The Rollercoaster Series: Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills

Stevie Johnson has to fight for his recognition.

The wide receiver position in Football is like no other. No other position in any sport is completely dependent on the talents of another in the way a wide receiver needs a quarterback. In all team sports, you must rely on your fellow teammates to some degree.

Zach Randolph is struggling against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs right now because Mike Conley and Tony Allen, while very good players, can’t force the Spurs to play him differently from the guard positions. Every NHL Goalie gets the blame when he concedes and too much credit when he doesn’t. Where would the Goallie be without his defensemen? He’d be in the All-Star game conceding left, right and center. A good catcher and pitcher relationship is vital to success in baseball, but both don’t have to be superstars to get the best results.

A very good wide receiver with a terrible quarterback will struggle to be productive however.

Of course, there are exceptions. It doesn’t matter how hard or inaccurate a pass Matthew Stafford throws in Calvin Johnson’s direction, he’ll catch it with broken fingers and all. AJ Green overcomes similar issues with Andy Dalton, while seemingly the whole offense in Arizona has been trying to bury Larry Fitzgerald’s career since Kurt Warner left. Those guys are special because they are the top one percent of everyone playing their position. For the other 99 percent, you either have a good quarterback or you’ll never reach your potential.

Throughout his career so far, the Buffalo Bills’ Steve(better known as Stevie) Johnson has been one part of the 99 percent who has persistently played with sub-par quarterbacks. The seventh round pick of the 2008 draft didn’t make any real impression in the NFL until his third season. He was around in time to enjoy the talents of Trent Edwards as the Bills’ starter, before he was replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick. During the best part of the three seasons since Fitzpatrick became the starter, he and Johnson have seemingly struck up an excellent rapport.

Johnson entered the 2010 season with 12 career receptions and 112 yards with two touchdowns. He and Fitzpatrick combined for more yards and touchdowns during their first three games playing together in 2010. It was the start of a connection that would allow Johnson to reach his potential, a former seventh round pick who had the ability to be an NFL starter. It was a steal for the Buffalo Bills.

Johnson would go on to have at least 76 receptions in each of the next three years, going over 1,000 yards each season and he would score 23 touchdowns during that span. After the 2011 season, he would sign a five-year-contract worth over $30 million.

Stevie had hit his ceiling. He was a respectable starter on what was consistently one of the worst teams in the league. He and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had received a $59 million contract before Johnson, perfectly complemented each other on the field. At least, that was the narrative…

Fitzpatrick is now a backup quarterback for the Tennessee Titans after Doug Marrone’s new staff deemed him an unworthy starter. It wasn’t a surprise to most people that Fitzpatrick was released, but Johnson should understand more than most why “his” quarterback was released. You see, not only did Johnson have a front row seat to view Fitzpatrick’s failings, he was held back from reaching his potential because of the poor service he was receiving.

The young receiver may not be Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, AJ Green or whoever else is pushing the top of the elite receiver totem-pole, but he is significantly better than someone who should celebrate reaching 1,000 yards in a regular season.

Johnson has a reputation amongst those who play close enough attention to him because of his success against Darrelle Revis in divisional matchups with the New York Jets. However, for the most part, his talents are unheralded and unknown because of the team he plays for and the quarterback throwing him the ball.

In order to get a real grasp on Johnson’s talent, I recently watched every single offensive snap of the Bills’ 2012 season using the All-22 camera angle. This allowed me to get a greater idea of what his skill-set consists of and what his potential would be with a legitimate starting quarterback.

Weekly Analysis

Successful Routes

Total
Routes

v. Zone

v. Man

Types of
Routes

Depth:
Short(1-6)

Depth:
Intermediate(7-14)

Depth:
Deep(15+)

Wk1 v NYJ

12

26

5/12

7/14

8

4/7

7/11

1/8

Wk2 v

KC

9

15

4/6

5/9

7

2/4

5/7

2/4

Wk3 v

CLE

20

27

9/11

11/16

9

5/8

11/12

4/7

Wk4 v

NE

16

28

6/14

10/14

8

4/5

5/10

7/13

Wk5 v

SF

11

20

2/4

9/16

6

2/3

3/4

6/13

Wk6 v

ARI

18

22

2/3

16/19

8

2/3

11/11

5/8

Wk7 v

TEN

15

24

9/17

6/7

8

5/5

6/9

4/10

Wk9 v

HOU

7

22

1/4

6/18

8

1/3

4/10

2/9

Wk10 v

NE

28

42

10/17

18/25

10

5/6

17/26

6/10

Wk11 v

MIA

15

23

3/5

12/18

9

3/5

10/15

2/3

Wk12 v

IND

15

25

5/10

10/15

6

3/4

7/14

5/7

Wk13 v

JAX

7

13

4/6

3/7

7

0/0

5/10

2/3

Wk14 v

STL

10

18

3/4

7/14

6

2/3

4/9

4/6

Wk15 v

SEA

21

30

9/11

12/19

8

2/7

15/16

4/7

Wk16 v

MIA

21

32

5/9

16/23

8

2/3

10/18

9/11

Wk17 v

NYJ

12

20

4/7

8/13

9

1/3

7/12

4/5

Total:

