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Buffalo Bills’ offensive identity runs through Josh Allen & Stefon Diggs

There’s a historical model the Bills might do well to emulate

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The best teams in the NFL have an identity on offense, and quite often despite the amount of preparation opponents put toward stopping it — these identities rise to the top. Dynasties have been defined by them, and many players wind up in the NFL Hall of Fame as the face of their team’s identity.

The Buffalo Bills, too, have their own identity despite those who say the team is deficient under offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs has become the focal point for Buffalo’s offense, in the same way the tandem of Joe Montana & Jerry Rice was known in households across the country. Before anyone misinterprets that statement — it’s not to say that Allen and Diggs are on the same level of Montana and Rice, but rather to point out their importance to the team, the fans, and the NFL. We’ll round back to this discussion near the end.

No longer is Orchard Park, NY home to a down-trodden NFL franchise that can’t get out of its own way in re-living the glory days of Super Bowl appearances past. People outside the target area are interested in the Buffalo Bills, thanks to the chemistry experiment that general manager Brandon Beane signed up for when he traded for Diggs. Four years on, the Bills have established themselves as one of the most dangerous offenses in the league, and much of that is due to Allen and Diggs. Everything else Buffalo does on offense is either borne out of the pair’s success or done to enhance the relationship’s trajectory. It’s a case of doing whatever possible to make sure those two find each other on the gridiron — and it’s fantastic to watch. Recently, however, it’s also served as a detriment to the offense’s rhythm.

To many observers, Allen’s apparent reliance on Diggs is a huge cause for concern through six games of the 2023 NFL season. It all came to a head in Week 6, boiling over this past weekend when Josh Allen targeted Stefon Diggs 11 times in the first half. Despite their connection, the Bills trailed the woebegone New York Giants in a 6-0 game. That brings pause to many wondering if the Allen-to-Diggs magic is paying the right dividends.

During the offseason and leading up to the NFL Draft, most outlets and fans believed the Bills needed to added a receiver to the mix. When the best options there dried up ahead of Buffalo’s first-round pick, they swung a deal to leapfrog the Dallas Cowboys, turning in their card to select tight end Dalton Kincaid. Those paying attention to that weekend’s process were enamored with the pick, and Kincaid was touted as the best pass catcher in the draft, regardless of position.

Fast forward to training camp and the Bills began showing a commitment to 12-personnel, something they failed to do much of in 2022 and back. Certainly this meant that Diggs would see a dip in targets, considering the involvement of both Kincaid and Dawson Knox (not to mention Buffalo’s other receivers in the mix). But it hasn’t been the case, and the Bills have run less and less 12-personnel as the weeks progress.

Buffalo Bills insider / co-host of “One Bills Live” / interim play-by-play broadcaster Chris Brown pointed out Ken Dorsey’s steep downward curve in using 12-personnel. Week 1 against the New York Jets, the Bills ran 43 plays out of 12. By Week 5, against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, Dorsey only called 14 plays in the scheme. Then in Week 6, its use fell of a cliff, with just three plays featuring a pair of tight ends. It’s fair to question if the drop-off was due to injury or if other extenuating circumstances were at play.

Interestingly, until Kincaid suffered a concussion and sat out Week 6, he was third on the team in both catches (17) and yards (118). Knox remains a bit further down the ladder, with 14 catches for 92 yards and one touchdown. Combined, Kincaid and Knox have made 31 catches for 210 yards with one TD through six weeks. Those numbers don’t jump off the chart for most teams, especially ones committed to running 12 personnel. So what’s happening?

In an appearance on “One Bills Live” this week, NFL analyst Dan Orlovski pointed out his observation that Dorsey appears to be using 12 personnel to throw out of, with the tight ends acting as extra blockers before heading out on routes. Despite the belief that this formation was going to mean more passes to the tight ends, they’re doing some heavy lifting for Allen to better find other receivers, namely Diggs and sometimes Davis.

