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2023 Bills season analysis: Buffalo’s deep-middle passing game

Sure it’s niche, but trust me it’ll be a fun niche. Sort of.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Unfortunately, circumstances made it difficult for me to create post-game content for the Buffalo Bills’ Divisional Round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. With the game firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to shift to season recaps, quirky offseason content and, before you know it, 2024 NFL season preview content. My first foray into 2023 season recap material is this. I present to you the flat out oddity that was the 2023 Buffalo Bills deep-middle passing game.

Dalton Kincaid Touchdown

To begin our exploration of the 2023 Buffalo Bills deep-middle passing game, I’d like to kick off with what is arguably the Bills’ top highlight of the season in this category. The 29-yard touchdown to Dalton Kincaid as Buffalo took down the Pittsburgh Steelers during NFL Super Wild Card Weekend.

The NFL defines a “deep pass” as any throw that travels 20 or more air yards. This is important to note as the league deliberately seeks to filter this to mean passes where the intent was to throw deep, and weed out ones where YAC inflated the final result (not that YAC is a bad thing, #amiright Stefon Diggs?).

For this pass, Josh Allen chucked it 25 yards in the air, with four yards after the catch for the score by Dalton Kincaid. The question then is why am I using this pass as my stand-in for the season?

This was the only completed deep middle pass all season.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right. The Buffalo Bills completed only one throw to the deep-middle portion of the field all year. You’ve seen these play-direction charts I get courtesy of the NFL before so let’s check in on that with a couple. I’ll use a slider image so you can toggle between the regular and postseason images at your leisure.

I stumbled on this anomaly late in the regular season and decided to keep an eye on it. These are certainly low-percentage passes for most teams, but 0% is the definition of low percentage.

To compare to the league, the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans both were at 66.67% or higher. The Miami Dolphins led the league in completion percentage at 70.59%. You may think they just had fewer attempts and the stats are skewed. The Lions and Dolphins were similar in attempts with Buffalo at 16 and 17 attempts, respectively. The Texans thrived on these, throwing 33 attempts.

The Atlanta Falcons were second-worst with 22.22% completed. That was on 18 attempts, meaning even they completed four deep-middle passes during the regular season. So sure, overall they’re low-percentage plays league-wide but there’s no debate it was a particular weakness for Buffalo.

Speaking of attempts, while the Bills were below average in this type of play, 21st is within the average range according to my rule of four. The Green Bay Packers topped the league with 34 attempts (completing about half). The Los Angeles Chargers were the lowest with five attempted. They completed three of them.

Salt in the wound

The reason this stuck with me is that NFL games are routinely close affairs with a play or two capable of having a big impact on the outcome. The Bills lost more games than we would have liked but none by more than six points. Could a deep-middle pass have changed their fortunes? Let’s take a quick look at the losses:

  • Week 1 — Buffalo did not attempt a deep-middle pass in their overtime loss to the New York Jets. So no chance this game goes differently.
  • Week 5 — London was also not a deep-middle kind of day, with Allen again attempting none of them against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
  • Week 7 — In a loss to the New England Patriots, Buffalo attempted a deep-middle shot toward the end of the third quarter. They did manage to convert a couple first downs on the drive, but it ended with no points and ate up four more minutes. More time means the Bills don’t have to try their second deep-middle pass of the day with 12 seconds left in the game. The second one being caught would have given Buffalo a shot at a Hail Mary but ultimately the first miss was the bigger one.
  • Week 9 — Against the Cincinnati Bengals a second-quarter shot to wide receiver Deonte Harty would have flipped the field and perhaps changed the tone of the game. The Bengals were up by 14 at the time with plenty of game to go, but an early confidence boost could have been big.
  • Week 10 — The Bills didn’t attempt a deep pass against the Denver Broncos.
  • Week 12 — There was one deep pass in the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles. The miss came on third down, and a completion would have almost certainly led to another score before the half. While this may have impacted another touchdown before the half due to time, it’s also possible the Bills enter halftime with an even bigger lead.
  • Divisional Round — There were two attempts against Kansas City. The first came on Buffalo’s first drive and may not have made a huge ripple. The second one came at the end of the game, and was a missed touchdown to wide receiver Khalil Shakir. That would have left the Chiefs almost two minutes to work with and two time outs. Buffalo’s defense had been shaky all game, but had started to see some success late in the game. Would they have gotten the stop? I don’t know. I do know though that it would have been fun to see them try.