The Buffalo Bills got back to their winning ways with a dominant 37-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 11, moving their record to 7-3 and placing them as the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture.
Among the key issues in the offseason was trying to find a cornerback to play opposite Tre'Davious White, although the Bills expressed confidence in Levi Wallace, who started the final seven games last season. The Bills signed former first-round pick Kevin Johnson as a free agent, but Wallace has been the starter throughout.
Quarterbacks have been attempting to pick on the cornerback opposite of White this season and have been doing so with some success. Wallace has allowed a 110.5 passer rating when targeted.
On Sunday against the Dolphins, Wallace played 33 snaps for a season-low 48%. Johnson played 36 snaps for a season-high 52%. Johnson led the Bills' defense with an 82.2 overall grade for the game.
"As we were going through the week and our preparation we thought this would be a good thing to do based on what we were seeing from the opponent," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told reporters Monday. "We'll take a look at it again this week and see what's the best thing to do. Kevin is a really good football player and so is Levi. You want to get them on the field. We’ve been using Kevin previously at the nickel position and given him opportunities that way. But he's been a really good corner. And so we wanted to give him a chance and we’ll see how it goes this week as we prepare."
White, the third-year star cornerback, has taken a step forward this season with a 72.5 overall grade and a 72.3 coverage grade. He’s allowed only 35 receptions on 58 targets for a 60.3% catch rate allowed. White has also generated seven combined pass breakups and interceptions and has allowed a lowly 60.8 passer rating when targeted in coverage, top 10 among cornerbacks this season.
While White’s success has been a major upgrade for the Bills defense this season, it has also left the opposite outside cornerback and slot coverage man a bit vulnerable.
Wallace, Kevin Johnson and Taron Johnson have combined for a staggering 113 targets in coverage this season with Wallace’s 66 targets in coverage ranking fifth among cornerbacks.
"Some of the numbers going Tre’Davious’ way have dwindled and obviously increased on the other side," Frazier told reporters. "We went through that a year ago as well. You really have to try to prepare the guys mentally, that are playing opposite of Tre’Davious, for what's going to happen. They’re going to get targeted. If they catch a pass, you can't let it get you down. They’re going to catch some passes in our league.
"The big thing we always try to emphasize is not giving up a ball over the top and tackle all the things that come underneath. You’re going to get some work, you have to be mentally tough enough to get through it. That’s what we talk about, we try to get them those reps in practice as well."
While Wallace has been dominating snaps as the Bills’ outside cornerback position, Kevin Johnson has provided versatility in the secondary – splitting snaps in slot coverage with Taron Johnson, while also finding time on the outside. Going into Week 11, 99 of Kevin Johnson’s 146 total defensive snaps were in slot coverage, however, in recent weeks, he wasn’t seeing the field as often, playing a season-low 14 combined snaps in Weeks 9 and 10.
The scheme changed in Week 11 against the Dolphins. Johnson allowed only two receptions on five targets for a total of 16 yards, allowing a passer rating of 48.8, while Wallace allowed all three of his targets to be caught for 27 yards. Johnson particularly excelled in cover-2 and cover-3 zone schemes producing a 90.5 grade in zone-schemed coverages.
Could Kevin Johnson be on the cusp of overtaking the outside cornerback spot?
From a grading standpoint, he’s outplayed Wallace throughout the season, albeit in much fewer defensive snaps. Johnson has generated a 74.8 overall grade compared to Wallace’s 59.8 mark, while allowing a catch rate of 11.1 percentage points less than Wallace.
Breaking it down by scheme, the trend continues. Johnson has generated a 70.3 coverage grade in cover-2 and cover-3 zone schemes, while Wallace sits at 58.8. In man coverage, the difference is even more noteworthy as Johnson has produced a 77.2 coverage grade, compared to Wallace’s 52.1 mark.
Johnson has accomplished this while shifting positions from the slot to outside coverage. That ability to play equally as well in zone and man coverage schemes is a hot commodity and one not to be taken lightly in today’s NFL.
Johnson continues to outperform when looking at coverage numbers when lined up as the outside cornerback opposite White.
Wallace has allowed 38 receptions on 60 targets in 346 coverage snaps for 415 yards and three scores, resulting in an allowed passer rating of 100.3.
Johnson has allowed three receptions on eight targets in 43 coverage snaps for 26 yards, resulting in a lowly 46.9 passer rating allowed.
Despite limited snaps, Johnson seems to be reaching his full potential as a versatile piece of the secondary.
Health always has been the concern with Johnson and will continue to be going forward, but if he is able to stay on the field, he gives the Bills above-average defense the opportunity to become among the elite in the NFL, especially in coverage.
He’s been a pleasant surprise for the Bills as a newly signed free agent and will be a major factor down the stretch with the possibility of a full-time role going forward.
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