Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Buffalo Bills are looking a whole lot like the best team in football. No, they're not undefeated like the Philadelphia Eagles; but they are 5-1, and their underlying metrics are even better than Philadelphia's as they prepare to play host to Aaron Rodgers and the reeling Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.
The Bills rank second in the NFL in both offensive and defensive EPA per play, according to TruMedia, and the Bills are the only team in the league to rank inside the top five in both categories. They're also second in offensive DVOA and first in defensive DVOA at Football Outsiders, as well as eighth in special teams DVOA.
It is not at all difficult to figure out where the lion's share of the credit for this start should be going. On offense, it's Josh Allen, and specifically the Allen-Stefon Diggs connection. And on defense, it's the terrifying pass rush that has been taken to a new stratosphere by Von Miller, who has unlocked things for defensive linemate Gregory Rousseau.
Since the Bills' Week 14 game against the Buccaneers last season -- which came six days after the crazy wind game they played against the Patriots -- Allen is 328 of 507 (64.7%) for 3,808 yards (7.5 per attempt), 36 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while also having rushed for 732 yards and five more scores on 111 carries (6.6 yards per attempt). In case you're counting, that's 4,540 total yards (349.2 per game) and 41 total touchdowns (3.2 per game) in just 13 contests (including playoffs). That's a full-season pace of 4,980 passing yards and 47 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, along with 957 yards and another seven scores on the ground. It would be arguably the best quarterback season we've ever seen. And Allen is in the midst of it right now.
The major difference in Allen's play this year is how aggressively he is taking what defenses are giving him early in the play. Allen's time-to-throw average is down significantly from the past two seasons, according to TruMedia, while the share of his passes that have been released within 2.5 seconds of the snap has skyrocketed and is now nearly equal to the share of throws that are released in 2.6 seconds or more.
|Year||EPA/DB||Comp %||TD %||INT %||YPA||Sack %||Time to Throw||% < 2.5 sec|
Where he used to have to be coaxed into throwing the ball underneath or throwing to his running backs at all, he is now affirmatively seeking out those throws. Accordingly, he's at a career-low in average depth of throw, but nearly matching his career-high in yards after contact per catch. The biggest beneficiary of this shift has been Diggs, who has turned 42 targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage into 35 receptions for 317 yards and a touchdown. Only four players have more receptions (Austin Ekeler, Cooper Kupp, Michael Pittman, Tyreek Hill) or yards (Kupp, Ekeler, Ja'Marr Chase, and Pittman) on those throws.
One symptom of Buffalo's midseason struggles a year ago was Allen's seeming lack of chemistry with Diggs, particularly on deep passes. That's disappeared this season: Diggs' catch rate plummeted from 76.5% in 2020 to just 62.8% in 2021. It's all the way back up to 75.4% this year. And on throws of at least 15 air yards, Allen and Diggs connected on 20 of 38 attempts for 479 yards and two scores in 2020 before hooking up for just 14 of 37 for 454 yards and one score last year. This season, they are already 12 of 20 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. (Allen is also 8 of 13 for 325 yards and four additional scores to Gabriel Davis, despite Davis missing a game and playing through injury in several others.)
Allen and Diggs have also gotten into a mind meld on throws to the perimeter. They have Aaron Rodgers-to-Davante Adams-esque chemistry on back-shoulder throws, with Allen whistling the ball directly behind a defender's head and into Diggs' waiting arms with a ridiculous degree of consistency. When targeting Diggs with throws outside the numbers (also known as the toughest throws to make), Allen is 23 of 28 for 296 yards and three touchdowns.
To put that in perspective, consider that while the rest of the receivers in the league are catching these passes just over 65% of the time, Allen is completing them to Diggs at an 82% clip. Leaguewide, these throws have resulted in a first down 37.4% of the time but for Allen and Diggs it's been 46.4%. The league average success rate (in terms of generating positive EPA) on these throws to wide receivers is just 50.8%, but for Allen and Diggs, it's 75%. The rest of the NFL's wideouts have converted 74.3% of their air yards into receiving yards on these plays, while Diggs has converted 99.3% of his. The entire rest of the league is averaging 1.85 yards per route run on these throws, but Diggs is all the way up at 3.75 per route. And these throws have generated 0.20 EPA per play leaguewide, but with Allen throwing to Diggs, they've yielded 0.68 EPA per play. That is outrageous stuff.
In the absence of star cornerback Tre'Davious White and with injuries to one or both of their star safeties (Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer) at different times this year, the Bills have needed their defensive front to carry more of the load than in years past. Boy, have they lived up to the challenge.
The Bills rank fourth in the NFL in pressure rate, per TruMedia, despite a microscopic 14.2% blitz rate that is by far the lowest in the NFL this season, and second-lowest in the last five years. Buffalo has also generated a sack at an 8.4% clip on opponent dropbacks, the fourth-best figure in the league. Adjusted for time, score, down, and distance, Buffalo has the league's best sack rate, according to Football Outsiders.
Miller and Rousseau are by far the biggest contributors here. There are 140 players who have rushed the passer at least 100 times this season, per TruMedia. Buffalo's starting edge rushers rank seventh (Miller) and eighth (Rousseau) among that group in pressure rate, generating a sack, hit, or hurry on 17.2% and 16.8% of their pass-rush snaps, respectively. Whether they're rushing from opposite edges or (occasionally) on the same side of the line, it's damn near impossible for offensive lines to deal with them both.
Beyond the two stars, Buffalo is also getting strong performances from players like DaQuan Jones (his 8.2% pressure rate is on path with those of Chandler Jones and Cameron Jordan) and, prior to his injury, Jordan Phillips. (With Phillips having had the bye week to rest up, perhaps he can get back to the level he'd reached earlier in the season.) And even when the Bills take Miller or Rousseau off the field, they're able to fill those spots with A.J. Epenesa or Carlos "Boogie" Basham Jr. On the interior, they also have Tim Settle contributing, and Ed Oliver having eased his way back into action prior to the bye.
All of this is just way too challenging for opposing offenses to handle at the same time. And because it is, that has given Buffalo's young players in the secondary the luxury of playing a ton of zone coverage with extra defenders hanging back in the passing lanes, and not having to cover for all that long. That's a devastating combination, and it's worked wonders for the Bills early this season.