Art of the QB leap: How Bills’ Josh Allen brings ‘backyard’ style to the NFL

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y — With a lane opening in the middle of the field, Josh Allen tucked the ball and took off. Allen, then an 18-year-old quarterback for Reedley College, quickly faced four defenders closing in from all sides.

But instead of juking or sliding, Allen did something unexpected. He leaped.

“I remember the very first time and I was like, ‘Holy hell, I can’t believe he did that,’” said former Reedley offensive coordinator Ernie Rodriguez. “And then, these runs and making people miss. The first time I saw him do it, I think might have been his very first start [against Fresno City]. And that was against our rival. So, it was a big game.”

Long before the Buffalo Bills quarterback got buzz during his rookie season by hurdling over then-Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr in 2018, Allen was hurdling defenders in junior college.

“What’s crazy is I see all these analysts and all these people on TV, like being amazed by what [Allen] does, but I saw it every day before anybody,” Rodriguez said. “He didn’t do it in high school, that wasn’t his thing. So, the speed aspect [he brought] was a big plus. I didn’t know he was that fast, that was huge.”

Allen has become known for those “wow” moments when he seemingly leaps over defenders with ease. Even while dealing with a UCL injury in his right elbow he suffered in the loss to the New York Jets, Allen’s dynamic nature as a rusher hasn’t changed. He leads the team in rushing (561) and rushing touchdowns (5) as the team prepares for a meeting Thursday at the New England Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime). The Patriots have allowed the seventh-most rushing yards to quarterbacks this season.

When asked what goes through his head when he’s up in the air, Allen referenced the lead character in the movie “Talladega Nights.”

“It’s very similar to Ricky Bobby. ‘I’m in the air, this is not good,’” Allen said on Kyle Brandt’s Basement podcast. “So, it just kind of happens. It’s like a split-second deal that, I’ve done a few times in my career now and at some point, someone’s gonna catch on and try to flip me in the air.”

In high school, Allen played different sports year-round, going from football to basketball to baseball. They all played a role in the leaping element of his game that is more “backyard” style — and part of what makes him a great quarterback, per former Wyoming offensive coordinator and Montana State head coach Brent Vigen.

“I think it’s that whole mindset of doing whatever,” Vigen told ESPN. “I really [have] never seen him play basketball, but I guess his ability to shoot maybe wasn’t awesome, but he could jump over some people and all that. That’s the instinct, I think, that takes over, no different than he’ll take someone on with his throwing shoulder every once in a while.”

Allen’s standout leaping moment this season came when the 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback jumped over Chiefs safety Justin Reid back in Week 6.

After that leap, a local graphic designer printed a picture and placed it at the intersection of Hertel Avenue and Wellington Road in Buffalo. Hertel was respelled as “Hurdle.”

Pictures of Allen jumping over things pops up often on social media and the move never fails to cause a big reaction from the Bills sideline.

But what’s it like for defenders to be hurdled by Allen?

First NFL hurdle

When: Sept. 23, 2018

Situation: at the Minnesota Vikings, third-and-10 from the Buffalo 36

Allen’s first NFL leap came in his first career road start. It was also his first career win as a starter despite coming into the game as a 17-point underdog. The Bills built a 17-point lead. Allen got the snap on third down just as the play clock was running out. As Allen ran downfield, Barr bent ever so slightly to try and make the tackle. But as he did, Allen went up and over.

What it was like to be hurdled: “I didn’t even really go low on him either, which is the craziest part,” Barr, now with the Dallas Cowboys, told ESPN. “I still don’t really know where he is, you know? Honestly it was crazy. I think that was, not that play, but that game was kind of his coming party. Obviously, he’s had his ups and downs since then but a tremendous athlete.”

The play brought national attention to the rookie because he did something players at his position usually don’t do.

“Now how many quarterbacks have you ever seen hurdle anyone,” CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz asked after the play.

The sideline went nuts for Allen. Safety Micah Hyde said he thinks he ran on the field trying to dap up Allen, but also said, “Don’t do it again.”

“I remember he kind of ran away from me on one play, too and people were kinda giving me s— about it,” Barr said. “’Oh, you let a quarterback out run you.’ I was like, ‘This dude is different, man. He’s an athlete now.’ He’s getting his respect. Well deserved. I think he’s kind of paired the arm now with the legs and he’s playing at a high level. It’s unfortunate it happened to me, but, hey, obviously I haven’t been the only one.”

The latest hurdle

When: Oct. 16, 2022

Situation: at the Kansas City Chiefs, trailing 20-17; first-and-10 from the Kansas City 28 with 2:00 left in the fourth quarter

A game-winning drive opportunity against a Chiefs team that had knocked the Bills out of the playoffs the past two years? Quite a chance for an exclamation mark. After the snap Allen kept the ball himself and ran to the right behind right tackle David Quessenberry, who moved left to block cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (someone Allen leaped over in 2021).

Reid moved to stop Allen as he ran toward the sideline. Not so fast.

Coolest moment for an O-lineman? “I thought he was gonna stick it, and then keep running. I was out in front of him. I’m like, ‘Well, I’m gonna block him, he’s gonna cut right behind me and we’re gonna score a touchdown, it’s going to be frickin’ all time,’” Quessenberry told ESPN. “That was an awesome run by him.

“I remember out of my peripheral seeing him just like, go up like, OK, he did it … And then you hear the stadium go, you’re like, ‘Oh man.’ That was definitely one of the coolest feelings as an offensive lineman to be out on the perimeter, feel the quarterback and then you’re like, ‘Oh man, this could be something cool.”

What it was like to be hurdled: “I knew he had the capability to do it,” Reid said. “It sucks that it happened to me. But he gets paid a lot of money to make plays like that. Sometimes you’re going to make plays and sometimes he’s going to make plays.”

After the jump, Allen picked up a few more yards, including the first down. Then he went back to the huddle to complete the game-winning drive.

“It’s split second, it really is,” Allen said of the decision to leap. “Just trying to make a play for our team given the situation there.”

Are Allen’s leaps worth the risk?

The safety question of Allen’s running and leaping, like other dual-threat quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson, comes up often. The leaps are far and few between because they leave a runner open to big hits. When Allen picked up 21 yards with his legs in the first quarter against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, he took on safety Kerby Joseph who tackled him. Allen got up and did the Conor McGregor strut to celebrate.

Coach Sean McDermott was asked on the CBS broadcast midgame what he thinks in those moments when Allen takes off to run.

“Slide. I want him to go down more than anything … ” McDermott said. “When he comes across the tackler, slide.”

Allen has not missed a game since 2018.

“Honestly, he still kinda looks for contact and I know those guys up there are telling him, ‘Hey man, please get down. Please get out of bounds,’” Barr said. “He’s dealt with some injuries and I think a lot of the reason is because he looks for that, looks for the contact, which is probably not recommended. But it works for him so more power to him.”

This season, Allen has slid on six of his 81 rushes. Among five quarterbacks who have had 80-plus rush attempts this year, his slides are the second fewest only behind Jackson (zero).

What does Allen think when he’s taking on defenders?

“Believe it or not, really the only thing that’s going through my head is don’t get hit.”

Limiting his “backyard” style is not something the team wants to do, while at the same time acknowledging the importance of keeping him safe. Allen’s abilities allow him to be a difference-maker every week.

“I’ve never played with anybody like Josh. He’s really a very talented player, creative football player,” Quessenberry said. “He’s really dangerous, you know what I mean? The arms, the legs, the way he sees the game, the way he sets everything up. It’s a lot of fun to be out there with him.”

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer and Adam Teicher contributed to this report.

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