Mac Jones is a perfectly reasonable NFL quarterback.
He is not Josh Allen.
That made all the difference Sunday.
Jones threw for only 145 yards behind a run-heavy offense. He was a cog in a machine. Allen, on the other hand, was the whole dang engine.
The fourth-year QB stared down the league’s top-ranked defense and rode his WR4 to a 33-21 win over the New England Patriots. Allen finished with 378 total yards and three touchdowns in a game that gave the Buffalo Bills control over their own destiny in the AFC East.
Thread it. 👀
📺: @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/849Iya2GNB
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 26, 2021
Over the past two seasons, Allen is 2-0 in Foxborough with seven touchdowns, more than 630 passing yards, and a pair of double-digit wins over the division’s previous boss level. On Sunday, he completed seven of his 12 passes 10+ yards downfield against the league’s top-ranked secondary, throwing for two touchdowns and a 122.9 passer rating in the process:
Allen painted a masterpiece in his biggest regular season game of 2021. Rather than cede the AFC East back to the Patriots after a one year hiatus, he made a statement about Buffalo’s playoff hopes. He converted half his third down attempts and three of four on fourth down, either running or throwing the ball on all 16 of those situations. Sean McDermott is a very good coach, but his gameplan is very simple; give the ball to his best player and expect magic.
It’s a good strategy! The Bills are 8-1 when he records a passer rating of 90 or better and 1-5 when he fails to hit that mark. He’s also run for 40+ yards in more than half his games this season, giving him more rushing yards than tailbacks like D’Andre Swift or Clyde Edwards-Helaire, He averages 0.6 fewer rushing yards per game than Saquon Barkley.
Allen is an economy unto himself for Buffalo. Stopping him is possible, but sometimes without rhyme or reason — his worst game of the season came in a 9-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars that makes just as much sense today as it did at the time. These are the teams that have held him to his worst performances:
That’s a wild list. Two of the teams here, New England and Miami, each got roasted by Allen in rematches later in the season (and that first Patriots game happened in gale force winds). His 86 passer rating came alongside 417 total yards and three touchdowns vs. the Buccaneers. The Steeler loss happened in Week 1, which is the most explainable week to brainfart your way to disappointment.
The Jaguars performance is still inscrutable. I’m gonna blame that on Allen playing hooky for the week, Ferris Bueller style, and hiring another 6’5 guy off Craigslist to wear his uniform instead.
What does this tell us? Well, now that Allen is rolling it’s nearly impossible to stop him without a top 10 defense. And if you do have a top 10 unit and he’s seen you before, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will likely have a few new wrinkles in his game to list that passing offense to new heights.
That’s bad news for the Pats, Colts, and, yes, somehow the once 1-7 Dolphins on the AFC side of the playoff bracket. The Bills are clicking again, and familiarity is only breeding contempt for Josh Allen.
As for New England, major questions loom about a once-uncrackable defense that’s allowed 60 points the last two weeks against teams they can reasonably expect to see in the AFC side of the playoffs. The Patriots have been vulnerable to superstar performances, whether it’s on the ground from Jonathan Taylor or through the air via Allen.
The rising expectations of a six-game winning streak are gone. Bill Belichick’s odds of winning the AFC East are down to 10 percent and there’s a reasonable chance he could wound up overtaken by the Dolphins, who are on a seven-game heater of their own.
Their loss Sunday fell on a defense that couldn’t cover a depleted Buffalo receiving corps. Still, Mac Jones’ regression from “franchise savior” to “regular rookie quarterback” has played a role. From Weeks 4-12 he completed more than 71 percent of his passes, averaged 8.1 yards per attempt, had a 14:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 105.4 passer rating. In the three weeks since, his completion rate is down to 52.5 percent. He’s averaged 5.8 yards per pass. His TD:INT is 2:4 and his passer rating is 57.4
In the world of quarterback tiers, the only guys keeping him from the bottom the past three weeks are passers like Mike Glennon and Zach Wilson:
That’s troubling, but not unfixable. Defenses have evolved to Jones’ passing style, noting his added comfort in the pocket and blitzing less in order to fuzz up his passing lanes downfield with more defensive backs and linebackers. Here, his play-action handoff doesn’t freeze AJ Klein long enough and the rookie leaves a pass where the retreating veteran can get to it, leading to a volleyball-set interception in the first half:
The Bills were also able to wipe away the slow-growing gains Jones had recorded in his intermediate and deep-ball passing game. Behold, a very sad passing chart!
The rookie completed just two of his 12 passes 10+ yards downfield (though the aforementioned interception only ended up there after getting tipped into lower earth orbit). That’s a “game manager” grouping if I’ve ever seen one.
Where does that leave us? With a rapidly turning tide in the AFC East but the lingering notion the Patriots will be fine. Jones only had two meaningful second half drives before garbage time in Foxborough Sunday and turned those into 24 plays and a pair of touchdowns. He could have been more efficient, but he didn’t shrink from the moment.
