The Buffalo Bills have closed camp and are set to play their third preseason game tomorrow against the Washington Redskins and though the preseason has brought some crazy injuries, dynamic plays and interesting story lines, one thing seems to be missing. That missing piece is starting wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
Johnson hurt his hamstring on August 2nd and has only practiced sparingly while not playing a preseason game this far. His absence has shifted the fans and the media focus to rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, along with other receivers making plays for roster spots. However the lack of Johnson during practice is a great concern as we are only two weeks from the start of the regular season.
For the couple positives that can be found with Johnson watching from the sidelines, there is a concern for the lack of chemistry and timing with quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb. Johnson was the first Bills wideout to post three consecutive 1000 yard receiving seasons and now with a new quarterback at the helm and a new slot position to learn the time to catch up will be short and hurried.
When the Bills brought in new head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, they also brought in a new offense and quarterback for Johnson to learn. His missing time on the field has only created a steeper learning curve in each of these areas.
With the new offense, Johnson was going to see a slide to the inside slot role versus his usual outside. This change was to allow him to create more mismatches against linebackers and safeties and limit teams’ ability to double-team him. The offense is based within an option read format. The quarterback’s decisions are instantaneous with the development of a play (a great read on this can be found here).
With the speed the Bills have added, opposing defenses can’t bring safety help over the top as this opens up underneath routes for Johnson to exploit and make plays. The best way to describe how the Bills intend to use Johnson is by saying they wanted him to become their version of Wes Welker. A receiver that knows how to sit in coverage, take advantage of mismatches and uses his speed to make small plays into big gains. Johnson can and should still be used on the outside, but for their base sets the Bills will use Johnson in motion and as an inside man in three receiver sets that could wreck havoc for opposing defenses.
The second aspect of Johnson being sidelined has been the timing and familiarity development between receiver and passer. This connection is the most crucial aspect for a successful quarterback receiver connection. If the quarterback does not understand the player’s speed or where he can put the ball, it only increases the chances of either an incompletion or an interception. The trust a quarterback must have in his receiver when he lets loose his pass is paramount. If the confidence is not there than the quarterback can question his decision even while in mid throw. The quarterback has to have conviction that his target will be there and with Johnson limited on the practice field there is a reason for concern. The lack of the most productive and safest receiver either Kolb or Manuel can depend on will hurt as the season starts until a rhythm is established.
The other worry is the injury itself. Johnson has played through injuries before in each of his three starting seasons, and his hamstring has always been a trouble spot. He proclaimed himself 100% healthy coming into camp and yet after a couple days he limped to the sidelines with this injury. The question isn’t on his ability or off-season training, but instead a concern that there could be some underlying precursor that if not addressed properly by either doctor or player could hinder him further as his playing career and this season carry on.
For what is expected to be the final run down for the starters Friday night, reports say Johnson will play, and though he will probably only see a series or two to prevent further aggravation it marks as a measuring stick for how much work is left to be done. For the undisputed leader of the receiving corps, the key for him and the Bills is to make sure that he is able to heal, while getting the necessary work in with the quarterbacks. His attendance on the field is vital to the offense’s overall success.