The easy reaction to watching Josh Allen do a better LeSean McCoy than LeSean McCoy does lately is to say the kid runs way too much.
A quarterback who piles up 234 yards with his legs — as Allen has done against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins the past two games to set and break his own single-game Buffalo Bills QB rushing mark — is just begging to suffer a serious injury, right? All this running just means his inexperience doesn’t allow him to read defenses well enough to find openings to throw the ball, doesn’t it?
Although there are times Allen’s 22-year-old eyes don’t serve him as well as those of a veteran passer, his runs also are a highly effective component of his game. And they should continue. Those 13 carries he had against the Jaguars for 99 yards? Keep it going. Those nine rushes he had against the Dolphins for 135 yards? All good.
Along with Allen’s passing, which took some major strides despite the loss at Miami, his running does more to help, not hurt, the Bills’ offense.
The most obvious reason is that, for someone who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 237 pounds, Allen has exceptional speed and explosiveness to generate difference-making chunk plays. Beyond that, he creates an enormous headache for opposing defensive coordinators who must choose whether to assign a “spy” to deal with his running and, therefore, have one fewer pass-rusher or one fewer defender in pass coverage.
Allen’s mobility also helps his passing, because the constant threat his legs present puts defenses in the uncertain position of sticking with coverage or reading to give chase if he takes off.
There’s no overlooking that he missed four games after suffering a sprained elbow while taking a hit at Houston on Oct. 14. But the blow occurred while Allen was in the pocket. He has taken other hits in other games. He will take more, including that cheap grab of the back of his collar at Miami that wasn’t called.
Keeping Allen or any quarterback completely safe is not going to happen in the human demolition derby that is the NFL. You live with the risk, but you also do everything you can to find rewards.
Allen’s ability to make dynamic plays with his feet is much more reward than risk.
“I see his running as nothing but an unbelievable plus,” former New York Giants quarterback and CBS NFL studio analyst Phil Simms said by phone. “One, (the Bills are) challenged with their (offensive) talent to begin with. Two, it makes defenses scared. They’ve got to be careful how they play him and how they play their offense because of his running. And it’s opening him up for chances like he had the last play of the (Miami) game (when Allen nearly connected with Charles Clay for the go-ahead score in the final seconds).
“It’s never too much, because when he runs the football, he is in total control. He sees who’s going to hit him, and he can now determine what kind of contact he gets, where he’s putting his body and what position he’s in for what’s going to happen. If he takes a hit and gets hurt, well, then he made the wrong decision, he overplayed the play. But he isn’t going to run with the ball and get blindsided. He sees everybody, sees everything.
“The danger is, when you’re in the pocket and you stand there too long — like idiots like me did — and you can’t see it all because you’re trying to throw it down the field or do whatever, you can take those vicious, blinding hits. You lose control the longer you stay in the pocket.”
During the standout career at Wyoming that prompted him to become the seventh overall pick of the draft, Allen wasn’t known for being the prolific runner he has become in the last two of his first seven NFL starts. That was largely because the scheme in which he played called for more compressed formations than the Bills employ.
“We didn’t do a whole lot of empty stuff at Wyoming,” Allen said. “I think that kind of spreads a defense out, it creates a little more lanes and I’m just trying to take what the defense gives me. I’m trying to go through my first, second, third and maybe fourth reads and if I don’t feel comfortable in the pocket, my time clock’s going off a little bit, I’m just trying to create positive plays.”
He seems to run much faster than the 4.75-second 40-yard dash he ran at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine. “People say I’ve got better game speed, but I don’t know,” Allen said. “I’m just trying to get first downs.”
That he has been so run-oriented in his two starts since returning from the injury isn’t a coincidence. In studying his first five starts with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, offensive assistant Shea Tierney and the Bills’ other quarterbacks, Allen recognized he was taking too many long sacks.
“They were hurting us in field position, hurting us in complementary football, so we’ve been working on stepping up in the pocket,” Allen said. “That’s where we’re trying to escape, forward instead of back, because (going back is) where those negative plays tend to happen.”
Granted, he needs to be smart about how he runs. Leaping over a linebacker, as he did on one of the 10 runs he had for 39 yards in the Bills’ upset win against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 23, might have been great for the highlight shows but it could have had devastating results.
“I don’t ever want to discourage the behavior,” former NFL quarterback and CBS game analyst Rich Gannon said by phone. “I think it’s a big part of his game and when I evaluate that position, that’s one of the first things I look at — the ability to escape pressure, extend plays, pull the ball down and run for a first down. Aaron Rodgers is as good as anybody when he’s healthy doing that.
“But what I would say is, (Allen’s) got to be smarter. I see him with the track jumps and broad jumps and jumping over players and those type of things. You do enough of that and you’re going to get an ACL, you’re going to get something bad happen to you. You look at RGIII. Marcus Mariota has learned his lesson a little bit; you watch him as of late. He’s done the baseball slide, because he’s had so many bad hits.
“Allen’s a big guy and I like that part of his game, but if I’m coaching him, I’m going to talk to him about, ‘You get outside the numbers, there’s got to be a sense of urgency to get what you can get and get out of bounds. You’ve got to be smart when you pull the ball down and run and be willing to slide, not take unnecessary hits. Because over time, it’s going to catch up to you.’”
Allen gets that kind of coaching from coaches and teammates. One cautionary voice that he frequently hears belongs to McCoy.
“I’m not going to lie about it, there’s times with him that we get into it a little bit, because he respects what I tell him,” the running back said. “We had the same thing in Philadelphia with (Michael) Vick. I told him, ‘Mike, please slide.’ Josh has a big arm, he’s very intelligent and he’s tough. But I tell him, ‘Hey, man, just start sliding a little bit more. You’re the franchise. We can’t afford for you to get hurt.’ ”
Allen insists he heeds McCoy’s warnings. He believes he has been more prudent with the running he has done the past two games than he was when he did his “Viking Leap” and displayed other forms of recklessness while on the move.
“I’ve done a really good job on protecting myself, whether it’s getting down, sliding, or getting out of bounds,” Allen said. “Obviously, sometimes hits are going to happen. That’s football, whether it’s in the pocket or outside the pocket.
“But I definitely don’t want to be the leading rusher. We’ve got to get 25 going and guys in the backfield going, and we’re going to be looking forward to do doing that in the next four weeks.”
Still, there’s nothing wrong with Allen also being a viable part of the Bills’ ground attack.