this play, on third-and-17. With the Packers up 19-0, and the Bills at midfield with seven minutes in the third quarter, this is pretty much their last chance to get back into the game.
The first step for a quarterback’s pre-snap process is to look at the safeties. Are there two deep or is only one deep? How are they aligned? The goal is to identify the number of players in the box (useful for checking into/out of run plays) and the seams of the coverage shell (openings on deep routes).
Pettine’s defense looks like Cover-2 or quarters (Cover-4) at first glance, with two deep safeties and with cornerbacks playing off coverage. In a theme we’ve seen many times in the game, there’s a linebacker sugaring the A-gap.
The Bills call a play that’s sort of a flood concept, with three receivers running crossing patterns to the left while Benjamin runs a go-route from that side. But the crossers are all roughly the same depth, rather than being at different levels of the field. (If a coach would like to chime in with what that concept’s called, I’d love to know more!)
Allen sees the defense pre-snap and is going to Benjamin all the way. I assume he read Cover-2 (or maybe Cover-2 palms). In Cover-2, the corner covers the short zone at the sideline, where in palms coverage the corner either goes deep or covers the short zone depending on what route the receiver runs.
With that read, I think Allen was hoping he could pull the same trick he did in his preseason debut—pump fake, get the defenders to bite, and use his rocket arm to squeeze in a bullet to Benjamin.
It doesn’t work. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is keeping an eye on Allen, and widens toward the sideline. He doesn’t flinch at the pump fake, and aggressively closes the gap on Benjamin for the hit. Despite Allen’s protection holding up, this play becomes an interception.
In retrospect, I think I would’ve chosen to throw to Charles Clay over the middle. With two deep safeties and a player with outside leverage on Clay at the snap, the middle of the field looks wide open for a catch (and it is, though that’s in part because Allen’s action shifted everyone to the left).
It’s never a good feeling when the Buffalo Bills are shut out, and to see their franchise quarterback struggle so significantly is a crushing feeling. It’s important to remember that the year is not made of sixteen one-week seasons, but a full set of interwoven matches. Wins are never as great as they seem, and losses aren’t as bad as they appear (even though this offense was still really bad).
The bad news is that this game made it apparent that Josh Allen’s college weaknesses are still a problem. The good news is: Those weaknesses are apparent, on film, and something that the coaching staff can develop with him. If Allen’s the prospect he was touted to be, he’ll fix those mistakes in the future. That’s the plan, anyway.