What a difference a week and an opposing cornerback can make to an NFL team’s passing attack.
The Buffalo Bills discovered that from the beginning through the very end of Sunday’s 17-16 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.
Seven days earlier, while facing New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis, Bills receiver Sammy Watkins might as well have been invisible for all of the attention he received from offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Kyle Orton.
Watkins had zero passes thrown in his direction through the first half and only three in the final two quarters of the Bills’ 37-22 loss to the Patriots. He finished with two catches for 27 yards.
It is one thing to show Revis, one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, respect for his one-on-one coverage skills. It is another to surrender to him entirely, especially with a highly talented receiver such as Watkins.
All of that change on Sunday. The Vikings mostly played single coverage against Watkins, with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn often drawing the assignment.
This time, Orton threw 14 passes in Watkins’ direction. He wound up with a career-best nine receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with a second left.
As you will see in the following screenshots from the all-22 coaches’ film from the game, Watkins consistently had plenty of green space around him. In multiple instances, the Vikings somehow concluded that it would be a good idea to give him cushion. That allowed Watkins to virtually win most of his battles from the snap, making a couple of nice moves to get open. He did a little shake-and-bake before running free to the corner of the end zone to catch Orton’s throw to win the game.
In the screenshot below, from early in the first quarter, Watkins runs free across the middle – where the Bills don’t usually throw to receivers – with Munnerlyn trailing to catch a 15-yard pass. The drive ended with Chris Hogan’s fumble.
In the next two screenshots, you’ll see how Orton’s 26-yard scoring throw to Watkins with 9:23 left in the second quarter, develops. In the first shot, it is clear he is in great position to simply beat his man off the line, as the second shot shows.
In the first screenshot below, from early in the third quarter, Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson can be seen giving Watkins all kinds of breathing room at the line of scrimmage. After that, in the second shot, all Watkins has to do is make a little move to the inside to get open for the catch, which he makes in the third shot for a 15-yard gain.
During the final, dramatic drive that began at the Bills’ 20-yard line with 3:07 left, Watkins, strangely, enjoyed his greatest freedom. Look at the two screenshots below, the first showing Watkins easily releasing off the line with 2:31 left, and second showing how wide open he is in the middle of the field to make the 19-yard grab that kept the Bills’ drive rolling.
Finally, the moment of truth! With five seconds left, the Bills, from the Minnesota 2-yard line, have Watkins lined up, one-on-one, against cornerback Xavier Rhodes, as the screenshot below shots.
With a little back-and-forth shimmy, Watkins easily gets away from Rhodes and is open to catch Orton’s throw near the front corner of the end zone with one tick on the clock.