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'It's a players' game' | How the Bills' success on trick plays stacks up against the rest of the NFL

Cole Beasley (11) throws a touchdown pass. Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Chargers, November 29, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin.
Cole Beasley (11) throws a touchdown pass. Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Chargers, November 29, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin.

Josh Allen is well known for his dual-threat abilities at the quarterback position. He notched his 15th career performance with both a passing and rushing touchdown Sunday, the most through three seasons in NFL history by a player not named Cam Newton.

His receiving prowess is less celebrated, yet rare in its own right. Since 2018, Allen is one of two quarterbacks in the NFL with multiple receiving touchdowns (including playoffs). The other is Taysom Hill, a unicorn who for three seasons has served as a swiss army knife in New Orleans.

The statistic speaks to a larger picture regarding the Bills offense: the creativity of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll when it comes to designing trick plays and his willingness to call them, which stems naturally from the players' ability to execute.

As ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques pointed out, Cole Beasley's touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis against the Chargers was the fourth touchdown thrown by a Bills non-quarterback (including playoffs) since Daboll joined the team in 2018. That number leads the NFL. According to radar360, only five teams have more than one such score in that span.

Isaiah McKenzie previously threw a touchdown to Allen in Week 10. John Brown tossed one during the regular season last year, then added another to Allen on Buffalo's first drive of the playoffs.

But the trickery extends beyond passes thrown by wide receivers. According to radar360, the Bills are one of only two teams with multiple touchdown receptions by offensive linemen since 2018 (Dion Dawkins has two). Tennessee, with three, is the other.

"A lot of variables, a lot of factors in there," head coach Sean McDermott said. "I think you've got to call them at the right time, you've got to have a high level of execution, you got to trust the players. And hey, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But again, I think it's good to have an aggressive mindset."

The plays have worked for the Bills far more often than not. The Bills have completed five of six pass attempts by non-quarterbacks since 2018, the lone exception being an incomplete Zay Jones pass to Allen. That's good for an 83.3 completion percentage, second only to New England among teams with more than three such attempts in that span.

Daboll credited the high success rate to his players and pointed to Beasley's pass to Davis an example. That was a "check with me" play that had been installed the week prior, meaning a decision on how to run the play would be made at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive coverage.

The Bills lined up with three receivers out to the right, including Beasley in the slot. Against the Cardinals, Allen assessed the coverage and wound up passing a touchdown to Beasley rather than run the trick play.

The opportunity arose in nearly the exact same spot on the field against the Chargers. This time, Beasley faked a pre-snap motion to the left, ran underneath Allen for a screen pass, and then lofted a 20-yard toss to a wide-open Davis in the end zone. Davis helped sell the play by acting if he were going to block before taking off downfield.

"I knew it was going to work," Davis said. "We run a lot of those bubble screens, so as soon as I [saw the cornerback] shoot I just knew the ball was coming to me and Cole was able to, you know, put a dart. He said he threw it kind of hard to get it in there but … it was a softball. It was an easy catch and I'm glad we could make that connection."

Davis said the Bills had practiced the play for weeks.

"It's a players' game," Daboll said. "And they gotta go out there and execute. You try to call it in a timely fashion when you think it has a chance to work. Then you gotta trust the players. You do it at practice and you work on them. If they look good, then you keep them in and when the time is right you call them."

Now, onto more notes to wrap up Week 12.

A tale of two A.J.s

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier drew some comparisons between the play of veteran linebacker A.J. Klein and rookie defensive end A.J. Epenesa, both of whom turned in impact performances Sunday.

The keys in both cases, Frazier said, are comfort and confidence. Klein joined the Bills this season and was quickly asked to step in for an injured Matt Milano, one of the team's most vital and versatile defensive players. Epenesa came to the NFL without the benefit of a full training camp or preseason games.

Klein racked up a game-high 14 tackles against the Chargers, including a crucial third-and-1 stop of running back Joshua Kelley that held Los Angeles to a field goal in the third quarter. He also extended his sack streak to a career-best three games.

"We didn't know if A.J. could do some of the things that we ask Matt to do," Frazier said. "But as we've gotten more comfortable with him and he's gotten more comfortable in our system, we've seen him play some much improved football. That's a credit to A.J. just sticking with it and making himself available and then when his number is called, making those plays that are there for him to make."

Epenesa, meanwhile, played a season-high 31 snaps and earned one tackle for a loss and one QB hurry.

"His get off, his change of direction, being assignment sound, cutting down on the mental errors, he's showing his athleticism – all those things, you know, he's gotten so much better at," Frazier said. "And that's through hard work – which, he is, he's an extremely hardworking guy – and just preparation during the week in practice. So, it gives you an inclination and an idea that he's going to go out and perform the way he did on Sunday."

McDermott credits Bass

Tyler Bass expressed his appreciation toward the Bills coaching staff for sticking with him through early-season struggles following a second straight perfect kicking performance Sunday. His day against the Chargers included a 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to all but seal the win.

McDermott reciprocated praise when asked about the rookie Monday.

"I love that," he said. "… It's great to see a player, especially a young player like that to come in and you know there's going to be some choppy waters. For him to stay confident and then for the coaches to stay confident as well in him. To see him work himself through it.

"I think that kick yesterday probably goes ... and I don't read a lot ... but probably goes as much to our win as anything. It was a big kick in a big moment, 40-something yarder to put us up 10 there. That was a big kick. For a rookie to come in and do that, he's been through some things now that are only going to help him moving forward."

Staying prepared

The Denver Broncos found themselves in a difficult situation Sunday after having all four of their quarterbacks ruled out against the Saints due to COVID-19 protocols. Jeff Driskel tested positive, while three others – Drew Lock, Brett Rypien, and Blake Bortles – were identified as high-risk contacts, leaving undrafted wide receiver Kendall Hinton to start their loss to New Orleans under center.

The Bills have tried to guard against such a scenario this season by keeping rookie quarterback Jake Fromm isolated as much as possible, a decision McDermott detailed Monday.

"Sometimes you make decisions in life that you're not sure if they're the right decisions," McDermott said. "With Brandon and I making this decision, it wasn't easy not only to separate a player from the team but also a rookie. And it's hard enough to acclimate oneself and transition from college to the NFL game and now to kind of be apart has made it all that much harder.

"And we recognized that and Jake and our staff have just done a phenomenal job of executing that and that's honestly why we've done it, and it could happen to anyone. Can happen to any position for that matter, so it's another great learning lesson for us."

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