SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months

Josh Allen's red zone prowess has been key in Bills' offensive revival

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

There are several areas in Josh Allen’s overall game where he has made substantial improvement this season, but one of them is not his efficiency in the red zone.

That’s because since he entered the league in 2018, he has been very good when the Bills have moved inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line since and has simply continued to roll on in this, his breakout season.

In the first 13 games of 2020, Allen has completed 39 passes in the red zone, which is fourth-best in the NFL, and his 19 touchdown passes is tied for sixth-most with a guy named Patrick Mahomes. The red zone category where he ranks No. 1? Interceptions, zero, which puts him in the company of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and DeShaun Watson among others.

And here’s something that may stun you. In his 41-game NFL career, Allen has attempted 142 passes and not a single one has been picked off, something none of those top-echelon QBs can say. He has 35 TD passes so yes, a TD-to-interception ratio of 35 to 0. Factor in his 22 rushing touchdowns and Allen has been red hot in the red zone.

Bills Josh Allen looks deep against the Steelers.

“Thanks for bringing that up,” coach Sean McDermott quipped with a smile, perhaps feeling that I just jinxed his quarterback as the Bills head to Denver Saturday to take on the Broncos with a chance to clinch the AFC East division title.

“It starts with a good plan, and specific to Josh, I think the element of the threat of the run game is there, which adds another dimension to defending him,” McDermott continued. “He understands what defenses he’s going to see down there and knows where to go with the ball. (Protecting) the ball is important down there, you go down with the mindset that in most cases you’re going to get points on the board so I think he does a good job.”

Allen and the Bills will have a tough test Saturday should they drive inside the 20 because the Denver defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL this year in red zone touchdown percentage as teams have scored TDs just 48.9% of the time. 

Got their backs:Poyer, Feliciano defend Bills Mafia after analyst knocks fans

On the defense: Improvement on third down has been key to the Bills recent surge

“Our guys believe in what we do down there,” Denver coach Vic Fangio said. “They feel good when we get down there, they feel confident that we can have success in the red zone. I just think it’s all of that, and good players help you do that.”

Interestingly, despite Allen’s success, the Bills have occasionally struggled to score touchdowns and are doing so just 58.5% of the time which ranks 18th. And what’s really weird is the games that are chiefly responsible for that middling figure are the two wins over the hapless Jets when Buffalo was a combined 3 of 13 in the red zone.

“We’ve got to be extremely disciplined, control what we can control and execute the game plan for what we’ve got going in,” Allen said. “But it’s evident when you see it on film, they play really well down there. And it’s no surprise to us that that’s their strong suit, so we’ve got to find a way to get in the end zone.”

Here’s my preview of the game:

Bills on offense

With Von Miller sidelined, Bradley Chubb is the Broncos' most dangerous pass rusher.

There have been times when the Denver defense has been stout other than inside the 20-yard-line, but this is also a unit that can be scored on as it has allowed 26 points or more in nine of 13 games. The only three QBs the Broncos really stymied were Cam Newton of the Patriots, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa who they actually chased to the bench, and Taysom Hill of the Saints who wasn’t asked to do any passing because Denver was playing a practice squad WR as its QB that day and had no chance to win. Based on performances this season, Allen is probably the second-best QB Denver has faced behind only Mahomes.

Fangio’s team has an injury crunch at CB. Two are already on IR, two more have been ruled out for this game, and A.J. Bouye is suspended for a PED violation so they will start De’Vante Bausby and rookie Michael Ojemudia. And while safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson have been a fine duo, there’s no doubt that Bills WRs Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis should have ample opportunities to make plays. 

One of the biggest keys will be the Bills offensive line giving Allen time to operate as it did in the second half last week. Denver’s pass rush may not be as strong as Pittsburgh’s, but edge rusher Bradley Chubb has 53 total pressures including eight sacks, while Malik Reed has six sacks. Denver’s 2.8 sacks per game is tied for sixth in the NFL.

The Broncos have not been good against the run as they’re 27th at 131 yards per game, so maybe Devin Singletary and Zack Moss will have some holes to slip through, but as long as the weather holds up, look for the Bills to continue attacking via the air because it’s what they do best.

Bills on defense

Tight end Noah Fant leads the Broncos with 44 receptions.

Over the past three weeks the Bills defense has started to look a little more like the unit that played so well in 2019. With five interceptions in that span, the Bills are now tied for fourth in the NFL with 21 takeaways, and that might prove interesting given that the Broncos have a league-high 29 turnovers. Last week, the play of the game was Taron Johnson’s pick-six, and a play like that would certainly be helpful in a game that will very likely be tight throughout.

Broncos QB Drew Lock is coming off a nice performance against the Panthers, but inconsistency has plagued him since he came in as a rookie in 2019. He’s completing just 57.3% of his passes with 13 TDs and 13 interceptions which is odd because he has some viable weapons, even without top WR Courtland Sutton who is on IR.