The question is whether that will be enough to win a playoff game in his first year. The shock of his early-season strength has worn off and good defenses have found new ways to rattle him beyond “blitz him until he inevitably runs backward on third down.” Now Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel have to engineer the next step in his development after he came through his first semester in QB school with high marks.
Houston is in a bind. The lone bright spot of its 2020 season, Deshaun Watson, wants a trade and is currently the subject of more than 20 accusations of sexual misconduct in a civil court of law. Any deliverance secured by a high 2022 NFL Draft pick is clouded by one of the weakest crops of collegiate quarterback prospects in years.
An injury to stopgap starter Tyrod Taylor forced 2021 third-round selection Davis Mills into the lineup. Mills was more upside than experience as a prospect; he’d only played 14 games at Stanford. Those growing pains were evident over the first half of a season that interspersed confident throws with rub-your-eyes moments that made you swear Brock Osweiler had shrunk a few inches. Over the last month, however, he’s begun to look like a viable bright spot for a team that’s had few of them.
Mills, playing for a bad team with few playmakers to bail him out — his top running back is Rex BY-GOD Burkhead — has thrown more and thrown better as his rookie campaign reaches the home stretch. That’s been a rising tide for a Houston roster that, despite its management’s best efforts, probably won’t be 2021’s worst team. Here’s how that turnaround looks statistically:
Over the first five starts of his career, Mills was a more turnover-prone Mason Rudolph. Over the four that followed, he’s blossomed into 2019/20 Derek Carr — which sounds like an insult, but is secretly code for a top 10 quarterback surrounded by waiver wire receivers and whom no one is watching.
Mills hasn’t been throwing deep often — his 7.0 air yards per pass ranks 28th among 32 qualified starting quarterbacks. When he does, he’s been successful. 33 of the 144 passes (23 percent) he’s thrown in his last four starts have traveled 10+ yards downfield. He’s completed 18 of them for 444 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 129.9 rating. He’s 7-13 on his deep balls (20+ yards downfield) while averaging 17.9 yards per attempt.
Mills’ opponents over this stretch haven’t been awful, but caveats exist. His worst performance in that four-game stretch, in terms of passer rating, was against the Jaguars’ 31st-ranked defense. His 310-yard performance against the Rams was buoyed by fact LA led 38-0 in the fourth quarter and absolutely did not care about the final frame. LA’s second-team defense gave way to 220 of his 310 passing yards, both his touchdown passes, and a truly depressing beat for any prop bettors who took the under on his total yardage. He threw the ball 49 times but didn’t lead a single touchdown drive in the final 56 minutes against the slumping Seahawks.
His performance in Week 16 was much more inspiring. Mills shined brightest in his rookie class on a day where Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, the first two picks of the 2021 Draft, were able to look competent because they were playing each other’s teams:
Compare that to the third rounder, who stared down a prospective playoff opponent and outplayed one of the best young quarterbacks in the game.
But, of course, no recap of Texans-Chargers would be complete without discussion about Burkhead, who did a very Rex Burkhead thing by absolutely demolishing a bunch of meaningful fantasy slates with a 149-yard, two-touchdown, 28.9 fantasy point performance no one saw coming. It’s a further installation of the Chargers’ woefully deficient rushing defense; a group that gave up more than five yards per carry over the first half of the season.
That gave Mills plenty of room to operate, and he ran with the opportunity en route to the kind of game capable of getting local fans unreasonably excited about a once-grim future. Over the past three weeks, he’s been a top 10 quarterback:
This is stunning when you consider between Weeks 1-7 he was a bottom four guy.
Is it sustainable? It seems unlikely, but Mills’ ability to switch from low-impact, low-risk short passes to an efficient intermediate and deep-ball game provides evidence opponents won’t be able to shut him down simply by sitting on routes close to the line of scrimmage. If nothing else, this competence has given Houston an excuse to take the best player available in next year’s draft rather than reaching for a QB. It also provides a little extra leverage in Watson’s impasse with the franchise, though that’s so unavoidably tied to the off-field storm surrounding him that it’s difficult to really know if it’ll make a difference.
Mills may not be the long-term future in Houston, but he’s more than just a discarded lottery ticket. Even if he’s just clean-shaven Gardner Minshew that will bring stability and direction to a team that’s lacked either recently. The rookie quarterback probably can’t keep this up, but he’s already exceeded expectations in year one with the Texans.
The Steelers came into their 4:25pm kickoff in Week 16 as the seventh and final invitee to the AFC side of the 2021 NFL Playoffs. They walked out of that game with a 36-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and a spot in 11th place in the conference.