To this point in his career, Gabe Davis has been a bit of an enigma for the Bills. He’s the team’s clear WR2 even if Bills Mafia doesn’t see it that way, and his use backs up that idea (most weeks, he out-snaps every other WR on the roster). Through six weeks, Davis is positioned firmly in second on the team in catches (21), yards (341), and TDs (4). Extrapolated over a 17-game season, that would put Davis on a path to 60 catches for 966 yards with 11 TDs — Dwight Clark-like numbers, (or even James Lofton with Buffalo) as a complementary WR2 to his team’s superstar at WR1. There are, however, too many instances of him disappearing for long stretches of games.

Let’s round back to the Niners for a moment. It’s quite possible that Ken Dorsey could build a juggernaut similar in style to the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh. Akin to the unparalleled Jerry Rice, Stefon Diggs is a receiver who’s open when he’s not, can embarrass defenses whether it’s zone, man, or some combination of both, and who almost always raises the level of play in teammates around him.

In front of a national audience, the Giants double-teamed Diggs for most of the night, daring someone else to beat them. When Davis fumbled early on and promptly disappeared for all but one target thereafter, it was going to be even more difficult for Diggs to produce. Yet he did, catching 10 of 16 passes for 100 yards. Diggs took up the mantle at every level on offense, and still the Giants couldn’t stop him.

Targeting every other pass catcher, Allen went 9-of-14 for 69 yards, with two TDs and one INT. So say what you want about the overuse of Diggs, but it tells me that Diggs’ use last Sunday set up efficiency to other targets (none of which were running back James Cook), most notably two very important TDs. Again, many have been quick to complain about Allen’s heavy focus on Diggs, but it’s working. Whether that can continue deep into the season is another question.

Perhaps the biggest concern at this point isn’t that Diggs is so heavily involved, but that very little chemistry is being built between Allen and those behind Diggs and Davis. Come November and beyond, the hope is that offensive-wide chemistry is so strong that the Bills will have an answer for anything defenses throw at them. But it’s clear that Allen’s struggling to find the same comfort and trust he has with Diggs.

Through six games, Stefon Diggs has made 49 catches for 620 yards with five TDs. The production seems untenable, but we know better than to second-guess Diggs when it comes to football. If that pace holds for a 17-game season, then Diggs would end up with 139 catches for 1,756 yards and 14 TDs. Those numbers don’t appear so unreachable, do they? Not where Allen and Diggs are concerned.

Despite their success, my hope is that we see Dorsey committed to building an even more diverse running attack while also increasing the target share for the tight ends. James Cook doesn’t have to be an elite 1,000-yard back, nor do Kincaid and Knox have to catch 50 footballs for 700 yards each. There are only so many plays/drives in each game, in the end.

The idea of a West Coast offense intrigues me, given the team’s make-up. The Bills mostly employ versatile, athletic linemen who block for a dynamic RB1 and elite dual-threat quarterback throwing to one of the NFL’s premiere alpha dogs at receiver. What appears to be lacking are refined route runners who would otherwise be able to leverage timing routes with Allen. The opportunities for Allen to throw a player open or in stride appear few and far between in the current system. Whether that’s by design or due to a lack of ability, remains a key question in this conversation. Regardless of the route cause, Allen would need to formulate greater chemistry with his receiving corps for a deeper dive into any West Coast concepts.

Yet Allen continues to push back at Dorsey for more plays out of shotgun, even though he’s been a far more efficient and successful quarterback under center within play action. Abandoning shotgun altogether would mean far less of Allen doing special things that have made him such an incredible player. Take Allen’s Week 6 touchdown to tight end Quintin Morris — which happened out of shotgun and because Allen was able to ad-lib a magical throw downfield. However, to this point the Allen-to-Diggs connection has come at a cost, which is a lack of what appears to be a complete system on offense.

West Coast concepts are at least something to consider, as fans and as a team. So long as Josh Allen’s able to build that necessary chemistry, there’s no reason to ask for less Allen-to-Diggs as the season matures. Perhaps the winning formula involves more Diggs, but with balance. Make no mistake, this is Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs’ offense, and we’re all lucky to witness it.