The Buffalo Bills blew out the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, but as they took an early lead, any confidence felt tenuous at best. An opening touchdown drive was impressive, but aided by two personal foul penalties, and a fumble recovery only led to three points. When the Bills recovered a second strip-sack, it felt like the only way they could keep the Vikings at bay would be to capitalize on the possession with another touchdown. And that’s just what Brian Daboll and Josh Allen delivered, with a pass to tight end Jason Croom.
Before running this play, the Bills had passed once to a running back in the flats, and had a receiver in the flats on three of their first five passing plays. As such, the Vikings were looking for that sort of movement, especially when the Bills fell behind schedule and would conceivably look to gain easy yardage on second-and-11. Minnesota, seeing Buffalo’s pre-snap motion, dialed up a Cover-3 “sky” look.
Went back and looked at how the #Pats attacked the Vikings in 2014 and it appears their hand signal was the same. Except Greenway blew his assignment. Watch rookie Xavier Rhodes point to the sky. pic.twitter.com/OlyesXdHuj— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) September 23, 2018
In the GIF below, see how two Vikings point to the sky as the ball is snapped. They see the running back in motion and want to aggressively attack the flat to try and take Buffalo out of field goal range. Instead, the Bills score a touchdown. Josh Allen makes a great show of looking to the flat, then quickly resets and throws to his wide open tight end.
This is a great example of a coverage beater in football. The outside cornerback is in a bind—in a Cover-3, he should be covering a deep third of the field. But if he drops vertically, then there’s a risk that the post receiver will come open before reaching the center fielder. So the corner wants to bracket the receiver and follow him to the safety. But with this route combination, the wheel man will be open behind the outside corner. A safety or linebacker will have difficulty trailing any slot receiver down the sideline on that route, and when the action in the flat naturally draws the curl-flat safety toward the line of scrimmage, it’s easy pickings.
Here’s the same play, this time from the end zone angle. You can see how the post receiver pulls his cornerback along toward the safety, opening up room for Croom.
This is a concept that’s been useful for decades, and it’s in vogue right now in the NFL. Here’s a great breakdown from Chris Brown in 2012, when Dana Holgorsen employed it in a record-smashing offense at West Virginia.
Now, what gave this play extra significance was that it represented an area of growth from Allen between Week 2 and Week 3. The Bills ran this exact same concept against the Chargers, but Allen flubbed it. It was clear, in watching his execution on Sunday, that Allen did his homework after losing to Los Angeles, and drilled himself on properly reading this concept.
Yes, the play ultimately ended with a 57-yard completion to Zay Jones. Still, this is an example of bad process, good results. Jones was wide open for most of this play, had to turn around to catch the pass, and the ball could have been intercepted. If Allen were more decisive and knew which players to read, he would’ve had a first down or a touchdown with ease.
In Week three, we saw a more confident Allen on the field, and he shocked the Vikings (and Las Vegas) with an efficient, accurate quarterback performance. It was a positive stride for the rookie, and engenders hope that he’ll keep learning from his mistakes as his career continues.