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Analyzing the Ken Dorsey offense

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OTAs are going on for the Buffalo Bills and their offensive unit, for the most part, has continuity within its personnel. But there are a few changes — James Cook, Jamison Crowder, Roger Saffold, etc. — and Ken Dorsey’s lead as offensive coordinator is a subtle shift as well.

He does bring three straight seasons of experience with this offense and, specifically, assisting in the emergence of Josh Allen. With the weapons Brandon Beane has added for Allen as he enters his prime, the latter’s connection with Dorsey will be most vital in the pursuit of the Super Bowl.

Given his experience as a National Champion and former NFL QB, Dorsey has seen success in football with a similar formula and approach. While Brian Daboll is in New York, Dorsey will just bring an extension and personal touch to this latest Buffalo Bills offensive unit.

Playing days: The U & The NFL

Ken Dorsey played for some of the best teams in college football history. In the midst of winning the 2001 National Championship, with what many believe is the greatest college football team of all time, the Orinda, CA. native went 38-2 under center with the Hurricanes.

There was a mix of talent all around Dorsey on offense, specifically with the running backs — former Bills Willis McGahee and Frank Gore, and Clinton Portis, to name a few. Miami’s ground game was a staple in that era. The Hurricanes had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of Dorsey’s final three years in South Beach.

But Dorsey also saw some talent in the skill group with receivers like Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, former Bill Roscoe Parrish, and Santana Moss. Let’s not forget, though, that he had some real weaponry at tight end as well.

Whether it was Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, or Kellen Winslow II, Dorsey found his tight ends early and often.

Ken Dorsey’s NFL career may have been less fruitful, but he saw offenses that continued to feature tight ends. First in San Francisco with Eric Johnson, then with his old Miami teammate in Winslow when he went to the Browns.

Coaching in Carolina

Former Carolina Panthers QB Cam newton (left) talks with former QB coach Ken Dorsey. The tandem worked together from 2013-17, including an MVP season and Supe Bowl 50 appearance in 2015. (AP/Perry Knotts)

That strong TE play was highlighted again for Dorsey as he began his coaching career in Carolina. He was able to help Cam Newton grow by leaning on Greg Olsen, resulting in three straight Pro Bowl seasons. Speaking of Newton, Ken Dorsey’s claim to fame was assisting the former No. 1 pick to his 2015 MVP season and Super Bowl run as his QBs coach.

But what people tend to forget is Newton’s best stretch of play in the NFL came with Dorsey. From 2013 to 2017, while Dorsey was on staff, Newton was a three-time Pro Bowler and produced his best in the air — 118 touchdown passes, 65 interceptions, an 85.3 passer rating, and a 56.3 QBR. Superman Cam was of course best known for his skills as a runner, though.

Newton scored 32 of his NFL record 75 career (QB) rushing TDs on scrambles and designed runs during that period. He also racked up 2,873 rushing yards for an average of 574.6 per season.

What also assisted Newton was an overall commitment to him and the running game. In each of his five seasons working with Dorsey, Carolina ranked top 10 in the NFL in rushing attempts.

His size and skill set have drawn many comparisons to Allen. However, the thing about it is Allen has already surpassed Newton in terms of passing accuracy. Just look at the last three seasons alone: Allen has averaged a 75.7% on-target throw rate, while Newton is at 67.6%.

But Allen’s legs are just as dangerous. He’s averaged 581.2 rushing yards per season. And his 31 rushing scores are the most in the NFL for a QB since 2018; 10 more than the second-place finisher… Newton.

Ken Dorsey has helped develop Allen into more of an elite passer from the pocket than just the true scrambler he was early in his career. Allen’s bad throw rates in 2018 and 2019 were at 25.7% and 20.3%, respectively. Meanwhile, the last two years have brought on a lower bad-throws rate (16% in 2020, 17.4% in 2021).

So factoring that all in, what could the 2022 Buffalo Bills offense look like?

Projecting Dorsey’s offense

Running Backs

While Dorsey saw a bevy of running backs in Miami’s attack in college, a commitment to the running game while working in Carolina, as well as the influence of Brian Daboll — who comes from the Bill Belichick and Nick Saban coaching trees — the 2022 Bills running game will be different than those other units.

Adding Cook to the backfield gives the Buffalo Bills depth in the RB room. That’s something they haven’t seen since LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams, and Mike Gillislee helped the Bills lead the league in rushing yards, TDs, and yards per carry in 2015. I’m not sure if I see this year’s unit leading the league in rushing stats. But Dorsey will be able to deploy his backs in a unique way, unlike before.

The Bills do not have a bad offensive line, but I am not sure if it is elite either. That was a huge piece in why the Bills were a dominant rushing team from 2015 to 2017. But it should be strong enough to clear holes in the running game and protect Allen in the passing attack.

