In what is expected to be a chilly atmosphere at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night. In Week 14, the Bills got the better of the Chiefs with a 20-17 win on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. On Sunday, Kansas City has the chance to avenge the loss — and advance to the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday.
A key to the Chiefs’ success will be stopping Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen. One of the game's elite playmakers, Allen will need to be the focus of the Kansas City defense. While his legs make him a dynamic threat on any down, the Chiefs will be best served by finding ways to slow him down on first down.
Domination in the Wild Card round
In Monday afternoon’s 31-17 Wild Card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a large factor in Allen’s success was his ability to make first-down plays. While these plays weren't all home runs, they did allow him to get into rhythm and settle into the flow of the game.
Josh Allen's passing numbers on First Down against the Steelers:— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 17, 2024
For the #Chiefs to find a way to win they need to disrupt his rhythm on the early downs.
Against the Steelers, Allen played one of his best games of the season on first down, leading to a smooth offensive performance. Of Allen’s 203 passing yards, 121 of them came from first-down plays.
It’s taken a while for the Bills (and Allen) to reach this level of efficiency. During the season, Allen had one of the league’s lowest first-down completion percentages — just over 51% — which ranked 29th. When he couldn’t convert on early downs, he found himself in third-and-long situations in which he was more likely to commit a turnover. He had 22 of those in 2023 — the league’s second-highest mark.
Still, Buffalo led the league in third-down conversion percentage (49%), which was largely due to Allen’s ability to make out-of-structure plays with his legs.
First down success
Early in the season, the Bills’ offense was aggressive, depending on deep downfield shots. This contributed to Allen’s turnover issues — and eventually led to the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Under new offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Allen not only limited his turnovers, but improved his first-down efficiency.
Monday’s game against Pittsburgh was an excellent example.
Things to watch out for from Allen on first down:— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 18, 2024
1. Short completions to build rhythm and create offensive tempo.
2. Shot plays on sudden change and when they cross the 50.
3. Designed runs late in the game. pic.twitter.com/us3gNfaTsx
Throughout the Steelers game, the drives where Allen was able to complete first-down passes were the ones that led to Buffalo scores. The drives where he threw incompletions on first down — specifically, on the drive’s opening play — ended as three-and-outs.
While these short first-down completions are easy dink-and-dunk plays, they help the Bills' offense get into favorable situations on second and third downs. In the second half of the season, plays like these have been critical to Allen playing a more efficient brand of football — and reduced the pressure on him.
The Bills will still take downfield shots — and first down has often been a time they choose to do it — but only after they are past midfield or coming off a sudden change like a turnover. When run at the right time, these big shots have taken defenses by surprise — and have led to points.
Still, Allen’s legs are among his biggest assets — so late in games, the Bills have gone back to giving him some designed runs. These compromise opposing defenses by giving Buffalo a numbers advantage in blocking — and when combined with the production of running back James Cook, give it one of the league’s most dangerous rushing attacks.
Kansas City’s defense will have its work cut out for it — but there are some ways that coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit can stop the Bills on first down.
Blitzing on early downs could throw off Allen’s timing, preventing him from getting any rhythm or flow in the offense.
It will also be important for the Chiefs’ linebackers — who will likely be in spy looks — to contain Allen on the ground.
While this will put more pressure on the secondary, cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie are playing their best football of the season — and with linebacker Drue Tranquill available to cover tight ends, Kansas City should be able to manage things on the back end.
All of these will tend to put Allen in less favorable downs-and-distances — and will increase the Chiefs’ likelihood of creating a turnover.
The bottom line
For the last month, the Buffalo offense has been playing at an elite level. So the Kansas City defense will need to find ways to quickly get it off the field — and this will start on early downs.
Kansas City and Buffalo have played some all-time classic games. This should be another one — and the Bills will get plenty of chances to move the ball and put points on the board. NFL games aren’t typically decided on first downs — but on Sunday night, they will be important to both teams.