Coming into the 2010 season Lee Evans was about the only sure thing in Buffalo's passing attack. Everyone else in the Bills receiving corps was largely unproven. Through the season's first six weeks however, the pass catchers on Buffalo's roster are quickly showing their unproven labels were due more to lack of opportunity than ability.
Evans, as has been the case the past few seasons, was expected to be the go-to receiver for Buffalo's offense this season. The other top two receivers, Steve Johnson and Roscoe Parrish, would have to prove they could contribute consistently week in and week out in an effort to not only provide balance to the passing game, but pull defensive attention away from Evans.
To their credit they've done their part. Johnson had been delivering production leading up to the matchup this past Sunday with the Ravens, with four touchdowns in the previous three games. Roscoe Parrish had also been getting consistent separation to provide Ryan Fitzpatrick with another option registering multi-catch performances in two of the three games prior to the Baltimore game.
On Sunday the production of the passing game reached critical mass.
Johnson was unstoppable with 158 yards on eight catches including a touchdown. Evans eclipsed 100 yards as well going for 105 on six receptions with three touchdowns. And Parrish contributed 49 yards on eight catches. The trio was also responsible for moving the chains on eight of the offense's season high 11 third down conversions.
Sunday also marked the first time the Bills had a pair of receivers each with 100 yards receiving in a game since Evans (107) and Parrish (104) pulled it off in a win over the Jets four years ago (9/26/06).
It's the kind of production Buffalo's offense has been waiting for from their aerial attack. More importantly Johnson's spike in output has been so dramatic that he's the wideout at the top of the stat sheet in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, and it's created balance in the offense's passing game.
"He's hard to handle in one-on-one situations and he has some subtle moves that allow him to get away from people from time to time and he's got excellent hands," said head coach Chan Gailey of Johnson. "He's starting to develop, just as Roscoe continues to develop and Lee does. And David Nelson made some big catches. We need to keep all the threats viable. I love it to be balanced between all of those guys as much as we possibly can."
For the most part it has been among the team's top three receiving threats with Evans, Johnson and Parrish all within four total receptions and almost 100 total receiving yards of one another. Buffalo's top three wideouts in 2010 are also dwarfing the production of the team's top three wideouts from 2009.
Through six games Evans, Terrell Owens and Josh Reed compiled 43 receptions for 561 yards and four touchdowns. After six games this season, Evans, Johnson and Parrish have 68 receptions for 924 yards and 10 touchdowns, representing increases of 37, 40 and 60 percent in those categories from a year ago.
What particularly jumps off the stat page is the number of big plays turned in by the receivers thus far this season and how it compares to the trio from last year.
Through the first six games last season Bills receivers made just eight plays of 20 yards or more. In 2010, Buffalo's receiving corps has already doubled that number with 16 plays of 20 yards or more in the passing game. Johnson credits his signal caller for the difference.
"I think it's just the quarterback," said Johnson. "It's Fitzpatrick throwing the ball around. We have more chances now to make plays with him letting it go. That's the only way I can explain it. Instead of taking the short passes underneath we're letting it go more downfield and he's throwing it in little tight spots. He's giving us more big play opportunities."
Naturally quarterback play and play calling are contributing factors for those figures, but it appears as though the Bills have effectively replaced experience with more than capable youth at receiver.
"We lost some guys last year and I felt like if not now then when," Johnson asked rhetorically. "When will I be able to take on a role as a guy in the NFL, as a playmaker in the NFL? I feel like this is my opportunity and I'm trying to take advantage of it."
Parrish also credits the offensive acumen of his head coach and the communication skills of their quarterback.
"It starts in practice and Chan Gailey does a good job game planning for opponents and us as players we have to go out and execute it and that's something we've done pretty well," said Parrish. "Fitz does a good job of just communicating with us. Throughout the week at practice making sure we're on the same page, thinking the same thing.
"When we're running routes or running a play throughout the week he'll pull each and every one of us over and ask us what we're thinking on this route. He does a good job of making us feel comfortable as receivers. It makes you want to just push harder as a receiver for a quarterback like that and get it done by any means necessary."
Buffalo's effectiveness Sunday against the league's third-best pass defense was the high water mark thus far this season as they averaged a season-high 12.9 yards per completion against the Ravens.
Evans was making Baltimore cornerback Fabian Washington look so bad that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh had to take him off the field.
"It wasn't my day," said Washington. "The Bills had my number. The coaches decided to pull me and go with Josh (Wilson). Once they start going after somebody, you've got to get them off you then. (Sunday) was check, check, 31. That was what it was. They got me."
"The shots that they took, the plays that they got, those guys made great adjustments with the quick routes versus us playing the deep routes," said Ravens safety Ed Reed. "They made some great adjustments, and they fought hard."
The men of Buffalo's offense know despite their sharp increase in production, there are still too many negative plays which has kept them from posting their first victory this season. What's encouraging is Buffalo's emerging receiving corps, which will only add more talent next season when fourth-round pick Marcus Easley returns, appears to have what it takes to compete against some of the league's better pass defenses.
"We have a talented offense and we've gotten into a rhythm the last few games," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "We're still searching for that win, but I love the guys I'm playing with. We're almost there."