ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen hasn't always been great at improvising when plays breaks down.
Go back to his rookie season. It was Week 4 of 2018, and the Bills were down 13-0 to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Allen’s third career start. On third-and-5 from the Packers’ 20-yard line, Allen was blitzed and scrambled to his right.
With linebackers Blake Martinez and Reggie Gilbert barreling toward him, Allen chucked the ball in the direction of the end zone. It was an easy interception for cornerback Jaire Alexander.
The Packers, behind 298 passing yards from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, won 22-0; it remains the only game an Allen-led team has finished with zero points. Allen has improved in many ways since his rookie season, but notably among them is his ability to make improvised, off-platform throws on the run and accurately find his receivers downfield.
No one has had more completions (102) or touchdown passes (20) when taking four or more seconds to throw -- when plays or protection often break down and quarterbacks have to improvise -- since the start of 2020 than Allen.
It's a trait he admired from the quarterback he hoped to emulate before starting his NFL career.
“If there's one person that I could [model my game after], it'd be Aaron Rodgers,” Allen told NFL Network at the scouting combine in 2018. “Just the things that he can do off platform. He makes some crazy throws. He's a special guy, arm talent-wise, plays with a lot of grit -- that's what I try to go out there and do is compete and put our team in the best situation to win games.”
Allen, now an MVP favorite (+125 per Caesars Sportsbook), and Rodgers will meet for the second time on Sunday night (8:20 ET, NBC).
“As a kid looking up to [certain NFL quarterbacks] and now playing against them, it's very surreal,” Allen told ESPN. “They’ve been playing this game for a long time and they're still playing at a high level, and I'm referencing Aaron, again, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quarterback to ever play the game.”
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In Allen's first two seasons, he was not particularly good from outside the pocket. From 2018 to '19, he had the third-lowest QBR among qualified passers from outside the pocket and the second-lowest completion rate with an NFL-high seven interceptions on those throws.
But since the start of 2020, he’s thrown 22 TD passes to just two picks on passes outside the pocket -- tied with Patrick Mahomes for the most TD passes in that situation over that span.
“It’s earned trust, because he’s made mistakes in some of those situations in the past, but he’s learned from those things,” offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said.
ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen noted the running element and physicality Allen brings to the offense.
“I think you can make an argument that Josh Allen could have the most physical tools of any quarterback ever at the position in terms of his height, weight and speed, arm talent, physical element he plays with, the speed he can play with on the field and his toughness,” Bowen said. “When you put all those together, that puts you in a position, at times, where you can play through contact at the quarterback position.”
Dorsey said where Allen has really improved over the years that he’s been working with him (since 2019) is in his lower body, which is important even on off-platform throws, as the power that is generated on those throws comes from the quarterback’s legs.
“There's a lot of technical stuff that he's definitely continued to work on, and continued to get better at, and then there's obviously just the physical gifts that he's got behind it as well,” Dorsey said. “And then, just the ability to adjust with arc when you are off balance, because the harder you throw it when you're off balance, the more the ball dies on you.”
These plays highlight how Allen has been successful over the past three seasons working off platform and on the fly.
Week 3, 2020: Rams vs. Bills
Situation: Second-and-22 from L.A.'s 42, 8:21 remaining, Bills lead 28-25
Result: 5-yard pass to Stefon Diggs
Five total TDs and a clutch drive for a W.@JoshAllenQB's #LARvsBUF highlights! pic.twitter.com/7pRVjLm4gS— NFL (@NFL) September 28, 2020
A smile spread on Allen’s face when he rewatched this play. (Skip to 4:08 in the video.)
“We call those ‘attaboy throws.’ It's like, 'Attaboy, don't ever do that again,' right?” Allen said. “So again, just trying to make a play, understanding the situation of the game, and sometimes the risk far outweighs the reward, but again, certain situations within the game calls for that.”
