Why Stevie Johnson Is Even Better Than You Think
Size and speed are the flashy measurables that often distinguish a "true" No. 1 wide receiver from a phony, in the eyes of many fans and analysts.
Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson has made a big impact in the NFL over the past three years, despite an absence of either quality. Ever since his breakout campaign in 2010, he has done things few other receivers are doing, showing rare consistency with 76 catches, 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in each of the past three years. He is one of just three receivers who can claim such consistency.
Stats can be misleading, but in this case, they are indicative that Johnson isn't getting the attention he deserves. Now, we just have to find out why.
You can't quantify getting open with stats. You have to watch the games.
When watching Johnson run routes, his body control jumps off the screen.
On this 1st-and-10 in the first quarter against the Seahawks, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick came out in the shotgun and the Bills were in a bunch formation with Johnson on the weak side of the formation.
Notice the amount of space Johnson was given to work with here, as the Seahawks came out in man coverage with revered cornerback Richard Sherman isolated on Johnson.
Johnson ran a simple slant route, but it's how he ran it that deserves praise.
Sherman went for a jam on Johnson, but elite quickness worked in Johnson's favor as he brushed Sherman's arms away while simultaneously breaking inside.
Why was Johnson able to have so much success against Sherman? Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus thinks he has the answer:
...[Sherman] believes that Johnson is given more freedom than any other receiver to change his route and get open. If Sherman lines up outside, Johnson runs an in-breaking route, if he lines up inside, he works outside, always away from the leverage of the corner, making it virtually impossible to stop.
We saw Johnson and the Bills employ that same strategy in the red zone, and it paid off with a touchdown reception.
Johnson's versatility to run multiple routes from any spot on the field is another underrated aspect of his game, and here he lined up in the slot, with Sherman once again isolated on him in man coverage.
The route is seemingly a maze of misdirection. Johnson started off shaking Sherman at the line, which allowed the receiver to easily gain inside leverage. He then fakes a second break inside, which would have been a post toward the middle of the end zone.
That's where he completely shook Sherman free, instead breaking outside to the corner of the end zone, where there was no one waiting for him.
The FOX announcers made note of Stevie Johnson's incredible route-running ability on the broadcast:
John Lynch: See Stevie Johnson, he's going to come on this corner route and come inside, sell the post, and that's where he gets them—at the top of the stem of that route, he sells the post. That gets Sherman to think inside. An easy throw for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Dick Stockton: You know, John, they said that he grew up playing basketball and he runs routes the same way, and that could be one of the reasons he gets free like that.
Basketball skills will help with body control, but not with pure football fundamentals of knowing how to run certain routes against different looks. Johnson was able to put both skills to use on this play, and throughout the course of the day to put up rare numbers against Sherman, which brings me to the next point.
Beating Top Competition
If the definition of a No. 1 receiver is consistently beating a team's No. 1 corner, Johnson unquestionably belongs in the discussion.
Not just any No. 1 corners, though, some of the best shutdown corners in the league.
As detailed above, Johnson made solid work of Sherman in Week 15, long after the Sherman hype began to build. According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Sherman gave up a 127.1 passer rating on the season, the second-highest behind only Sherman's performance against the Lions and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Along with that game against the Lions, it was the only other game in the regular season in which Sherman allowed a touchdown.
Sherman can commiserate with his opponent for the crown of "best cornerback in the league," Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis. The former Jets cornerback is probably glad to be exempt from covering Johnson two games every year (although he still must face the prolific Bills wideout in Week 14 of the 2013 season).
In one game, Johnson had eight catches for 75 yards and a touchdown against Revis.
Here's one example of a slant route he ran against Revis in Week 12 of the 2011 season.
As we have already learned with Johnson, a route is never simply a route at all.
A subtle fake to the outside was enough to get Revis' hips turned toward the sideline, and at that point, all Johnson had to do was cut back inside and Revis was completely turned around, caught in trail.
Yes, the route is a slant, but Johnson runs it in such a way that makes it more difficult to defend than the average slant route. Another receiver might have simply tried to gain inside leverage from the onset, and while that might have worked, it would have created a much tighter window for the quarterback to throw the ball.
Johnson made an impressive plant to shake free from Revis' coverage on another play, a 15-yard curl.
Revis was right in Johnson's hip pocket the whole way, but an incredibly sudden move by Johnson created separation between the two players.
Johnson's plant was so quick, he even had to catch himself by putting his hand on the ground, but he was impressively able to regain his balance and make the leaping catch just moments afterward.
Holes in His Game
...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.
Subsequently, he was held in check by the Texans with just three receptions for 29 yards, his second and third lowest totals of the season, respectively.
The Bills were essentially playing a free-wheeling offense that had Fitzpatrick reading only Johnson's side of the field, but while that would work against man coverage, the strategy struggled against zone.
We'll soon find out, as he'll have both next year with head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett bringing the West Coast offense to Buffalo, and with big-armed quarterback EJ Manuel at the helm.
There's nothing he can do about his size, and although he can try to affect his speed this offseason, the areas he has the most immediate control over are his concentration and his tendency to drop easy passes.
He had 11 drops in 2012, which tied for seventh in the NFL. His drop rate (as calculated by Pro Football Focus) was the seventh-highest in the league. Granted, some of Johnson's drops were on passes that could have been more accurately delivered, but every NFL receiver has to make difficult catches.
Plenty of other top receivers struggle with drops. Look at some of the other top-flight NFL receivers with gaudy drop totals: Giants receiver Victor Cruz had a higher drop rate, and former Patriots receiver Wes Welker and Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had numbers that were not too far off from Johnson.
Does Stevie Belong Among NFL's Elite Receivers?
The top tier of elite receivers includes Calvin Johnson, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Texans receiver Andre Johnson, Falcons receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and Bengals receiver A.J. Green.
Stevie Johnson is right behind that group, but is nipping on their heels. On season-to-season consistency alone, he's in the discussion. Consistency is important, but elite players are game-changers. Thus far, Stevie has not been that.
As mentioned before, he might get help from a different system, but he should also get some credit if his talents translate as well to the next system as they did to the previous one.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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