237

387

81/140

156/247

43/69

127/194

67/124

AVR:

61.2%

58%

63%

7.8

62%

65%

54%

The first thing that jumps off the screen when it comes to Johnson is his incredible route-running ability. He may be the fastest, most difficult-to-read wide receiv

er coming in and out of breaks in the whole league. Every route looks the same initially and Johnson understands that he can use any part of his body to throw defensive backs off balance. Simple head fakes or hip swerves are over-exaggerated to the point that defensive backs are repeatedly forced to turn the wrong way completely to recover or they simply fall down trying to keep up with him.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 21.54.29

Here Johnson is lined up inside the receiver to the right side. The Bills have spread the field with four receivers and a tight end all in receiver positions. Johnson and Donald Jones are together to the top of the screen with three Browns’ defenders.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 21.54.40

As Fitzpatrick drops into the pocket, Johnson runs forward to find himself in single coverage. The two other defensive backs have followed Jones into the endzone, while Scott Chandler is pulling the rest of the secondary away from the middle of the field.

Johnson runs directly at the defensive back, which causes him to lean forward slightly. At the top of the route, Johnson doesn’t look to make a move, he hesitates to the point that he comes to a complete stop.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 21.54.52

After a moment standing still, Johns throws his head to the right and takes a hard step towards the defensive back’s outside shoulder.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 21.55.00

The head fake and hard step brings the defensive back’s weight forward so he is moving away from the center of the field. Through a combination of the fake and Johnson’s incredible quickness, the receiver has already left his break and is looking back for the football as he moves across the field.

How quickly Johnson is able to flip his shoulders from perpendicular to the sideline into a parallel position while keeping his balance is nothing short of outstanding.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 21.56.36

That move leads to an easy touchdown.

This isn’t something that Johnson does every so often either, he is very consistent in almost every aspect of his game, especially his route running.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 22.05.41

 

 

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 22.01.03

When Johnson is given the space to maneuver, he shows off his ability to embarrass defensive backs. On occasion they will fall down to the ground, but more often they will just be beat or be twisted around completely so that they are out of the play.

Many teams tried to counter Johnson’s ability to create space and lose defenders by putting their best cover cornerback on him. Guys such as Richard Sherman, Antonio Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Sean Smith, Patrick Peterson and Alfonzo Dennard spent time trailing Johnson around the field. However, nobody had as much success against the receiver as Jonathan Joseph.

Joseph is a brilliant cornerback in his own right, but it’s hard to give him full credit for his 79% completion rate against Johnson.

Whether directly or indirectly, the Texans had the perfect gameplan to counter Johnson. Unlike the Arizona Cardinals, who threw Peterson on Johnson without much help, the Texans committed to keeping their linebackers and safeties deeper. They trusted the front seven to contain CJ Spiller, which they did, and held Johnson to 4/10 on intermediate routes, routes that he averaged 65% success on throughout the whole season.

Combine that space squashing approach with the physical coverage of Jonathan Joseph and it was tough for Johnson to impact the game regardless of what Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to do. Johnson’s biggest flaws were exposed. While he can make difficult receptions and beat defenders to the football when tightly covered, he doesn’t tower over defenders with his height(6’2) and doesn’t have the straight line speed on the field to routinely run by defensive backs.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 22.28.10

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 22.12.08

Johnson makes up for his lack of height with his physical play and ball skills, but that deep threat is lacking in spite of the large number of different double-move routes in his arsenal.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 22.21.58

This is where Fitzpatrick really hurts Johnson.

His deep accuracy is non-existant. He does appear to be able to push the ball down the field, but too often it hangs in the air or is off-the-mark. In the qualifying plays, IE where Johnson ran a full route past the line of scrimmage, Fitzpatrick threw 34 passes to him that were impossible for him to catch. On other occasions he made plays on poorly thrown passes that were close enough for him to react to, but crucially 15 of those off-target throws were to deep routes.

