Isaiah McKenzie’s best catch in Miami Sunday was a good one because the young receiver showed a little veteran savvy on the play.
McKenzie made a 16-yard grab early in the third quarter, a key play on a touchdown drive that put the Bills ahead, 30-14.
McKenzie ran a 13-yard in-cut to the middle of the field from the right slot. Quarterback Josh Allen had all day to throw. After looking for tight end Dawson Knox on the left side of the field, Allen came back to the middle.
McKenzie pivoted and found an opening to his right, where Allen threw him a strike.
“The route actually was broken off,” McKenzie said. “The middle was closed at the snap. But Josh and the receivers have a connection. Find the open spot. When I came back out, there was an open spot, so he threw it. It was like a scramble drill, although he wasn’t scrambling. The first window wasn’t open.”
Maybe McKenzie can keep emerging over the second half of the season.
The 5-foot-8, 173-pounder is getting his shot. He has been the Bills’ No. 3 wideout the past three games, averaging 45 snaps over that stretch, or two-thirds of the offensive plays. He played just 14% of the offensive snaps over the first seven games.
McKenzie runs a 4.42-second 40-yard dash. The threat he poses on jet sweeps is an element offensive coordinator Brian Daboll likes in the Bills’ offense.
It was a big element in the win over Washington three weeks ago. McKenzie was part of pre-snap, jet-sweep motion on 23 of the Bills’ 61 plays against the Redskins. He got the ball only twice on those plays, but the 23 plays netted 148 yards, an average of 6.4 a play.
The Bills ran jet-sweep action four times against Cleveland and only twice against Miami. But the defense has to respect it.
“Whether it’s softening up the edges, the defensive eye control sometimes goes on that guy that’s getting a bunch of sweeps, and it opens a few lanes,” Daboll said after the Redskins game. “Eye candy gives you force angles. It’s something you may use one week and not the next.”
“It makes defenses think,” McKenzie said. “We can’t overflow on the jet sweep or they’re going to give it to the running back in the hole. We can’t just sit in the hole, and give them the jet sweep around the corner. It gets them thinking. They’ve got to respect it. We use it in our game plan. It can happen at any moment.”
The Bills have opted for McKenzie’s speed and quickness over the size of Duke Williams, who has been inactive the past three games.
McKenzie has eight catches the past three weeks and 15 for the season. His 56 snaps in Miami was his most extensive action of the year.
McKenzie, 24, still is a young receiver. He only saw extensive receiving action one season at the University of Georgia, then was drafted in the fifth round by Denver in 2017. He saw spot duty with the Broncos as a rookie.
The Bills claimed him off waivers in November last year, and he saw spot duty in the last nine games, catching 18 passes.
“My first two years in college, I didn’t play much receiver,” McKenzie said. “My last year I played a lot more. In Denver I didn’t play much receiver. So when I got here they gave me an opportunity. They gave me little plays here and there. But now I’m in the flow of the offense. I feel like each and every week I’m getting better running routes on the outside.”
“I want to show I can make the big catch when Josh throws it to me,” McKenzie said. “If I want more, I have to show them I can run routes, I can block. I think I’ve been showing them that on top of the jet sweeps, and that’s why they’ve given me more snaps. I have to keep improving every week.”
Daboll is matchup oriented. If he thinks a defense has smallish cornerbacks that Williams can exploit, then Williams will be in and McKenzie will be out. Meanwhile, Robert Foster is trying to squeeze into the rotation. Foster had 16 snaps at Cleveland, none in Miami.
The jet-sweep action is in McKenzie’s favor.
“It’s something he’s really good at, and it’s something coach Daboll wants to utilize in this offense,” receiver Andre Roberts said. “It’s all about misdirection. When we have the athletes we have on the outside with the speed we have, it’s always good to show some misdirection.”