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The Bills need Josh Allen’s arm to catch up with his legs

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Josh Allen isn’t much of a passer, but his running. Good lord, his running.

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Josh Allen’s biggest selling point as an NFL Draft prospect was his arm. The 6’5 quarterback out of Wyoming had the strength to wing passes 50 yards downfield with just a flick of his wrist. With the right development, he looked like the kind of talent who could make the freak plays only guys like Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler could before him.

But 14 weeks into his NFL career, Allen’s biggest asset hasn’t been his ability to throw downfield — it’s been his legs.

Allen’s scrambling has made him one of the league’s most dangerous mobile quarterbacks. Since returning from an elbow injury, he’s run for more yards than any other passer in the league. In fact, from Weeks 12-14, only one player in the entire league has more rushing yards than Allen: Giants running back Saquon Barkley.

That’s right. Josh by-god Allen has more rushing yards the last three weeks than Derrick Henry, the guy who just ruined your fantasy football season with a 238-yard Thursday Night Football performance. He’s averaged three more yards per touch than Barkley, the man single-handedly ruining the Giants’ tanking plans.

The NFL’s leading rushers, Weeks 12-14

Player Rushing attempts Rushing yards Yards/carry
Player Rushing attempts Rushing yards Yards/carry
Saquon Barkley 51 396 7.8
Josh Allen 31 335 10.8
Ezekiel Elliott 77 309 4.0
Derrick Henry 35 308 8.8
Lamar Miller 45 298 6.6

In nine games, Allen has thrown for just 1,429 yards and five touchdowns. He’s run for 490 and five touchdowns. His 54.4 rushing yards per game are more than Randall Cunningham averaged in all but one of his 16 NFL seasons. His 7.4 yards per carry is nearly two full yards higher than Cam Newton’s best season average. Somehow, this burly quarterback is just a couple of late-game kneel downs away from having three straight 100-yard rushing performances.

That’s something no other quarterback has ever done before in the modern era — not even the gold standard for dual-threat quarterbacks, Michael Vick.

So how is Allen doing this?

Despite average straight-line speed — he ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine — Allen’s got athleticism rarely seen in 6’5, 237-pound quarterback. He showed off the combine’s best broad and vertical jumps among QBs and had the second-best three-cone drill time, though the uber-athletic Lamar Jackson didn’t participate in any of those exercises back in March.

He’s put all three of those traits — decent speed, solid lateral quickness, and explosive jumping — into his drive-extending runs this fall.

His size also plays a role in his ability to churn out yardage. Allen isn’t much of a slider, often opting to use that big frame to barrel through defensive backs and falling forward through contact. He’s only 10 pounds lighter than bruising tailbacks LeGarrette Blount and Derrick Henry. When he gets a head of steam, he’s an unpredictable hoss opponents have struggled to wrestle to the ground. His longest run Sunday against the Jets was a 31-yard scramble that all started with a stiff-arm to defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

Allen isn’t fast enough to outrun defensive backs, but he’s quick enough to burn linemen and most linebackers. He’s also got great vision upfield, anticipating and finding the holes that lead to big gains. With a lack of above-average targets in the passing game — Buffalo’s wide receiving corps most notable contribution to the national discussion came after the club cut Kelvin Benjamin last week — he’s had to create something out of nothing more often than not.

The Bills’ receivers, currently led by Zay Jones, Robert Foster, and Isaiah McKenzie, have consistently struggled to get open in 2018. That, coupled with Allen’s rookie indecision, has given the first-year quarterback an average of 3.3 seconds before unleashing the ball downfield — by far the longest time to throw in the league. That extra time allows Buffalo’s targets to drag defenders downfield, opening the holes through which Allen has burst to claim his spot atop 2018’s quarterback rushing leaders.

That predilection to hold the ball has also led Allen to be sacked on more than 10 percent of his dropbacks, however. It’s not exactly a sustainable strategy.

Allen’s athleticism hasn’t translated elsewhere on the field yet. While his ability to create space and avoid defenders seemed like a solid fit for a “Philly Special” style quarterback throwback play, his first target as a pro did nothing but leave him briefly crumpled on the turf against New York.

Still, Allen’s ability to run with the ball should be a feature, not a bug, for a creative offensive coordinator.

What’s this meant for the Bills?

Allen is roughly the same size as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And while the Pittsburgh passer has used his size, strength, and Weeble Wobble-esque balance has been paramount to his ability to extend plays, his running has always been a function to free up his aerial attack. With Allen, it’s different; his ability to run has been the balm meant to soothe the scars left by his inaccurate passing downfield.

It’s been a useful, if inconsistent, crutch for a young passer facing a steep learning curve in Buffalo. Four of Allen’s five touchdown runs this season have come in his three wins as a starter. He’s got just one in his six losses. More tellingly, he’s averaged 20 passes and nine rushes per game in Buffalo’s wins, but approximately 28 passes and only 6.5 runs per game in the Bills’ losses.

Allen’s legs have been strong enough to carry him through mediocre games, but his best running efforts have gone for naught in his worst passing performances. His two 100+ rushing yard games both ended in four-point Buffalo losses thanks, in part, to a pair of drive-killing interceptions in each. The rookie has one game in his career where he’s thrown for multiple touchdown passes, but four in which he’s thrown multiple interceptions. Unsurprisingly, all four were losses.

That’s going to make keeping his 100-yard streak alive extremely difficult as opposing defenses catch on to his game. While Allen’s runs are unpredictable since few of them come on designed QB keepers, opponents won’t be shy about pulling a defensive back out of the lineup in order to insert a linebacker or safety whose primary role is to shadow the rookie whenever he gets an itch to take off downfield to escape a collapsing pocket.

Allen’s accuracy concerns in college have followed him to the NFL — he’s completed just 52.4 percent of his passes, nearly four full percentage points lower than the warning signal he cast to NFL scouts as a quarterback at Wyoming. He’s currently the proud owner of a 5:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But he doesn’t have to have a great passing performance to give the Bills a chance to win. He’s thrown for only 146 yards per game and two total touchdowns in his three victories in 2018. He did just enough to allow his running ability to bridge the gap between wins and losses.

That’s going to be difficult to sustain, and it’s already proven to be no fast pass to success. Allen’s running can’t paper over his tendency to sink his team with turnovers, and it’s only going to get more difficult for him to find space as teams get more and more game film of his scrambling tendencies. While his running has been an impressive asset in an otherwise depressing rookie campaign, he can’t lead the Bills back to the postseason in 2019 or beyond until he finds a way to dial up his accuracy and avoid costly mistakes through the air.