Furthermore, Johnson’s ability to make plays down the field would be aided in a different offense. Obviously Ryan Fitzpatrick played a huge role in Chan Gailey’s offensive setup last year and it’s possible that the team’s quick-passing attack was a result of Fitzpatrick’s terrible deep accuracy. Regardless, the quick passing game didn’t give Johnson enough time to manipulate the defense with his route running and get open downfield. Except on occasion.

Of his 427 qualifying routes, Johnson only ran 15 double moves, despite running a combined 104 comeback(31) and Curl(73) routes. Those routes are essentially to setting up double moves, but the Bills only really committed to creating those situations against the St. Louis Rams, when they ran four of their 15 on the season. That was likely to take advantage of Janoris Jenkins’ aggression and it did let Johnson in behind on a number of occasions.

Johnson ran 45 sideline routes, routes where his primary movement was parallel with the sideline. Considering his lack of speed, those kind of routes shouldn’t be a prominent part of his tree. He proved he can run every route, but that doesn’t mean that he runs every route as well as the other.

Routes Run

In

110

Curl

73

Out

73

Sideline

45

Comeback

31

Slant

26

Post

25

Double Move

15

Flat

5

His flexibility and excellence in running so many routes is matched by his ability to line up anywhere on the field. Johnson plays both wide receiver positions, lined up next to the offensive tackle, in the slot, or as an inside or outside slot. When teams tried to trail him with a specific cornerback, the Bills moved him into the backfield, pushing CJ Spiller out wide.

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 01.10.08

Just before the snap, Johnson would motion out to the left of the left tackle. Instead of facing Cromartie with the sideline on his shoulder, Johnson would have to beat safety Eric Smith in the open-field. Something he would do with ease for a big gain. Johnson’s flexibility should fit in well with Doug Marrone.

Instead of having a quarterback like Fitzpatrick in a setup that the team had last year, he would be best suited to playing with a quarterback who specializes in throwing accurate passes and a quarterback who has the anticipation to throw to receivers before they come out of their breaks. Because Johnson isn’t going to consistently beat defenses deep, a strong arm would go to waste, whereas Fitzpatrick offers nothing positive to help him put up the statistical numbers that he has done throughout his career.

One of the most worrying aspects of Johnson’s play is that he doesn’t go 100 percent on every play. When he is a primary read, he always does, but when he is further down the quarterback’s progression or coming from the opposite side of the field on play-action plays, he never goes full speed. However, Fitzpatrick doesn’t go through progressions, so there was never an occasion when this cost him a reception.

Fitzpatrick makes his first read, sometimes his second, before checking down or scrambling. When you’re playing with that on every single snap, it’s easy to stop working for the football because it’s never going to come your way anyway.

Reading into body language or situations such as this to project a character trait is a very dangerous process to undertake. Any body language or interpretations of effort should be taken with a grain of salt. Instead of looking at how he carries himself or his effort on plays where the ball isn’t coming his way exclusively, it should also be noted that he is a very willing blocker in the running game, always shows up when a defensive back aggressive challenges him and made a massive effort play against the Indianapolis Colts after Fitzpatrick threw an interception.

Individual Matchups

No.

Player

Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps

Percentage

1 William Gay 4/4 100%
2 Jamell Flemming 4/5 80%
3 Chris Culliver 3/4 75%
4 Devin McCourty 3/4 75%
5 Darius Butler 3/4 75%
6 Alfonzo Dennard 10/14 71%
7 Buster Skrine 5/7 71%
8 Cassius Vaughn 5/7 71%
9 Patrick Peterson 8/12 66%
10 Sean Smith 18/30 60%
11 Sterling Moore 6/10 60%
12 Kyle Arrington 5/9 55%
13 Darrelle Revis 7/14 50%
14 Janoris Jenkins 6/12 50%
15 Antonio Cromartie 5/10 50%
16 Sheldon Brown 4/8 50%
17 Richard Sherman 8/19 42%
18 Tarrell Brown 3/8 37.5%
19 Brandon Flowers 2/6 33%
20 Jonathan Joseph 3/14 21%
Totals 118 / 201
Averages 5.9 / 10.05 59.625%

Johnson isn’t an elite talent, he doesn’t have the physical attributes for that, but he is an exceptionally good, consistent receiver when he can fill a role that fits his abilities. In a better situation and the right scheme, Johnson could easily be competing at the top of the league with the best receivers outside of guys like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.

It’s unclear whether Doug Marrone is a coach who will run an offense that best suits Johnson’s abilities or if rookie E.J Manuel is going to be good enough to make him a star. Either way, he should have a better chance of reaching his potential without Fitzpatrick or Gailey weighing him down.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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