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How to tackle Josh Allen is a focal point of Steve Spagnuolo’s game preparation

The Bills’ talented signal-caller has a cannon for an arm — but his legs may be even more dangerous.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC Divisional Round game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills will feature two of the NFL’s most talented quarterbacks. Few can match Patrick Mahomes’ arm — but Buffalo’s Josh Allen is one of the quarterbacks who can rival Mahomes’ throwing ability. He’s also among the league’s best running quarterbacks.

When he first entered the league, Mahomes’ talent translated right away, allowing him to be named NFL MVP in his first season as a starter. In contrast, Allen — while he was selected in the draft even more highly than Mahomes — needed a few years to become one of the league’s best.

When he did so in 2020, he looked like an MVP candidate. While he wasn’t at the same elite level in 2021, his skills are still admired by the rest of the league’s players and coaches — including those of his next opponent.

“He’s playing good football,” Kansas City head coach Andy Reid told reporters on Wednesday. “He’s done a nice job. I watched him when he was at Wyoming. He was a heck of a player there — well-coached — and then moves into the National Football League and every year he’s gotten better. What more can you ask from a quarterback than that — from a coaching standpoint?”

AFC Championship - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

During his Wednesday press conference, Mahomes also took the time to praise Allen.

“He’s a tremendous player,” he said. “They put a lot on his shoulders — and he rises to the occasion. He’s able to run the ball, he can throw the ball, he has the arm strength to throw it anywhere on the football field, and he makes great decisions. Like you said, we’ll probably play them a lot of times. It’ll be great competition — and it’s definitely a great challenge for us as a team to compete with them.”

Reid and Mahomes can be in a state of admiration because they don’t have to prepare to stop Allen. That duty falls on defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo — who said that in this week’s meetings, he has emphasized how to bring down the quarterback, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds.

“We’ve spent a lot of time this week in the couple meetings we’ve had, talking about how to tackle this quarterback,” Spagnuolo revealed to reporters on Thursday. “We don’t usually spend so much time talking about tackling a quarterback — but he’s big, he’s strong, he’s got the stiff arm. If you don’t get him down with a couple of guys, he’s already shown he can break tackles. He extends downs.”

Buffalo designs plays in which Allen is utilized as a ball carrier — but he’s almost more dangerous when turning a passing play into a scramble.

“The remarkable thing about him is when it’s not a designed-run play — yet he decides to run it because he maybe was passing then pulled it down — he’s always looking downfield,” noted Spagnuolo. “He’s got a strong arm. He proved that against us the last time he played, when a down got extended and he chucked it deep. Not only running the football, but scrambling and throwing the ball deep really have to be first concerns for us.”

Safety Tyrann Mathieu will be trying to put his teammates in the best position to effectively defend against Allen. That can sometimes feel impossible — because Allen can turn any play into a huge, game-changing gain or score.

“I think he’s a great athlete,” Mathieu began. “He’s obviously a guy that can make all the throws — and any time he’s using his legs, it seems like it’s to his advantage. So it obviously adds extra pressure on the guys that are covering — but it also adds pressure on the guys that are rushing him just to stay in their lanes and not let him break containment and get into [the] open field.

AFC Championship - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“But I think any time he decides to tuck and run the ball, we have to treat him like a running back — and treat him like one of these wide receivers — where all 11 guys have to pursue and get to the ball. I think it’s going to be one of those games where we’re going to have to tackle him — and we’re going to have to tackle him well.”

When Allen is being utilized as the ball carrier, it creates a natural disadvantage for the defense. In Week 5, he rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on 11 attempts. Two of those carries came on designed runs during the first drive. One popped for 23 yards; the other gained nine yards and a touchdown.

“When it’s a designed quarterback run, what happens is that there’s an extra blocker for the offense — because the guy normally would be carrying the football is blocking for the quarterback,” explained Spagnuolo. “They’re going to have the numbers, so someone is going to have to beat a block and win a gap — or play two gaps and get off it quick enough to make a tackle.”

So there is a lot of thought that goes into how to defend a quarterback who can be equally dangerous as a passer or a runner. It’s not impossible — the Kansas City defense shut down Allen and the Bills during last year’s AFC Championship — but when Allen is playing at the peak of his abilities, it can sure feel that way.