The Cowboys are getting ready for a trip to Buffalo, the first time this year they’ll actually play a game in New York. But while the Bills have become known for their high-powered offense, featuring Josh Allen, things have been a bit different lately.
By now, everyone knows about Allen. For the first two years of his career, Allen played like one of the worst quarterbacks in football. But the 2020 season saw the arrival of Stefon Diggs, giving Allen a legitimate number one receiver. Add to it that Allen was going into the second season under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and the two really started to trust each other.
Daboll brought that scheme to the Giants, which we broke down at length earlier this year. But the gist of Daboll’s approach, which was an amalgamation of different offensive philosophies the traveled coach had been exposed to, was to trust his quarterback to do what he does best. After being one of the most run-heavy offenses in Allen’s first two seasons, the Bills jumped all the way up to third in early-down pass rate in 2020. Over these last four seasons, the Bills are second in the league in early-down pass rate.
When Daboll left for the Giants job, quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey was promoted to the coordinator role. For the most part, he kept things the same. This is Allen’s team, and Buffalo has had plenty of games over the years that were won on the strength of Allen’s arm and legs. The unique skillset that Allen possesses - the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, the rushing ability of Cam Newton, and the gunslinger attitude of Brett Favre - makes him deadly for defenses when he’s on.
The one area where things changed under Dorsey came from another coach: quarterbacks coach Joe Brady. He came to Buffalo after one and a half years running the offense in Carolina, getting fired midseason in a move that many viewed as scapegoating. Prior to Carolina, Brady was the offensive genius behind the national championship offense at LSU that catapulted Joe Burrow to the Heisman trophy.
When Brady joined the Bills, he worked with Dorsey to implement some more modern concepts, like an expanded use of RPO’s and some more creative option running plays. Brady’s contributions amounted to wrinkles on top of the foundation, if anything, but it was all designed around giving Allen even more ways to influence the game.
In hindsight, perhaps the coaching staff went a little overboard. Allen is the kind of quarterback that’s always a few seconds away from a big play, but he can often be his own worst enemy, chasing that big play when it’s not there. Under Daboll, this was always an issue: Allen averaged 28 turnover worthy plays in his three seasons with the coach. As Daboll put more on Allen’s plate, his interceptions went up too, peaking with 15 in 2021.
When Dorsey and Brady further expanded Allen’s responsibilities, that trend continued. Allen finished last year with a league-leading 33 turnover worthy plays, throwing 14 picks and losing five fumbles. The Bills offense remained elite, finishing second in both EPA/play and DVOA, but something just felt off.
That feeling grew this year. While Allen has reduced his turnover worthy play rate, he’s already matched his 14 interceptions from last year and is tied for the league lead. He’s also lost three fumbles so far, adding to the volatility that can be the Josh Allen Experience. Things got so bad that Buffalo fired Dorsey several weeks ago and promoted Brady in his place.
Oddly enough, the Bills offense is still playing really well. They’re fourth in EPA/play and third in DVOA, which is worse than they were a year ago but only slightly. Allen’s connection with Diggs remains lethal, and rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid has established himself as a dangerous second option. Second year running back James Cook has come on strong as well, accounting for a team-leading 1,180 scrimmage yards.
This offense is a bit of a Rorschach test for football fans. It’s hard to argue with their actual results, but watching them play each week also makes it hard to believe those results. The Bills go as Allen goes, and that’s by design. What that means is that this offense has a very high ceiling and a very low floor, and it oscillates between those two at a breakneck pace.
As it relates to the Cowboys, there’s not much to be done to force those bad plays out of Allen. He’s generally easy to pressure, holding the ball for an average of 2.9 seconds per throw and ranking fourth in most pressures faulted to the quarterback. Even still, Allen is one of the better quarterbacks under pressure, ranking second in touchdowns thrown and seventh in big-time throw rate.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to put Allen in those situations anyway, and the Cowboys should be able to do that quite often. Whether or not the secondary can take away those big plays, or the linebackers can keep Cook in check, remains to be seen.
There’s no secret formula to beating this offense, aside from playing disciplined football and being opportunistic when Allen makes mistakes. The Dallas defense has been terrible at the former and great at the latter: they lead the league in defensive penalties, but are seventh in takeaways. They’ll need to play their very best this Sunday in order to give their own offense a shot at winning.