ORCHARD PARK — Five weeks ago, it seemed like if the Buffalo Bills were going to climb back into playoff contention, it would be on the back of Josh Allen.
Instead, a showdown with the Miami Dolphins for the AFC East championship and the No. 2 seed in the conference looms and there are legitimate questions about whether Allen and his receivers can rebound from a tough stretch.
During Buffalo’s four-game winning streak, Allen is averaging 183.3 yards passing per game and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 24 games — and for the sixth time in 65 games — in the Bills’ 27-21 win over the New England Patriots Sunday.
Allen’s numbers have decreased by more than 30 yards in December and January over the last four seasons, but he’s down almost 50 yards over the last eight games. And against the Patriots, the passing game looked disjointed and Allen flustered in a 7-for-20 first half that netted just 46 yards.
The Bills say they will do whatever it takes to win, but it seems unlikely they can beat the high-scoring Dolphins without Allen’s arm. And if they don’t — and Jacksonville and Pittsburgh win — the Bills will be watching the postseason from home.
“I think there’s been a couple of games where I haven’t thrown it my best,” Allen said. “You wish it was perfect every time you went out. When you’ve had success as an offense before — especially in the passing game — when it’s not going your way, you’re just trying to find all the answers. But at the end of the day, we’re just trying to find ways to execute and win football games and we’ve been doing that as of late.”
And with the decline of the passing game — some of which correlates with averaging 34 more yards on the ground over the past eight games — has resulted in a decline in production from receivers.
Gabe Davis has been mercurial, going without a catch in four of the last eight games, while also having a pair of 100-yard outings.
But no player has taken the brunt more than Stefon Diggs, who has finished fewer than 40 yards in five of the last eight games after recording at least 100 in five of the first six this season. He’s also got just two touchdowns — none in the last four games — during that stretch after recording six in the first eight games.
In his first season in Buffalo, Diggs actually produced more receptions, targets, yards and touchdowns during the back half of the season, but all of those numbers have been down in the second halves of the last three seasons.
Since 2021, Diggs has averaged 94.2 yards per game during the first half of the season, compared to 58.1 during the second half. But neither of the previous two seasons have shown a decline like this one.
Diggs has 36 receptions in the last eight games, down from 64 in the first eight, while he also has 28 fewer targets, 400 fewer yards and four less touchdowns. The presumption is that Diggs is simply being taken away by defensive schemes, but over the last two games, teams have used safety help on 14 of 41 routes.
Against the Patriots, Allen targeted Diggs on eight of his 15 routes with single coverage, based on a film review by the Gazette. Plus, Diggs has dropped five of his career-high eight passes during the second half of the season.
And now, Diggs’ playing time has declined also, playing 65% of the snaps or fewer over the last four games. On Sunday, Diggs played 31 of 37 snaps in the first half — a typical workload — but logged just 14 of 32 snaps in the second half, including missing the entire eight-play touchdown drive to open the third quarter, something offensive coordinator Joe Brady said wasn’t intentional and was the result of how the drive went.
“I think sometimes the flow of the game dictates that,” Allen said. “Defenses, whether it’s doubling him or throwing a safety over him, or being the first read in progressions and just getting off of it maybe too quickly. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it.”
Brady made similar remarks about Diggs’ playing time, saying they have specific packages designed to give him a rest throughout the course of the game. Meanwhile, Bills coach Sean McDermott said he hasn’t been notified about any injuries that are limiting his ability to play.
But prior to the last three games, Diggs had just one game of fewer than 76% of the snaps this season, a 37-3 blowout of the Washington Commanders in Week 3. And during his first three seasons with Buffalo, Diggs played fewer than 70% of the snaps in four games, all of which were lopsided and the starters were taken out of the game early.
There is a clear decline in usage, as Diggs has gone from being targeted 64 times in the first eight games to 36 in the last eight. The beginning of the season came with chatter that Allen was too focused force-feeding Diggs, who had at least 10 targets in six of the first eight, compared to two such occurrences over the last eight.
“Even when it looks like he’s in a one-on-one, there’s always eyes on him and there is a safety potentially working to it,” Brady said. “It’s not going to be every play naturally. We’ve got to get him going. I’ve got to get him going. But I understand it also can’t be something where we’re forcing him or Josh is forcing a ball and making bad decisions.”
There are also other factors contributing to the decline of the passing statistics, including the increase in the running game, particularly in the red zone. The Bills have run 25 plays inside an opponent’s 10-yard line and 20 have been designed run calls since Brady took over as the play-caller seven games ago.
Allen’s accuracy has declined from 77.1 in the first eight games to 58.8% in the last eight despite averaging more than a half a yard less per attempt. But when he’s on target, receivers haven’t always been reliable, with three third-down drops against the Patriots.
The Bills have 30 drops this season, with 19 coming in the last eight games. Buffalo currently has the seventh-most drops in the league, but still less than it had the last two seasons.
“As you go along the season, I think fundamentals, the mundane things start to kind of slip,” Bills receiver Trent Sherfield Sr. said. “Looking the ball all the way in, catching it, framing the ball the right way, all those different things. I think those things kind of slip, you just kind of have to remind yourself like it’s Week 1 again, even though it’s Week 18.”
Still, the Bills are confident they can pull out of their current passing lull. Frankly, because Allen has done it several times before.
He surpassed 300 yards twice in the last eight games last season, only to throw for 352 yards against the Dolphins in the AFC wild-card round. Allen also completed 57.2% of his passes and threw five interceptions in the last six games of 2021, only to complete 77.4% of his passes for 637 yards and nine touchdowns in two playoff games.
“Whether we’ve got to run the ball 1,000 times or pass the ball 1,000 times, as long as we come out with one more point than the other team, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Bills receiver Khalil Shakir, who has played 60.5% of the snaps since Week 8 after playing 37.6% in the first seven games. “Whatever it takes.”
NOTES: The Bills opted to keep rookie receiver Justin Shorter on injured reserve, with his 21-day window closing to end his season without playing a game. … Cornerback Rasul Douglas was named the AFC defensive player of the week after intercepting two passes and returning one for a touchdown against the Patriots. … DE Leonard Floyd (rib/rest) and DE Von Miller (rest) did not participate in Wednesday’s walk-through, while S Micah Hyde (neck) and S Damar Hamlin (shoulder) were limited.