“When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree that’s the result you’re going to get” – we all remember Richard Sherman’s rant after the NFC Championship Game in January. It seems like San Francisco 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke was not only listening to Sherman, but acted upon his comments in the offseason. The acquisition of Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills can be just the right move to help the 49ers over the hump.
The addition of Johnson is one of the most overlooked transactions of the offseason. Even when discussing the 49ers’ summer activity, people would rather point to Colin Kaepernick’s contract extension when selecting the most notable move of the franchise. Although, the quarterback’s extension is significant; it keeps the status quo, while bringing over Johnson to the West Coast can represent an upgrade to an offense that already has great potential.
After selecting Sammy Watkins in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Bills were ready to dispose Johnson. Baalke jumped at the chance and traded a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick, which could become a third, to bring the San Francisco native Johnson home.
Johnson will join an already above average group of pass catchers that included Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Together, the four players have 20 seasons of at least 700 receiving yards, including nine 1,000-yard seasons.
Johnson had a tough year with the Bills in 2013, as he had just 52 catches for 597 yards and scored only three touchdowns. He also missed four games – two due to injuries and two due to the passing of his late mother.
However, between 2010 and 2012 Johnson reached the 1,000-yard mark in all three seasons, while averaging 79 receptions and nearly eight touchdowns per season.
One of Johnson’s best games came against the 49ers’ divisional foes, the Seattle Seahawks, in Week 15 of the 2012 season. He caught eight passes for 115 yards – both were season-highs – while also scoring one touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus, with that game the Kentucky alum became one of only four players in the last two seasons who caught at least three passes, while being covered by Richard Sherman – the others being Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Titus Young.
Let’s have a look at Johnson’s receptions from that game in Toronto. I apologize for the quality of the footage, seems like Toronto didn’t receive the memo on the quality requirements of the All-22 tape.
(5:00 remaining from the 1st quarter; 1st&10)
The Bills used a packaged play, which included a run and a pass play as well. The offensive line run blocked; however, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, noticing the off-man coverage of Richard Sherman, threw a screen pass to Johnson, who earned an additional five yards with a well-placed stiff arm before being dragged out of bounds by Sherman.
(1:32 remaining from the 1st quarter; 1st&10)
This time Sherman opted for press coverage against Johnson; however, the receiver easily shook off the defender and got an inside release for a slant route towards the, now empty, middle of the field. Following eluding a tackle attempt from Earl Thomas, Sherman caught up to Johnson 14 yards downfield and brought the receiver down.
(1:22 remaining from the 2nd quarter; 3rd&7)
On 3rd & 7 Johnson lined up in the slot facing Sherman, who again used press coverage. Johnson gained an inside release, without Sherman being able to even put his hands on the receiver. Although, the defender tried to catch up to Johnson; when the receiver broke for a corner route after 15 yards, it further increased the gap between the two, and resulted in an easy touchdown for the Bills.
(00:41 remaining from the 2nd quarter; 1st&10)
On the first play of the Bills’ following possession, Johnson lined up in the backfield next to Ryan Fitzpatrick before motioning to the slot position. The Seahawks played a Cover-3 defense, but the receiver could capitalize on the Seahawks’ error of letting both players in the area to be outside their outside shoulder.
(14:13 remaining from the 3rd quarter; 3rd&20)
On 3rd & 20 the Seahawks played a loose zone defense with an additional safety more than 20 yards downfield to prevent a big play. However, Johnson, running a post route from the slot, took advantage of Earl Thomas biting on the outside receiver. Although, the pass went behind the receiver and was high; Johnson made a spectacular one handed catch and kept the drive alive with a 25-yard grab.
(12:12 remaining from the 3rd quarter; 1st&15)
Johnson, once again, lined up in the slot. With a quick step towards the outside of the field, he created enough separation from cornerback Jeremy Lane to make an 8-yard reception on the curl route.
(11:56 remaining from the 3rd quarter; 2nd&7)
On the following play the Seahawks linebackers dropped back into coverage to prevent the Bills from getting a first down. However, Johnson, running a spacing route from the slot, found the soft spot of the zone and reached out for a first down before linebacker Leroy Hill could get to him.
(9:09 remaining from the 4th quarter; 1st&10)
With the game all but over – the Seahawks led 50-17 – the Bills offense faced the second-string defense of Seattle. Free safety Chris Maragos lined up seven yards from Johnson, who – potentially due to reading the coverage – ran an out route from the slot and gained six yards before Maragos pushed him out of bounds.
It is necessary to note that this game was played in the 2012 season and it was a blowout win for the Seahawks. However, the videos above illustrate how the new acquisition of the 49ers could find the soft spots of the Seattle defense and at the same time he seemed to have Richard Sherman’s number.
Johnson turned 28 in July, so no doubt there is still plenty left in the tank. Even though he had an unsung arrival; Stevie Johnson might be the key to the 49ers playing two games in Glendale over the 2014 season.
The second would, obviously, be the Super Bowl.