WR Tim Patrick has come on this year and six of his 43 catches have gone for TDs; rookie first-round pick Jerry Jeudy has a terrible catch percentage of 46.5%, but he’s starting to get things figured out and he’s averaging 15.9 yards per reception. And 6-foot-4, 249-pound TE Noah Fant is a physical matchup problem who leads the team with 44 catches.

In the run game, Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay are both expected to play, and if the Broncos get into a rhythm with their play-calling, they can be a formidable 1-2 punch as they have combined to gain 1,217 yards. The Bills have improved in the second half of the season, but they still rank 22nd at 4.6 yards allowed per rush attempt.

My pick: Bills 26, Broncos 24

The Bills are the superior team, both on the scoreboard based on record and when you compare the rosters. Denver is missing some key players while the Bills are uncommonly healthy and now have LB Matt Milano rounding back into form to further enhance the defense. And of course, the Bills have a big advantage at the most important position, quarterback.

Still, something about this game feels difficult to me. The Broncos are playing hard under Fangio despite some very trying circumstances this season, and they’re 4-4 in one-possession games including a win in New England and a victory over the Dolphins which really helped the Bills. I think they’re going to keep it close throughout, but with so much to play for, the Bills should prevail in the end and lock up with the division title.

Game information

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Empower Field at Mile High

TV: NFL Network (Adam Amin, Mark Schlereth, Lindsay Czarniak)

Satellite radio: Sirius 81, XM 226

Radio: 96.5 FM/950 AM

Series: Bills lead 21-16-1

Talking points

Drew Lock has endured an inconsistent season in which he had 13 TD passes and 13 interceptions.

► Broncos coach Vic Fangio on Josh Allen: “He’s having a hell of a season. The guy has really emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and I can remember when people were saying there wasn’t enough good quarterbacks for the league and it seems like we’re playing a good one every week, so I think that’s disappeared.”

► Broncos S Justin Simmons on the challenge Josh Allen presents: “He brings a lot of challenges. It’s crazy to see how much more they’ve improved, especially on the offensive side of the ball. It seems like Josh is a little bit more composed and comfortable in stepping up in the pocket, making accurate throws all across the field. Everyone knows he has the arm to do it, not to mention the additional weapons that they got with Diggs. He’s an elite receiver. All across the board, we have our hands full.”

► Broncos QB Drew Lock on facing Bills CB Tre’Davious White: “I played him when he was at LSU. He was somebody we watched and made sure we knew where he was at all times on the field. It’s going to be the same thing here. He’s an extremely talented corner, but it’s not going to be something that scares you off of a throw or scares you off of a match up. If my read takes me to him and I need to throw the ball, there’ll be no second guess about throwing it.”

NFL rankings

                                   Bills                               Broncos

Total offense:          375.4 yards (10th);          328.6 (25th)

Rush offense:         102.5 yards (22nd);         117.2 (13th)

Pass offense:         272.8 (3rd);                       211.5  (27th)

Points scored:        27.6 (9th);                        19.8 (29th)

Total defense:        363.8 yards (20th);           351.7 (16th)

Rush defense:       119.9 yards (T19th);         131.0 (27th)

Pass defense:         243.9 yards (19th);           220.7 (10th)

Points allowed:      24.7 (15th);                        26.7 (23rd)                                  

Individual leaders

Rushing

Bills: Devin Singletary 135 carries, 576 yards; Josh Allen 93-350; Zack Moss 84-335; T.J. Yeldon 10-70.

Broncos: Melvin Gordon 162-753; Phillip Lindsay 107-464; Royce Freeman 30-129; Drew Lock 32-101.

Passing

Bills: Josh Allen 323 of 471, 3,641 yards, 28 TDs, 9 interceptions.

Broncos: Drew Lock 185 of 323, 2,198 yards, 13 TDs, 13 interceptions.

Receiving

Bills: Stefon Diggs 100 catches, 1,167 yards; Cole Beasley 71-838; Devin Singletary 32-231; John Brown 29-386; Gabriel Davis 28-441; Isaiah McKenzie 19-183; Dawson Knox 17-172; Tyler Kroft 12-119; Zack Moss 12-82.

Broncos: Noah Fant 44-492; Tim Patrick 43-643; Jerry Jeudy 40-436; K.J. Hamler 29-377; Melvin Gordon 24-121; DaeSean Hamilton 16-198; Nick Vannett 14-195.

2020 Bills schedule

9/13      vs. N.Y. Jets, W 27-17

9/20      at Miami, W 31-28

9/27      vs. L.A. Rams, W 35-32

10/4      at Las Vegas, W 30-23

10/13    at Tennessee, L 16-42

10/19    vs. Kansas City, L 17-26

10/25    at N.Y. Jets, W 18-10

11/1      vs. New England, W 24-21

11/8      vs. Seattle, W 44-34

11/15    at Arizona, L 30-32

11/22    BYE WEEK

11/29    vs. L.A. Chargers, W 27-17

12/7      vs. San Fran, at Arizona, W 34-24

12/13    vs Pittsburgh, W 26-15

12/19    at Denver, 4:30 p.m.

12/28    at New England, 8:15 p.m.

1/3         vs. Miami, 1 p.m.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.