The Roller Coaster Ride That Is Buffalo Bills WR Stevie Johnson

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The Roller Coaster Ride That Is Buffalo Bills WR Stevie Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Can Bills WR Stevie Johnson (above) emerge as a true No. 1 receiver?

Few will deny, myself included, that Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson is uniquely talented, and would be an asset for any offense.

How is it, then, that he remains one of the most polarizing figures on the Bills roster?

He let the game slip through his hands on a costly third-down drop against the Patriots. A week later, he hauled in the game-winning touchdown against the Carolina Panthers. That's just the trouble with Johnson.

It's hard to know what to make of a receiver who has been so important for the Bills offense at times, and a reason for their downfall at other times.

No NFL receiver is perfect, and while Johnson may have his share of lapses in concentration, he will be an important player in the Bills offense for as long as he wears the blue, red and white.

Johnson showed why he is an enigma, in going from scapegoat to hero in the span of seven days, and taking Bills fans along for the ride through the lows and the highs of an NFL receiver.

His drop against the Patriots came on 3rd-and-1 with just less than nine minutes to go in the game. Johnson ran a pivot route from the slot, with rookie wide receiver Robert Woods running a clearing route on the perimeter.

He shook free of the coverage from Patriots slot cornerback Kyle Arrington, who got caught in trail technique with Johnson running toward the sideline.

All EJ Manuel had to do was put it in a catchable spot, which he did.

Manuel threw. Johnson dropped. Buffalo sighed.

It may not have been the most well-placed ball, with Johnson having to extend his arms to make the catch, but it was catchable no less. 

A top-flight wide receiver has to make that catch 10 times out of 10. Bills fans know this is not the first painful drop of Johnson's career.

The most notable drop came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010. Just like on the play illustrated above, Johnson managed to get wide open against the Steelers secondary, running a deep route to get behind the safety.

The rest? Well, I'll let Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots fill in the blanks.

Mistakes like this will happen. The important thing for the Bills is that they haven't let past mistakes impact their faith in their best wide receiver to make plays in big spots.

"Our expectation of him is extremely high and there was never any doubt that we were going to come back to him," head coach Doug Marrone said. "I was never worried about him having a lack of confidence. He’s a player that can be very productive for us."

Credit the Bills for not shying away from looking his direction and calling his number on the most important drive of the game, as he had three catches for 21 yards and the game-winning touchdown. 

The Bills lined up with three receivers to the left and Johnson in the slot. He and Woods ran a pick pattern designed to create separation for Johnson in the end zone.

The Panthers corners got tangled up in one another, and Johnson came open in the back corner. All Manuel had to do was not throw the ball out of bounds.

Manuel threw. Stevie caught. Buffalo erupted.

This is certainly redemption for his prior mistake.

"Yeah it feels good," he said Monday. "I can't say that it's nothing; it's a play that should have been made. It felt good, especially the things that I've been through here, the ups and the downs. The fans being with me, the fans getting on me, it's a good feeling to have."

Johnson's career as an enigma will likely continue until he cleans up his drops for good, but that being said, drops are sometimes part of the deal with a top-flight receiver.

Just ask Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, who was the fourth most targeted receiver in his final year with the Patriots, and also had the 10th-highest drop rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz could offer some expertise on drops, as well. He was the 11th most targeted receiver in the NFL in 2012, and had the sixth-highest drop rate last season.

This year's most egregious droppers include Welker, Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and even Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

Drops are, and will always be, an unfavorable statistic, but Johnson is just one of many examples of talented pass-catchers who remain a valuable asset to their team despite sometimes failing to live up to their name as a "pass-catcher."

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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