Early on this season, after the Bills opened eyes through four weeks with their willingness and ability to win games via the deep passing game, opponents tried to stifle their offense with zone coverages intended to force Josh Allen into short throws and – by extension – long drives.
For a time, it worked. Tennessee and Kansas City used the strategy to hand Buffalo its first two losses in Weeks 5 and 6. Following a tight victory over the Jets in Week 7, Cole Beasley admitted the Bills would continue to see such coverages until they proved they could solve them.
Well, as head coach Sean McDermott and his staff preach often, the goal of a season is to evolve to the point where you're playing your best football heading into January. That evolution on offense was on full display against the 49ers on Monday.
Facing a zone-heavy San Francisco defense, Josh Allen and his receivers turned in arguably their most prolific passing day of the season. Allen was playing his childhood team and making his debut on Monday Night Football, yet he played with a poise that suggested he could have been back at Firebaugh High or wearing a vintage Frank Gore jersey on his family farm.
Part of the credit, McDermott said, belongs to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for putting Allen and the offense in positions to succeed.
"It's one thing to have the right plans, it's another thing to call the right plays at the right time for the quarterback in the offense," McDermott said. "Those are two separate things but two traits that you have to have."
Daboll's game plan saw receivers work their way open seemingly at will. Allen spread the ball and took what was given, whether he was feasting on curl routes to Stefon Diggs or lacing a pass over the outstretched fingertips of two defenders and into the arms of Gabriel Davis.
"He did a good job of executing what he needs to execute for his position," Daboll said. "He didn't hold on to the ball too long. He got it to the open guy. We had some outlets there. He didn't wait on other guys getting open.
"He did a good job of seeing the second level part of the defense. And when they stretched out, he hit Diggs on a couple of those curls."
As a result, the Bills sustained drives with the passing game at a rate rarely seen in team history. They saw 53.7 percent of their pass plays go for first downs, their highest mark since 2003. Their 22 passing first downs tied a team record set in 2002.
Cole Beasley alone hauled in nine first-down receptions, tied for second among Bills players since radar360 began tracking the stat in 1992 (Andre Reed had a 11 in one game in 1994).
When the 49ers attempted man coverage, Daboll and his offense had an answer too. The most shining example was the 23-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie, which saw Davis screen defensive back Tarvarius Moore from reaching McKenzie as he sprinted out of the backfield.
Allen admitted afterward that he was in a zone. Was Daboll?
"Look, when you're calling a game, you prepare during the week, you study, you make adjustments," the coach said. "It's really no different each week. Credit to the players and the assistant coaches, they make the job easy. Our guys put a lot of time and effort into putting things together.
"I think we've got a really good staff and a bunch of players that work hard. Ultimately, it's the responsibility of those guys to be able to go out there and do it. They're the ones getting hit and getting blitzed and have to get open. I just give all the credit to the players."
Here are more notes from Week 13.
Milano shows signs of progress
Matt Milano was eased into a limited role in his return from injured reserve, playing 19 defensive snaps (primarily on passing downs) while A.J. Klein – on the heels of a Defensive Player of the Week performance in Week 12 – maintained his starting role at linebacker.
All that said, early reports from McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier were promising regarding Milano's health coming out of the game and how it could affect his outlook going forward.
Frazier specifically mentioned Milano's third-down play late in the first half, when the linebacker shoved his way past right guard Colton McKivitz and pressured quarterback Nick Mullens into an errant throw.
"That was vintage Matt," Frazier said. "They had a guard blocking a linebacker and he just runs right through the guard and hits the quarterback. I mean, that's what he brings to our defense. So, I thought overall he did a good job with the limited snaps that we gave him, enough to where we can look to maybe increase that based on how he practices this week and if he has any soreness when we get back in the building tomorrow."
O-line shuffle leads to strong outing from Boettger
Ike Boettger joined the starting lineup at left guard and played every offensive snap against the 49ers, with Jon Feliciano sliding over to right guard and Brian Winters switching to a reserve role.
"He did good," Daboll said. "You know, he's a tough guy. Again, go back to the tough and smart. Those are two qualities that we place a high premium on, particularly at that position. You need to be working together -- all five of those guys need to be working together -- he's a guy that we've got confidence in."
A "hard lesson" for Moss
Zack Moss had already received five touches before fumbling a handoff near the Bills' own goal line following a defensive stand in the first quarter. His next carry did not come until the fourth quarter, a decision McDermott detailed Tuesday.
"The reason you didn't see him is because we can't put the ball on the turf like that and expect to win games," McDermott said. "So, Zack had to learn a hard lesson and my conversation with Zack was really just, more importantly, is he able to reset? Was he able to reset during the game?
"We brought him back in, which I think that speaks to our trust in him and in our belief in him, number one, and then his ability to reset, as I mentioned, and go back out there and make the adjustment he needed to make for our football team. I think it's as straightforward and as clear as that."