The game was another triumph for Kansas City’s surging defense and a display of the offense we’ve all begrudgingly accepted as the AFC’s most likely overlord each preseason. That’s not surprising. Also not surprising? Ben Roethlisberger’s inability to drag his team into a firefight.
The 39-year-old quarterback remains a shell of the Hall of Fame-bound player who’d kept a long tradition of victory alive in western Pennsylvania. He’s firmly limped into the late-stage Drew Brees section of his career, unable to fire passes into tight windows downfield and facing diminishing returns on his short-range passing game as well.
The interception above is a perfect encapsulation of Roethlisberger’s losing battle against time. The Steelers’ choice of a first quarter flea flicker is meant to create space in an occasionally airy Chiefs secondary. It does, but not like Pittsburgh wants it to; Kansas City’s deep backs remain in zone coverage roughly 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, taking away any deep ball theoretically created by the toss back.
This leaves plenty of room for an intermediate throw above the second level of defenders but in front of those deep safeties, however. At least two guys are open enough downfield for even a lobbed toss, if on target, to result in a 15+ yard gain. Roethlisberger singles out Ray Ray McCloud, who has a defender approximately 10 yards behind him but no one underneath. A tightly-thrown ball would result in a big gain. Instead, Big Ben throws a pass that looks like this roughly 60 percent of the way into its flight:
Yeesh. That ball floated up and over a leaping McCloud and into the hands of Charvarius Ward for an easy interception. Six plays later, the Chiefs doubled their lead and this game was over.
Roethlisberger still sees coverages unfold like he did in 2005 or 2009 or 2018. His waning arm strength means he’ll skip some passes downfield or throw them into windows that no longer exist. He overcompensates on some throws, which helps create some old school magic — he high-pointed Diontae Johnson with a bullet on the sideline to convert second-and-long on his first drive of the day — but also leads to a lack of control and passes that float into the atmosphere and become sinking balloons for defenders to bat around like a toddler.
As a result, his average throw depth is down from 10.1 in 2015 — third-deepest among starting QBs that year — to 6.5 this fall, third-shortest. None of this is especially surprising; in terms of target depth and statistical efficiency he’s roughly the same player as he was in 2020. So why were those Steelers 11-4 at this point last season and this version is 7-7-1?
The first reason is that Roethlisberger’s wideouts haven’t been able to spin hay into gold with those short targets thanks to his lack of accuracy. His on-target throw rate fell from 76.4 percent to 72.0 this season despite throwing shorter passes on average. This has been especially notable in the red zone, and his touchdown rate has dropped from an above average 5.4 percent to 3.9, which would be the third-lowest number of his career.
There could be some fault applied to his wideouts here — wide receivers have accounted for only 10 of the team’s 30 offensive touchdowns in 2021 — but that group is also averaging more yards after catch than last year (5.0 to 4.8) despite lower quality targets. This is much more a Roethlisberger problem than a Chase Claypool sophomore slump.
The other, much more glaring issue is that a once ferocious defense now kinda sucks. The 2020 Steelers ranked first overall in total DVOA, forced more turnovers than all but one other team in the league, and allowed 312 points in 16 games. The 2021 edition ranks 22nd in defensive DVOA, has a -1 turnover differential, and has allowed 371 points in 15 games.
That’s a big difference, but it’s happening in a familiar way. Last year’s team sprinted out to 11-0, then finished the season 1-5 while giving up more than 28 points per game — including 48 to Baker Mayfield and the hated Browns in the Wild Card round. This year’s team got to 5-3-1 before the 2-4 stretch that’d smashed its playoff hopes into bits. All four of those losses came in games where opponents scored at least 36 points.
None of this points to a happy ending for 2021. The future may not be much brighter.
Where can the Steelers go post-Roethlisberger? They’re currently looking at the 15th pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. That could still net them a top three quarterback prospect if they so choose, but this year’s crop of passers is one of the weakest of the millennium. The free agent market will be typically underwhelming — Ryan Fitzpatrick, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor — and the trade market could be headlined by Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson or by Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo. Either way, there’s no slam dunk option to come to the Steel City.
It’d be nice to think even a guy like Handsome James could make a difference, but the team’s blocking up front makes that a tough pill for anyone to swallow. The Steelers only rank 22nd in pass protection and their 2.1 yards before contact on handoffs is the third-lowest number in the league. Any draft capital given up in the quest for a plug-and-play QB is capital that can’t be spent upgrading that line. Whomever ends up back there is gonna get hit often and won’t be able to rely on an efficient running game to lift some pressure from his shoulders.
That situation, coupled with the team’s cap situation and Roethlisberger’s contract, made him a Roy Rogers restaurant on the Jersey Turnpike — the best option amidst a terrible lineup. It’ll also have Mike Tomlin staring down the end of one quarterback’s era without a reliable blueprint of how to start the next. There’s no easy answer for the Steelers’ future, other than to the question whether Roethlisberger will be part of it.