Devin Singletary may not be a superstar back, but he is an ideal 1A or 1B in a committee system. That’s why Bills fans were so excited at the hopes of Zack Moss contributing with him following the 2020 draft. But Cook and Singeltary together could pose mismatches for teams, even on the field together.

Even if they are not on the field together though, Dorsey will remain committed to running the ball. Take the 2021 season for example; even with the struggles of the offensive line and running attack, Dorsey saw Daboll’s commitment to the run and how it benefitted Allen.

The Bills had eight games in 2021 where they rushed for over 120 yards, finishing with a record of 7-1. In those eight outings, Allen’s recorded a 61% completion rate, 266.7 yards per game, 17 TDs, 7 INTs, and a 94.6 passer rating.

Tight Ends

In addition to the running game, the use of the tight end should increase now with Ken Dorsey at the helm. Last season, the Buffalo Bills only used 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) on 10% of their offensive snaps (120). But with the signing of O.J. Howard, Dorsey could be inclined to keep him and Dawson Knox together on the field.

Knox had a breakout in 2021 and could be featured even more in 2022. He garnered 71 targets over 15 games but could hover beyond 80 if he stays healthy all season. Howard should be more of a blocking TE. But he could also be a receiving threat, especially if Knox is with him on the field in the slot.

Wide Receivers

As for the wideouts, it’ll be intriguing to see how Ken Dorsey and new QB Coach Joe Brady come together. With Dorsey’s tutelage under Daboll, and Brady’s work with Sean Payton and Drew Brees in New Orleans and Joe Burrow at LSU, the Buffalo Bills receiver room could be in line for a quicker, shorter passing attack, but also attacking downfield in play-action.

The West Coast system is where both of these offensive minds come from. So timing routes and getting the ball out of Allen’s hand at a rapid pace could be coming soon. I mean, how could Allen not like that with weapons like Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Jamison Crowder, Isaiah McKenzie, and Khalil Shakir?

WRs 1 & 2: Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis

Diggs and Davis are the traditional No. 1 and 2, respectively, so it will be something to watch in how Dorsey uses them. The former Vikings star has been much more of a short-to-intermediate threat in Buffalo. But he can still get by DBs downfield like he did almost all game in the team’s first Jets matchup last season.

On play-action passes alone in 2021, Diggs’ yards per target jumped from 6.9 to 8.9 and his yards per catch went from 11.9 to 14.3. And, despite hauling in just 29 of his 103 play-action targets in 2021, Diggs scored four of his 10 TDs on such plays. So look for him to be a featured target, as usual, but even more so in the play-action game.

Now Davis could be the true X-factor for this unit. He’s the definition of efficiency. Since 2020, the Central Florida product’s 16.4 yards per reception are tied for eighth-highest in the league. Of those within the top 10 of YPR, his 13 TDs are tied with Ja’Marr Chase for most in the NFL. Additionally, his 1,148 yards rank third in that group, despite just 74 career targets.

He could look to be the top deep threat in a high-octane passing game. He’s ranked top 20 in each of the past two seasons in terms of average depth of target (12th in 2020, 19th in 2021). Although there may be fewer targets to go around, Davis’ defined role in the offense is apparent. He could explode in 2022 just like he did to cap the ’21 season.

Three Viable Slot WRs

The big question will be how do Crowder, McKenzie, and Shakir fit into this mix? All of which should be slugging it out for snaps in the slot. That position is huge in the West Coast scheme. These three receivers could garner looks the way Cole Beasley did over the past three seasons. Beasley may be leaving behind 231 receptions and 325 targets during his Buffalo Bills tenure, but his three replacements (in my opinion) have the physical skills to top him.

I’m not sure if any will have an All-Pro campaign like Beasley did in 2020, but there should be more strength in numbers. Having three viable slot options makes it easier to spread the passing game around, as well as moving guys around on offense and in special teams.

Crowder seems to be in poll position to take over in the slot. However, McKenzie should also have value as a gadget player in varying formations. Just give him the ball in space; he’ll find his way into the paint.

Shakir is the name to watch, though. The former Boise State WR could elevate to the No. 2 slot option before it’s all said and done. He is more well-rounded than McKenzie and brings more of a speed element to the field than Crowder.

The question is, will Shakir be able to get on the field? The Bills used three-receiver sets on 71% of their snaps last year. That number dips all the way down to 7% for four-receiver sets, then down to 1% for five-WR looks.

So Shakir will most likely need to outperform Crowder to supplant him as the team’s top slot option. Maybe that comes later in the season or maybe Shakir will need more seasoning with 2023 in mind.

Whatever the case, he should be a piece in one of the top offenses in the game this fall. No matter if it’s Shakir, Diggs, Davis, Cook, Knox, or Howard, Ken Dorsey and Josh Allen could help this Buffalo Bills offense reach new heights in 2022.

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