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How Buffalo's offense transformed into a championship caliber force

Bills offensive huddle during Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Chargers, November 29, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Sara Schmidle
Bills offensive huddle during Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Chargers, November 29, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Sara Schmidle

Last year at this time the Bills were the only playoff team averaging fewer than 23 points per game. In fact, their points per game average was a full touchdown less (19.6 ppg) than the combined average of the 11 other playoff clubs (26.6 ppg). The area most in need of improvement was readily apparent to GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott.

Their offense had to score more points.

Now a full year after that mid-January press conference following their Wild Card loss at Houston, Buffalo's offense is a veritable juggernaut. They're the second-highest scoring team in the postseason averaging 31.3 points per game and finish drives with points almost half the time (48.3%).

This despite the fact that they are the only playoff team in the field with a strength of schedule over .500 (.512) and played more than half their games against a team that ranked in the top 10 in total defense, pass defense or scoring defense.

How in 12 months did the Bills go from 23rd in the league in scoring to second in the span of a calendar year?

Premier talent

Naturally, most everyone who even casually observed Buffalo's passing attack this season recognized the difference that Stefon Diggs made as the number one receiver. After Beane finalized the trade that landed Buffalo a premier route runner with a catch rate of almost 82, it wasn't a secret that his presence would change the Bills passing game for the better.

But with no OTAs or June minicamp, it wasn't until the roster arrived at training camp that a true assessment of Diggs' strengths and those of any other receiving talents besides the ones with they were familiar with from the year prior could be realized.

"You really don't know what you have until you're out there on the practice field," said offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. "The most important part of this whole thing is getting out on the practice field and seeing your players. Obviously we've known some of them, you know 'Bease' (Cole Beasley) and 'Smoke' (John Brown), but we didn't know Stef per se. We didn't know Gabe Davis. We knew Isaiah McKenzie's role."

As training camp moved along it was obvious to Daboll and his offensive staff that the most dangerous personnel groupings for his offense would be with three and four-wide sets because it was the receivers making plays day in and day out against what had been a top five defense in the league the past two seasons.

"Your job as a coach is to try to figure out the best people to use and then try to use them to their strengths," said Daboll. "We have a lot of belief in that skill position that we have with the receivers. We knew the tight ends and the backs, but that whole four wide package really didn't come about until training camp, seeing the type of individuals we had and how they competed against the guys that we had on our defense and then the production that they had. And then you build it from there."

But the time to build out an offensive scheme after getting a look at what you have on the field usually happens in May and June, not August.

"We had to kind of fast forward a little bit and figure it out on the fly," Daboll said. "That's a testament to the players and the coaching staff."

Buffalo unleashed a passing attack that primarily utilized 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 10 (1 RB, 4 WR) personnel, challenging opposing defenses to go three and four deep with their best cover cornerbacks. To a large degree the Bills early season opponents failed, especially when they used man coverage.

Diggs was virtually uncoverable. Brown was blowing by defensive backs deep. Beasley was frequently finding or creating space underneath and the rookie Gabriel Davis was taking all the table scraps when they were offered.
By season's end Buffalo ran 71 percent of their plays out of 11 personnel and another 14 percent in 10 personnel, for a total of 85 percent of their plays called.

And while Diggs was a featured component of the passing game, setting team records and becoming the first Bills player to lead the league in receptions and receiving yards, he also facilitated for his teammates.

"He's a distraction out there for the defense," said Josh Allen of Diggs. "They've got to know where he is at all times. Whether they double him or try to get somebody to double him, he just finds way to get open and catch the ball and make plays after the catch. I love that guy."

So do his fellow receivers, who have seen more one-on-one looks this season than maybe at any other time in their respective careers. Diggs is a big reason why Beasley has been able to put up a career-best season himself.

Multitude of weapons

Buffalo's three and four wide passing formations would not have been possible had Beane not acquired the talent he put together over the past two offseasons in free agency and the draft. It wasn't often that the Bills had their full complement of receiving options this year, but it's mattered little in affecting their scoring potency.

When Dawson Knox was injured in Week 3, Tyler Kroft delivered the game-winning touchdown reception against the Rams. When Brown was out of the lineup, Davis picked up the slack, scoring a touchdown in three consecutive games. When Beasley was unavailable in Week 17, Isaiah McKenzie responded with a two-touchdown performance on offense.

"I feel like we've got a lot of guys that can play well at the receiver position," said Diggs. "A lot of guys can make plays, and not even just at the receiver position. Whether it's 'Motor' (Singletary) out wide or (Dawson) Knox out wide. It's somebody that you've got to account for because guys can make plays on the outside. As far as lining up four wide, it isn't just one of us out there. There's a lot of us out there."

Some forget that John Brown was a 1,000-yard receiver last year. Beasley set single-season bests in receptions and receiving yards this season. Davis contributed seven touchdowns on just 35 catches. And McKenzie quietly provided five scoring plays on offense.

"You've got to be able to count on depth," said head coach Sean McDermott. "You've got to have depth in this league, this year in particular, with not only injuries occurring but the virus, knocking people out. So, it's highly critical."

"You've got to worry about a lot of guys on our offense," said QB Josh Allen. "At any given time, one of them can hit you deep."

Evidence of that came in Buffalo tying a league record with 13 different players on the roster catching a touchdown pass this season, even Allen.

