One can only imagine what was going through Sammy Watkins’ mind seeing DeAndre Hopkins take the NFL by storm last season into this season. No wide receiver was targeted more in 2015 headed into Sunday’s game.
Hopkins gets the jump balls Watkins could only dream of in September.
Now, the Buffalo Bills wide receiver is getting his opportunities – and maximizing them. Watkins outdueled his former Clemson teammate in Buffalo’s 30-21 win with three receptions (on four targets) for 109 yards. He scored one touchdown, had a 53-yard reception to set up one score and he had another 53-yarder in the second half.
Hopkins started slow with just one reception for 6 yards in the first half before heating up to finish with five grabs for 88 yards and a touchdown.
The bigger development here? Tyrod Taylor isn’t hesitating to throw deep.
“Ty is starting to trust in us,” Watkins said, “building chemistry with the wideouts and he’s just starting to throw us the ball. That is what we need to do the rest of the season – just be aggressive.”
One of the deep balls came with rookie Kevin Johnson and safety Quintin Demps both near, too. Taylor didn’t think twice in letting the deep ball go, trusting Watkins would get a step on each defender. On the other, Taylor was hit a split-second after airing it out up the right sideline.
This is what Watkins has been hoping for all along.
“I just tell him to throw it as far as you can,” Watkins said. “I am going to go get it. That is what he has been doing. He just has been looking the safety off, doing great with following through his reads and really just launching the ball and giving us a chance.
“If I am going deep just throw it out there, just throw it as far as you can. Either I am going to catch it or knock the ball down. That is a 50/50, so that is what he has been doing.”
There haven’t been many other routes between the two the last month. Watkins had one 21-yard catch over the middle called back on a Matthew Mulligan hold.
Otherwise, it’s the deep ball fueling Buffalo’s passing game.
After the game, former Tiger teammates Watkins and Hopkins exchanged jerseys and Watkins planned on shooting him a text message later on. These first two seasons in Buffalo haven’t been smooth sailing for Watkins from an array of injuries to frustration with targets. But now he’s asserting himself as one of the NFL’s best deep threats. Taylor is very careful not to force the ball into harm’s way.
But he’s starting to trust that Watkins will make that play more and more.
“He is the guy we are rolling with,” Watkins said, “and he is just getting better every week with leading this team, being a leader. Doing meetings by himself, just being a great quarterback and a leader for this team.”
The win Sunday came at a price – Buffalo lost two more starters to injury. Inside linebacker Tony Steward, in for Nigel Bradham, left the game with a back injury. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore suffered a shoulder injury and will have an MRI done Monday. He said afterward the shoulder “popped out.”
Gilmore hurt his shoulder in the third quarter trying to tackle Akeem Hunt. Down for several moments, he eventually exited with his left arm immobilized. In the locker room, that arm was in a sling.
With Gilmore out, Hopkins heated up. He beat Ronald Darby for 29 yards, then Darby again on a 19-yard touchdown to tie it at 21-21 with 9:19 to go.
Kevin Reddick, who spent three months on the practice squad, was released and then signed to the 53-man roster this past week, replaced Steward.
Cornerback Ron Brooks also left with a shoulder injury.
At the podium, coach Rex Ryan went out of his way to credit linebacker Manny Lawson. The veteran deserves a game ball, he said, for all of the different roles he played in Buffalo’s defense.
“He played every position, except kicker I think, in that game,” Ryan said. “It was unbelievable. What we ask him to do ... now obviously he’s got the highest Wonderlic score I’ve ever seen a defensive player have. Notice that’s a defensive player.
“It’s unbelievable and the way he takes charge of it, it’s just tremendous.”
Lawson finished with nine tackles (eight solo), one week after hovering in a spy type of role at Kansas City. As players around him suffer injuries, the 10-year vet has been a steady presence.
On Sunday, he was cut loose.
“Whatever it takes to help my team out, I’m all for it,” Lawson said. “It doesn’t matter what my role is. Like I said, my coaches and my teammates make my job a lot easier.”
After a week of being asked questions about J.J. Watt, the Buffalo offensive line mostly shut down the likely defensive player of the year.
Watt had only two solo tackles (one for loss) with zero sacks.
The Bills doubled him, ran away from him and never let Watt dictate their offense.
“He was pretty quiet,” center Eric Wood said. “We made well aware we knew where he was on the field each play, that’s for sure. And then running the football early obviously helps. If you can run the ball effectively early in the drive, it makes pass protection a whole lot easier.”
Manageable third downs certainly helped. The Bills, sputtering on third down all season, went 8 of 16. Running early on downs and neutralizing Watt helped.