Analysis Notebook: Week 15
I can’t think of a receiver that Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson reminds me of. Often players conjure up images of others at the same position, but Johnson really is unique, and that leads to some interesting encounters during the season. Though he won’t be confused with Megatron any time soon, Johnson has given Darrelle Revis more trouble than any other receiver in recent years. This week he extended that to a player making a strong case to be the new Revis, Richard Sherman.
Before the game against the Bills, Sherman had given up just 32 recepions for 480 yards and one lone touchdown. He allowed six receptions for 89 yards and another score in this game as he was shaken loose by Johnson’s routes more than I can remember him being by any other receiver. So what is it about the way Johnson plays that allows him to give these shutdown players such trouble?
I asked Sherman that question, and he 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. That holds up when looking at the tape, and you will see the Bills isolate Johnson to one side more than most receivers, giving him the freedom and space to improvise without worrying about crowding one area of the field or leading the quarterback into another defensive back he isn’t looking for.
The Bills are essentially playing sandlot football, with Fitzpatrick simply waiting for Johnson to work his way open before delivering the football. That also goes some way to explaining why there have been six interceptions thrown when targeting Johnson, more than all but three other receivers in the league.
There is more to it than that though, and Johnson has an unquestionably unique route running style and body language making it very difficult for corners playing man coverage to get a read on what he is running and anticipate the route from his body language.
Unusual Skills – Seattle @ Buffalo | 1st Q, 1:24
Stevie Johnson wins at the line, beating Richard Sherman inside on a slant and picking up a first down.
This play is a perfect example of Johnson just having some traits with his movement and body control that most receivers don’t possess. The Bills have isolated him to the left side of the field, with a bunch formation to the far side. This singles Johnson up against Sherman, a matchup both sides are probably pretty comfortable with pre-snap. From here the Bills simply allow Johnson to work from the corner’s leverage and run his route to the open space, getting open for the quarterback to deliver the football.
Sherman lines up in press-man coverage and decides to take an aggressive jab at the receiver’s release at the line. If he can disrupt his release and slow the movement of Johnson off the line of scrimmage, it goes a long way towards ruining any pass play and route he wants to run right from the outset.
Sherman jumps forward and gets a solid hand into Johnson’s pads on his left shoulder. This would stop most receivers in their tracks, but the unusual body control of Johnson allows him to essentially roll his body with the contact while using his other hand to push Sherman in the same direction as his momentum and slip inside the attempted jam.
This is the football equivalent of ‘rolling with the punches’; a simple turn of the shoulder causing a solid shot to roll right off and do absolutely nothing to halt his momentum up field. From this simple move Johnson is able to gain three yards of separation instantly and be wide open on a quick slant. From that point he makes a move on the safety to force a missed tackle before Sherman can chase it down from behind and halt the play after fifteen yards of gain.
This is a perfect example both of the Bills giving Johnson space on his own, but also the reason they do so, having confidence in his ability to beat his man and run to where the space is.
Slick Route Running – Seattle @ Buffalo | 2nd Q, 1:16
On 3rd and 7 from the 20 yard line Stevie Johnson shakes man coverage to score a wide open touchdown.
On 3rd and 7 the Bills line up with three receivers on the right side and Johnson again isolated to the left. They motion C.J. Spiller out wide left, leaving Johnson now in the slot and with the Seahawks playing straight man coverage across the board. Again Sherman is in press-man coverage and once more looking to try and jam at the line, but once again he can’t get any meaningful contact on the receiver. Johnson fakes an outside release before coming back inside and accelerating up field, forcing Sherman to open his hips.
This is why defending the slot is so difficult, because slot corners have to respect the ability of the receiver to release either side of them. This is called a ‘two-way go’, meaning that they can’t simply align to one side of the receiver and show them towards the sideline, but rather must stay in line with them and rely on being able to mirror whatever moves are made at the snap.
After getting level Johnson shows impressive acceleration, stretching Sherman to keep pace, but then puts one of the slickest fakes you will see all year to break free of his coverage. Having gained inside position, he throws a fake to the inside, showing Sherman the route he expects to see, ie one that breaks away from his coverage and towards space, but after throwing his body to the inside and taking one step in that direction he plants and drives back to the outside, causing Sherman to fly past him and take himself out of the play.
This route works not only because of an extremely slick fake preformed at top speed, but also because he is showing Sherman exactly what he expects to see given the freedom Johnson has to run to space. The corner expects to see a break away from his leverage and towards open space, and Johnson is able to use that to his advantage, actually cutting back towards the strength of the coverage, but only after moving it with a fake.
Most receivers running a corner pattern from this alignment would have simply taken an outside release at the line and then broken out towards the sideline, and though this may well have worked, it would likely have resulted in far tighter coverage from a corner who knew what was coming, rather than completely shaking him and making an uncontested catch in the end zone.
The Spectacular Catch – Seattle @ Buffalo | 3rd Q, 14:13
On 3rd and 20 Stevie Johnson makes one of the catches of the season for 25 yards and a first down.
This play isn’t particularly complex from a schematic point of view, but anytime a player makes a catch like this you’ve got to find some way to talk about it. This game actually featured two of the catches of the season, with TE Scott Chandler also hauling in a ludicrously tough ball over the middle, but this was the one people will talk about, and not without cause.
The broader point in all of this is that there is a good reason the Bills give Johnson so much freedom in their offense, and it’s because he is capable of plays like this. On 3rd and 20 the Seahawks are playing a very soft coverage, and Buffalo again lines up with an empty backfield and Johnson in the slot to the left. He is going to do little more than sprint up field after the snap and break inside on a post route.
The player that should be able to make a play on this ball is safety Earl Thomas, lined up to Johnson’s side as part of a three-safety look on the play, but unfortunately Thomas does a lousy job of recognizing the route. He keys off the quarterback and by the time he takes off running to his right the route is already coming in behind him. For as much praise as Thomas gets for being an elite player in coverage, plays like this, showing an unfortunate lack of awareness, are what holds him back from being amongst the best in the NFL.
When Johnson makes his break and looks back for the ball it is already in the air, behind him, and high, forcing him to make a spectacular adjustment to haul it in. He leaps into the air and catches the ball one-handed as he flies past, hauling it in safely before hitting the turf for the first down conversion.
There is no doubt that the Buffalo offense right now is being held back by the quarterback, and performances like this make me wish we could see Johnson with a legitimate passer feeding him the ball.
He unquestionably has rare freedom within the offense to freelance and essentially run his route to the open space, but he is only given that freedom because of the moves he can put on defensive backs to shake them in coverage, and because he has the ability to make spectacular catches when the ball comes his way.
The problem is that waiting for Johnson to get to the open space puts a lot of pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick to not only read the play correctly, but focus his eyes only on one area of the field, giving defensive backs playing in zone coverage an inordinate advantage. This is why Johnson has more success than anybody else against lockdown man-cover corners like Revis and Sherman, but fares less spectacularly against teams that run a lot of zone coverage and don’t care as much about what he does in his route, but rather just read the quarterback in their zones.