It’s easy to take for granted the phenomenal athleticism on an NFL field.
Buffalo Bills receiver Justin Hunter is on his third team in four pro seasons and has been cut twice. The Bills picked him up in September after Sammy Watkins reinjured his foot. The fact that Hunter’s season-best catch total is just 28 might make casual fans think he’s “just a guy.”
The 25-year-old Hunter couldn’t be farther from average. He had a vertical jump of 40 1-2 inches before he was taken 34th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Out of 256 players drafted every year, maybe six a year have 40-inch vertical jumps. Hunter was a world-class long jumper at the University of Tennessee, with a long leap of 26 feet, 1 1-2 inches as a freshman. That would have placed 10th at the Rio Olympics this year.
Hunter showed off his elite ability on the winning touchdown in the Bills’ 28-21 victory over Jacksonville Sunday. Here are the Ten Plays That Shaped the Game:
1. Going Vertical. Tyrod Taylor put his pass up high on the 16-yard TD strike to Hunter with 10:46 left in the game.
“He knows the background, too,” Hunter smiled in the Bills’ locker room. “I’ve got a 40 inch vert. It came in handy today. He felt like he trusted me on that play.”
The Bills created a matchup advantage by using an empty backfield and five receivers on the second-and-11 play. The 6-foot-4 Hunter was in the right slot with LeSean McCoy lined up to the far right. That put 6-foot safety Johnathan Cyprien one on one with Hunter, who ran a corner route.
Cyprien is no athletic slouch. He was taken one pick before Hunter in the 2013 draft, at No. 33 overall. And he has 38.5-inch vertical jump.
Two inches made all the difference on the winning TD.
2. Nothing but air. McCoy’s 75-yard touchdown run to start the third quarter was a basic inside run, with fullback Jerome Felton leading the play off left guard. But the Jaguars’ defensive line was slanting to the Bills’ left. Bills tight end Charles Clay was blocking off right tackle and shoved defensive end Yannick Ngakoue way inside. McCoy reacted instantly and cut back off right tackle.
“We say all the time that all blocks here are at the point of attack because you never know where he’ll end up,” Clay said. “My job’s to cut off the defensive end on that play, and he slanted across. So I rode him all the way across. When you have backs like we have, he sees that and cuts right off it.”
Two Jaguars defensive backs, Jalen Ramsey and Cyprien, had closed toward right tackle and were in position. But McCoy’s cutback was so fast they grasped nothing but air.
3. Long bomb. Taylor’s best pass of the day was a 62-yard strike to Sammy Watkins, which set up the Bills’ third TD. Watkins beat Ramsey.
4. T-mobile TD. Taylor scrambled for a 7-yard TD on a third-down play, three plays after the bomb to Watkins. Jags linebacker Telvin Smith slipped coming up on Taylor, and the QB was too fast for closing Paul Posluszny.
5. Big punt return. Brandon Tate had acres of green turf ahead of him when he took off on a 43-yard return late in the first half to set up the Bills’ first TD. Credit superb blocking by the Bills’ defensive backs, who double-teamed both gunners on the outside of the coverage. Jonathan Meeks and Kevon Seymour dominated one side, while Nickell Robey-Coleman and Corey White handled the other.
6. Schemed up. The Jags called a good red-zone play to take a 21-20 lead. It was a perfectly executed bubble screen to Allen Hurns for a 12-yard score.
7. Gutsy. Rex Ryan went for it on fourth and 1 from the Jacksonville 13 on the Bills’ first TD drive. Tight end Nick O’Leary came in motion to seal off Ngakoue, and Jonathan Williams ran hard off left tackle for a 6-yard gain.
8. Covering ground. On the Jags’ final drive, Robey-Coleman raced from the far side of the field to break up what would have been a 26-yard pass to Jags tight end Neal Sterling at the Buffalo 40. A lot happened before the snap. The Bills were in a three-deep zone, but then the Jags changed the formation with pre-snap motion. Robey-Coleman switched to a combination coverage with a safety. Then he saw the tight end go deep, and he had to react fast and take off. There was some contact on the sideline.
“I saw the tight end release,” Robey-Coleman said, “and I said here we go. Deep ball coming. Let’s go get him. I said I’m going to use the sideline as my friend and I’m going to stay into him and try not to make anything obvious. I just mirrored him and when the ball came played through his hands.”
9. Quick whistle. The Bills caught a break in the first half when Smith put a big hit on McCoy to force a fumble at the Buffalo 37. Jacksonville recovered. But the officials ruled McCoy’s forward progress had been stopped. It was a bad call.
10. End zone foul. The Bills should have held the Jags to a field goal on the opening drive after a third-down bat-down of a Blake Bortles pass. But the Bills’ White was holding Jags receiver Allen Robinson in the end zone. It was a good call and cost the Bills four points.