ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Matt Barkley led the Buffalo Bills‘ offense to its most prolific first half in 19 seasons, but his performance in a Nov. 11 victory over the New York Jets bowed to the franchise’s need to develop Josh Allen when coach Sean McDermott decided to start his rookie at quarterback on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Barring further injury, Allen will return from his sprained right elbow to presumably start the remaining six games of the regular season. The playoffs are no longer a realistic possibility for the Bills, who at 3-7 have a 0.3 percent chance to return to the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Welcome to the Josh Allen development camp.
The stage is set for Allen to take a step forward in the final six weeks of the season, which would inject optimism into the upcoming offseason. The Bills have the NFL’s easiest remaining schedule, according to ESPN FPI, and still have four home games to play. Their Dec. 23 trip to New England is their only contest against a team currently with a winning record, and the best defense Buffalo will face after Sunday is the Jets unit they shredded for 41 points before their bye week.
The first chapter of Allen’s season ended on what might have been his best throw. His 39-yard dart to Kelvin Benjamin down the middle of the field during the third quarter of a Week 6 trip to Houston was an example of Allen’s raw arm talent being combined with accuracy, timing and pocket awareness — traits Allen had not consistently packaged through his first five starts.
Among all quarterbacks to attempt at least 50 passes this season, Allen’s 61.8 passer rating ranks 40th, ahead of only that of teammate Derek Anderson (56.0) and former teammate Nathan Peterman (30.7). His 32.2 Total QBR ranks 36th, his 54.0 completion rate ranks 41st and his 5.99 yards per pass attempt ranks 37th.
Clearly, Allen must greatly improve in order to become a viable long-term starter in the NFL. Here are some particular areas where Allen could benefit during his upcoming development camp:
1. Perform under pressure: Teams have attempted to rattle Allen by sending extra rushers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he has been blitzed on 29.8 percent of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts. Not surprisingly, that has led to Allen being pressured on 37.6 percent of his dropbacks, also the third-highest rate in the league. Allen is holding the ball for a league-high 3.15 seconds before passing and paying the price by being sacked on 11.8 percent of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the NFL. When pressured, Allen has completed 30.8 percent of his passes (38th) for 3.44 yards per attempt (37th), a 12.8 first down-per-attempt rate (38th) and 7.7 percent interception rate (35th).
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll kept it simple Tuesday when asked what Allen must do better under pressure, saying, “Throw it to the right guy and complete it. … You got to play. You got to get experience. You got to be able to work it. You can only do so much in practice. When the bullets are live, [knowing] the slight re-movement of your eyes downfield. Know when to take off. Know when not to take off. Don’t run out of the back of the pocket. Those are things you can only coach off of game tape.”
2. Refine relationship with Zay Jones: For Jones, the Bills’ second-round pick in 2017, to be considered one of the better young receivers in football, there is ground to make up. He is tied for 42nd in the NFL among wide receivers with 37 catches and ranks 57th with 392 receiving yards. However, Jones is the most promising piece of the Bills’ statistically-barren offense, topping the team in both yards and catches. Two of his best four games have come since Allen’s injury, and he caught a career-high eight passes for 93 yards in the blowout win over the Jets. Jones has caught only 56.5 percent of his targets from Allen, a lower rate than the other three quarterbacks with whom Jones has played this season. However, Jones said Tuesday he believes his rapport with Allen continues to improve, both on and off the field; the two will spend the Thanksgiving holiday together.
3. Protect his body: Allen’s highlight-reel hurdle of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr during a Week 3 upset win was a sign of Allen’s athleticism, but also a reckless decision that could have led to injury. Coaches made it clear they did not want Allen to repeat the maneuver, but the opportunity for Allen to get hurt while tucking and running still exists. Through Week 6, Allen ranked third among quarterbacks in rushing attempts and sixth in rushing yards. More wisely choosing his spots when to run and when to slide will be part of Allen’s evaluation in the remaining six games. Another injury would not only further knock off track Allen’s development, but also result in a slog of late-season games with Barkley or Derek Anderson behind center.