The Bills were trying to hold the Rams off in the fourth quarter. Allen was pressured by Aaron Donald, who forced him to scramble to his left outside the pocket. Multiple Rams defenders followed Allen to the left side of the field, but he locked eyes with Diggs and threw the ball up right to his receiver as linebacker Micah Kiser was barreling in to push Allen to the ground.
“I don't think when I play, like, I go what I see go, off what I feel, because the bird-eye view is from the quarterback,” Diggs said. “He's seeing it kind of for me. So, I'm just running my route; I'm trying to get into open space.”
On this play, Allen threw from an odd arm angle that shows partly why it is challenging for right-handed quarterbacks to make good throws from the left side of the field.
“Aaron [Rodgers] is the best at going to his left -- he does an unbelievable job going to his left,” Allen said. “The left is very hard for right-handed quarterbacks. Typically all your momentum's [to the left], you gotta turn your shoulders, again, where your feet are in terms of where ... how you can get set and get your hips involved. It takes a lot of practice, but sometimes it's extremely instinctual, and it kind of goes back sometimes to baseball roots and like flipping too.”
Week 5, 2021: Bills vs. Chiefs
Situation: First-and-10 from the BUF 47, 1:26 left in the second quarter, Bills lead 17-10
Result: 53-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dawson Knox
.@JoshAllenQB is on a roll. A 53-yard touchdown to @dawson_knox! #BillsMafia— NFL (@NFL) October 11, 2021
📺: #BUFvsKC on NBC
📱: https://t.co/6zBjGnL9LY pic.twitter.com/c1eJud1LgL
In a rematch of the previous season’s AFC Championship Game, the Bills established a lead and were looking to build on it before the half. Allen had time in the pocket but quickly had pressure coming. He rolled to his right and threw a bomb to Knox while moving at 15.6 mph, the fastest Allen has run on a throw of 20-plus yards in his career, per NFL Next Gen stats.
“His movement in the pocket's unbelievable, and then against Kansas City, he's rolling out to the right, almost parallel with the line of scrimmage, and he throws a dart just across his body all the way down the field,” Knox told ESPN. “Hits me right in my chest like it was nothing, Just showing his arm strength off too.”
Week 4, 2022: Bills-Ravens
Situation: Second-and-3 from the BAL 45, 2:14 remaining, game tied 20-20
Result: 9-yard pass to wide receiver Khalil Shakir
"Allen can do magical things."— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 2, 2022
📺: @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/aEkFVDMGiR
The Bills needed to put together a game-ending drive to avoid giving the ball back to quarterback Lamar Jackson or giving kicker Justin Tucker another opportunity. With the Bills dealing with a variety of injuries at wide receiver, someone needed to step up, and it was the rookie Shakir, who made his first two career receptions in the game.
“[I] ran the corner route and started looking, just like I would normally do on any route, and with [No.] 17 the play is never over,” Shakir said. “So, no matter what route you have, when he get to moving it like that, just make yourself available. And that's all I did. I didn't really do nothing too special. Just turned around and he put the ball on the money.”
On the play, Allen tried to step into the pocket to buy time, but defensive tackle Justin Madubuike went around guard Ryan Bates and got an arm on Allen. After evading Madubuike, outside linebacker Odafe Oweh appeared set to sack Allen for a big loss, but Allen managed to turn around and sprint left, before firing off a pass across his body in midrun to Shakir, who kept his eyes on the quarterback throughout the play, near the sideline.
Allen created 7.24 seconds to throw on the play, his longest time to throw this season, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and the seventh-longest time this season.
“That last play, scrambling around, and him just trusting me and trusting the base rules and our scramble rules and making a big catch first there,” Allen said. “So, I get a lot of faith in [Shakir].”
At this point, does Allen's circus-like throws surprise anyone?
“Nah, hell, nah. I'll be more surprised when things kind of go like too regular or too vanilla,” Diggs said. “… I don't think it would be as fun. So, I feel like Josh still, he makes the game still fun for me, because it's still new. That little bit of backyard football makes it fun, like, damn, we just in the backyard throwing this ball around and I got a quarterback that can put it anywhere.”