Steve Johnson hasn't gotten an opportunity until now because of circumstance, not talent. He was the 224th overall pick in April's draft on a team that already drafted another wide receiver 41st overall.
Who do you think is going to see the field more?
But forces collided to finally get Johnson into Buffalo's regular rotation --- and possibly into the Robin to Lee Evans' Batman. Josh Reed has missed three straight games with a ankle injury. James Hardy has looked like a freshman enrolled in Calculus 605. Roscoe Parrish seems destined to be a one-dimensional weapon a la Dante Hall. The three tight ends are marginal contributors at best.
In short, the Bills' receiving corps remains a hodgepodge assortment of misfits. If Buffalo's offense has any chance at all of rescuing its passing game, Johnson has to be the answer.
Cleveland proved last night that No. 1 receiver Lee Evans can be neutralized. Check that, erased from the field. Evans was held without a catch after a 67-game reception streak. And for the fourth straight game, the Bills' passing attack lacked any coherent rhythm. Amid three interceptions, Edwards was held under 250 yards for the sixth game this season. He completed only four passes to wide receivers the entire game. He looked scared, confused and content with checkdowns to running back Marshawn Lynch (10 catches for 58 yards).
Steve Johnson caught three of those four passes for 41 yards. On Monday Night, Johnson showed glimpses of being a late-season, go-to receiver for Trent Edwards. Maybe he's a textbook Brandon Lloyd (i.e. a wide receiver vaulted into premier role on a bad offense that in reality wouldn't even crack the 53-man roster on a good offense).
But at this point offensive coordinator Turk Schonert would kill for a Brandon Lloyd. On Monday Night, Johnson displayed the potential to be – if nothing else – a stopgap answer for a Bills' passing game that falls deeper in the quick sand each game.
Steve Johnson had 3 catches for 41 yards Monday
After dressing for the first time two games ago (and recording just two catches), Johnson started on Monday in a three-receiver set. After dropping an early 3rd-and-3 pass, the rookie from Kentucky rebounded. He snared an Edwards pass on a crossing route at the end of the second half that eventually led to a field goal. In the second half, Johnson found a hole deep in Cleveland's secondary for a 21-yard gain. Of course, two plays later Buffalo fumbled.
Johnson's final catch came on the Bills' late touchdown drive that seemed to be the final dagger. Johnson caught a nine-yard pass for a first down to Cleveland's 29-yard line.
"I just wanted to let them know that I can play and that I can contribute," Johnson said afterward to the team's website. "And they put me out there and I had a dropped pass but at the same time, I felt like I made a few other plays that let them know I can contribute to this team."
Added head coach Dick Jauron, "I think he's got a really good future. I really do. I think he's going to be a player."
The 6-foot-2, 202-pound receiver used his body well against the Browns, muscling into the middle of the field – a tendency Evans, Hardy and Parrish lack. The verdict's already out on Buffalo's current stable of receivers: the talent level is low. With a gunshy Edwards checking down at a Shaun King pace, don't expect this offense to suddenly go vertical. Johnson is the offense's best chance at regaining some mojo. He at least contrasts Evans, as a physical over-the-middle receiver.
At Kentucky, Johnson went ballistic in his only year as a starter. He caught 60 passes for 1,041 yards with 13 touchdowns in the toughest conference by far. Johnson then dropped to the final round in the draft due to sketchy route-running and an overall raw skill set.
Johnson is a mystery in the pros. An unknown, a fresh face. That sure beats the predictable, stale band of wideouts in the current cycle. Look for Schonert to implement Johnson more into the gameplan against Kansas City and San Francisco the next two weeks. The two defenses rank 27th and 25th respectively against the pass.
If Edwards is going to rebound and if the Bills even want think about the playoffs (Playoffs!?), the passing game must take flight now. Its only hope seems to be an unheralded seventh round pick.