"Dabe's does a good job of giving everybody opportunities and Josh does a good, good job of finding everybody," said Beasley. "So I'm very happy with how it's gone this season. I feel like we're spreading the ball around really well, and because of that you can't just take away one person. We have so many guys that they have to defend and that just makes it harder on the defense. So it's been good. I have no complaints at all."

Take a look at Cole Beasley's best photos from the 2020 season, presented by Toyota.

Player development

Though there have been others like the rookie Davis or TE Dawson Knox, the most obvious example here is Josh Allen, who made a king-size leap in advancing his game. The third-year signal caller has a relentless work ethic and rebuilt his throwing mechanics from the ground up. Opponents still underrate his football IQ and his ability to extend plays and improvise.

Scheme familiarity the past three seasons has certainly aided Allen's growth, but he's done a lot of the hard work himself and the Bills passing game is reaping the benefits. He's also soaked up valuable lessons through the course of his first two years as a starter, most notably from the painful loss in the Wild Card playoff game last year.

In addition to all of the production he has provided in turning this offense into a seemingly unstoppable force, he has successfully paired an inner calm with his command that did not previously exist in his game. That poise has rooted out the occasional crazy 'hero ball' play that would prevent outside observers from believing he was capable of reaching the elite level of quarterbacking he's now achieved.

"I feel like I'm night and day compared to what I was last year," said Allen. "I feel like I still have the same confidence when I step on the field. But just understanding this offense better, understanding my players better. Having them understanding the defense a little better allows us to be in a better spot."

His 10 percent jump in completion percentage year over year is almost unprecedented, but it's Allen's ability to make good decisions even when a play breaks down. He and his receiving targets have a knack for perfecting the scramble rules knowing Allen can put the ball anywhere he needs to even when they've gone off script and resemble something closer to backyard football.

"I've got a lot of confidence in Josh," said Daboll. "Some of those plays turn into really big plays. So, I have a lot of confidence in him that he'll make the right decision when he needs to make the right decision. Some of the loose plays that he makes we'll never take those away from him."


Scheme that can morph and change

While Daboll has always subscribed to taking advantage of specific matchups and adjusting the way in which to attack those matchups as the game unfolds, Buffalo's play caller demands a lot from his skill position players. Especially the receivers, who must know all of the positions in the system.

This enables Daboll to shift and move his players to different pre-snap locations thereby disguising identical plays with a different pre-snap appearance. The other benefit is he's able to alter matchups or facilitate high-percentage throws.

Buffalo's play caller also welcomes input from the players. Whether it's during the week or in between series in a game, Daboll will take any and all suggestions and doesn't hesitate to incorporate it into the game plan as late as Friday or Saturday before a game day.

During the game, if his players feel confident in turning to a play that was not part of the game plan he's all for it.

After missing on a deep throw earlier in the game against the Broncos in Week 15, Allen saw an opportunity to dial one up again in the second half and put in a request to Daboll.

"I went to (QB Coach Ken) Dorsey, and I said, 'This is the play I want to get called,'" Allen explained. "And Daboll gave me the opportunity to do it. He trusts me in those situations that if it's not there to find my outlets down underneath. But it's one of those plays we kind of got them with a quick count and our guys outran theirs and I gave Diggs the chance to go catch the ball. And that's what he did."

The result was a 55-yard pass play.

Allen isn't the only player who gets to improvise. The receivers can alter routes on the fly based on feel. This is an area of Buffalo's passing game that took countless reps and a lot of communication between Allen and his receivers.

"I do have a lot of routes that I have a lot of freedom with and those things take time no matter who your quarterback is," said Beasley. "When you have freedom in your routes like Daboll gives us sometimes it's going to take time. Josh has done a good job. He's actually picked it up really fast in my opinion. Last year within about five or six games he started to trust me and really know what I was doing, and it took off from there."

Commitment to team

Rooted in head coach Sean McDermott's philosophy of daily self-improvement is also a bond between players that is so strong, no one wants to be the weak link in the chain. Players genuinely want to deliver when their number is called.

In many ways that bond is constantly reinforced by Allen, who often takes hits in the pocket to wait on a receiving target for an extra half second to give them a chance to make a play.

"I was a little disappointed in my play one week," said Beasley. "I was excited for another chance to play better for my teammates the following week. Any time you've got a guy like Josh throwing to you, you never want to lose a route or let him down, because you know he's looking for you and he's going to get it there."

And Allen's competitive fire permeates the entire roster. He cares only about securing the victory and his style of play exemplifies that aim on every snap.

It has helped galvanize a roster that despite scoring a team record 501 points this season, good for second-most in the league, remains humble and hungry for a postseason they've worked all season to reach.

"I feel like we're just scratching the surface on the potential that we have," said Diggs. "Josh is still a young quarterback, but right now he's playing some elite ball. He's thrown for 300-plus. He's making good decisions. He's not turning the ball over. He's running. Stuff that he's done this whole season. So as a receiver, and him being my guy, I just want to give it all that I've got for him. Make the plays for him. But we're just scratching the surface on trying to chase greatness."

"Having a home playoff game now we've got to go in there and do our job," said Allen. "Go out and do what we set out to do before the season. This (13-3 regular season record) means nothing. It gave us the chance that we wanted. Now we've got to go take it."

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