Sammy Watkins on Early Track to Impressive Rookie Season

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterSeptember 17, 2014

AP Images

Through the first two games of the 2014 season, the Buffalo Bills have scripted an offensive game plan that caters to the skill set of wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

With inside breaking routes and schemes that are designed to create open-field opportunities, the rookie wide receiver has produced 148 yards receiving and a touchdown on 11 receptions.

Today, let’s go to the tape and focus on the specific concepts that have allowed Watkins to showcase his ability versus a variety of coverage looks for the 2-0 Bills.


Production After the Catch

Going back to Watkins’ college tape at Clemson, the wide receiver put up numbers in the short-to-intermediate route tree because of his ability to produce after the catch.

Think of the shallow drive route (underneath crossing route), the slant, dig, curl or tunnel/bubble screen that created opportunities for Watkins to work away from a defender’s leverage or make plays in the open field.

Looking at the Bills tape, I’m seeing a similar pattern with a game plan that utilizes both alignment and scheme to clear out space while featuring Watkins as a primary target.

Here’s an example from the Bills' Week 2 win over the Dolphins on the “Yankee” concept versus Cover 3.

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Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With deep-ball speed to the closed (strong) side of the formation (Marquise Goodwin) and play action out of the 2-Back Pistol alignment, the Bills clear out the top of the defense on the “dino” post (stem to corner, break to post).

This removes the closed-side cornerback (runs with the post) and holds the second-level defenders (play action) while Watkins stems the deep over route across the field to the now-vacated zone.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

As you can see here, with Goodwin pushing the cornerback down the field (holds the free safety over the top), and the underneath defenders squatting versus the play action, quarterback EJ Manuel can target Watkins.

This allows the rookie wide receiver to secure the catch and turn up the field for an explosive gain while forcing the free safety to make a tackle in space.

Now let’s break down Watkins on the shallow drive route versus the Dolphins Cover 1 defense with Posse/11 personnel on the field (3WR-1TE-1RB).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Check out Watkins’ split to the backside of a 3x1 formation. This is called a “reduced” split (tight to the core) and is an automatic alert to an underneath crossing route.

Here, the Bills are creating a “pick” situation off the Hi-Lo Crossers concept while clearing out the closed side of the formation with the wheel route.

Again, create space for Watkins to take an inside release (work off the defender’s outside leverage) and exploit the defense in the open field.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the Bills sending the tight end across the field (“pick” route), the Dolphins cornerback has to “bubble” over the inside traffic.

That creates immediate separation for Watkins to stem this route to the closed side of the formation with the wheel clearing out the top of the defense.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Take a look at the space Watkins has in front of him once he makes this catch due to the pre-snap alignment, route scheme and speed the rookie displays when he wins off the release.

The Bills came back to this same concept (versus a zone look from the Dolphins) when they “walled off” the Mike ‘backer and created more space for Watkins to make the catch and take the ball into the end zone.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Both of these route schemes (Yankee and Hi-Lo Crossers) provide Manuel with clean, open throwing windows to get the ball into the hands of Watkins.

And that allows the rookie receiver to produce numbers versus opposing secondaries.

Speed Through the Break 

When studying Watkins at the top of the route stem, check out his speed and body control through the break.

This is where Watkins wins versus leverage on the deep dig (square-in) and moves the sticks underneath on the quick speed-out (stick-out combination) when matched up against man coverage.

Let’s start with the deep dig from Week 1 against the Bears with Watkins running the intermediate route versus cornerback Kyle Fuller.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the Bears showing Cover 1 (man-free), Fuller aligns in a press-man look playing from an outside shade.

Watkins releases inside, stems up the field and controls his footwork at the top of the route. This is where we see the rookie come out of his cut with speed as he works inside (away from Fuller’s leverage) to win on the dig route.

My focus there was on the break point because that’s what you want to see from young receivers in the NFL—the ability to sink the hips and create a clean angle to the football.

Now let’s break down Watkins on the speed-out against Bears cornerback Charles Tillman with the Bills in a “vice” alignment (double stack look) versus Cover 1.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This isn’t a complex route versus Cover 1. But given the down and distance situation (third down), Watkins’ release is the key to provide Manuel with a quick read to the flat.

Look at the acceleration off the snap from Watkins. This eats up the cushion versus Tillman and forces the Bears cornerback to open his hips (instead of staying square).

And that allows Watkins to run through the break (with speed) on the outside cut to pick up the first down.

The Bills have targeted Watkins down the field on the 9 (fade) route and the deep 7 cut (corner route), but his ability in the short-to-intermediate route tree (and packaged plays) stands out from my perspective.

Watkins’ Continued Development

Breaking down Watkins’ tape, there should be high expectations when looking at his development in the pro game.

Watkins is the type of player who can impact defensive game plans because of his ability to make plays after the catch and his aggressive style in the open field.

Sep 7, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

That puts stress on defensive backs when they are asked to tackle in space and run with speed over the top.

Plus, we are talking about a young receiver who is playing hurt. Watkins is a little banged up (ribs), but I love that he is still out there competing and making plays.

That’s important in the NFL game, and it speaks to his football character. 

A two-game study isn’t enough to project a career path in this league (for any player), but given Watkins’ skill set, there is no question the Clemson product can play.

And based on the route concepts in the Bills playbook, he should continue to produce numbers this season when given opportunities to showcase his talent.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

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