Over the course of this season, Sammy Watkins has been frustrated by his lack of involvement in the Buffalo Bills offense. In October, Watkins told The Buffalo News, via ESPN, “I need the ball at least 10 times….You came up to draft me and I’m not getting targets – that’s a problem. You’re making me look bad and you’re making yourself look bad. Why not make both of us look good?” Watkins has unfortunately been right more often than not.
Entering the final week of the season, Watkins had six games with four or fewer receptions. In three more games, his final three leading up to Week 17, Watkins caught five passes. The receiver still managed four 100+ yard games and over 900 yards with nine touchdowns, but in a pass-heavy league he never came close to catching double-digit passes in a game.
When the Bills faced the New York Jets in Week 17, trying to prevent Rex Ryan’s previous team from reaching the playoffs, it was Watkins who they turned to.
For the first time in his relatively short career, Watkins caught more than nine passes in a game. He caught 11 for 136 yards, helping the Bills to a 22-17 victory over the Jets. The Bills focused their passing game through Watkins. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw for just 182 yards and completed just 18 passes. That means Watkins’ teammates combined for just seven receptions and 46 yards. In previous years, this wouldn’t have been a viable strategy for the Bills. Furthermore, Watkins spent most of the day being followed by revered cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Revis isn’t in his prime anymore. His days of being a shutdown cornerback are long gone. He is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and an extremely tough matchup for any receiver. Watkins had extremely limited production against Revis when they met earlier in the season but that was more about the quality of service that Watkins received. Taylor couldn’t find Watkins when he beat Revis deep downfield or on shorter routes to different areas of the field. Taylor was more aggressive with his best receiver in this game.
Taylor looked for Watkins with his very first throw of the game. Watkins didn’t run a route downfield, instead standing in his spot and turning towards the quarter. A bad omen arrived at Watkins’ feet as the receiver couldn’t pull a poor pass off the ground. The ball didn’t go Watkins’ way again on the first drive, nor did it on the second when the Bills ran in a touchdown from short field position. Nonetheless, he finished the first quarter with three receptions, all coming quickly on the third drive.
Of the three receptions, Watkins’ most impressive play came on a screen. The Bills tried to use misdirection to pull defenders away from Watkins on the left side of the field, but the throw was slow and the defense didn’t buy the faked end-around so the receiver was met with a wall of defenders behind the line of scrimmage. When he caught the ball, Watkins hesitated but quickly surveyed the field before relying on his quick twitch athleticism to cut away from the three defenders in his way.
It’s typically a bad idea to cut back across the field in this situation, but Watkins was doing so out of necessity while making smart decisions. He eventually did cut upfield with acceleration. After doing that he was able to bump a defensive back who was turned the wrong way with his power to finish the play gaining seven yards.
Watkins is a special athlete. He is not especially tall, but he matches fluid athleticism with outstanding body control, acceleration and power. That was made evident on this play. He turned a two yard loss into a seven yard gain by covering 40 or 50 yards. At Clemson, this is the type of play that Watkins was asked to run as a foundation of the passing game. It’s not a play that has been used enough in the Bills offense because it’s a simple way to put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker.
Even Watkins’ biggest critics never questioned if he could be effective with the ball in his hands. His biggest critics questioned if he was a technically sound receiver. For his third of his three receptions in the first quarter, Watkins worked downfield against Revis. The cornerback wasn’t playing Watkins straight up. He was bailing to prioritize the deep third in zone coverage on 1st-and-10. While this route doesn’t come against press coverage, it is a route that Watkins needs to set up and break at the right time. Route running is about intensity and precision, Watkins uses his intensity through the stem of his route to push Revis downfield and sell the deep route before showing off precision in his cut.
He didn’t make an extremely sharp cut back towards the sideline, but he did it at the perfect moment to take advantage of Revis’ positioning and body alignment while still getting enough yards for a first down.
Working against off-coverage is typically easier for a receiver than working against press-man, but this type of play still isn’t easy. Lots of receivers would be too lazy or slow through the initial stages of the route or they would mistime their turn back to the sideline to give Revis an opportunity to turn with them. Revis slips on this play, but he slips because of how the route was set up. This wasn’t simply a play where Revis slipped and Watkins took advantage of the mistake. The receiver was responsible for making Revis slip.
Midway through the second quarter, Watkins was schemed open on third down for a 15-yard gain before catching another pass for 16 yards against Revis two plays later. His longest gain of the day came early in the third quarter though. On this play, Revis aligns in press coverage against Watkins but doesn’t engage him at the snap. Instead, he is again bailing towards the sideline as Watkins runs his stem. Even though Revis is bailing, it’s noticeable how much separation Watkins is able to create with his quickness against the veteran cornerback.
Revis is 30 years of age and has a torn ACL along with microfracture surgery in his past. It’s no surprise that he is slowing down somewhat. He’s still fast enough to play in the NFL, but the exceptional fluidity and quickness he showed off during his prime isn’t there anymore. Against the youth of Sammy Watkins, this is highlighted.
Almost as to highlight how much space Watkins found, the receiver bobbled the ball when it arrived. He should have caught it cleanly and was fortunate that the arriving safety was late, but he had escaped far enough from Revis that the cornerback had given up any hope of impacting the play. If he hadn’t created that much space, Revis would have had a chance to play the football.
The Jets weren’t asking Revis to line up in press-man coverage on Watkins. They did that during their previous meeting and the results weren’t pretty.
This play came at the end of the game when the Jets desperately needed a stop to prevent the Bills from trying to run out the clock. It was a short gain, but a gain that resulted in a first down. This was the most notable of Watkins’ releases against Revis but the receiver was repeatedly beating him off the line of scrimmage with ease throughout that game.
Whether Watkins was selfishly demanding the ball more or he legitimately believed it was the best way the Bills could win games(it could be both,) he was right to do it. The Bills are a much better offense when Watkins is heavily involved.
He is the type of talent that won’t be shut down by any defensive back in today’s NFL.
The only individuals who can prevent Watkins from producing are Watkins himself and whoever is responsible for throwing him the ball. Hopefully, this display at the end of the season will linger in the minds of the Bills coaching staff throughout the offseason. Rex Ryan can’t afford to ignore him as often as they did in 2015.