Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson is far from a household name. First-year starters in the NFL are not often widely recognized unless they're a heavily hyped draft choice. Being a former seventh-round pick Johnson will have to put up league-leading numbers to gain acclaim. As the midway point of the 2010 season fast approaches, Johnson has made a move up the league's receiving charts.
Through seven games played Johnson is tied for fourth in the AFC in scoring with six touchdowns, and is tied for second among receivers. Only San Diego's Antonio Gates (9), Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis (7) and Tennessee's Kenny Britt (7) have found the end zone more often this season.
"He's doing a very good job," said head coach Chan Gailey. "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. He's starting to develop."
Johnson has caught touchdown receptions in five straight games matching a franchise record held by Elbert Dubenion (1964), Eric Moulds (1999) and teammate Lee Evans (2004). Should he get another in Buffalo's home game at the Rogers Centre in Toronto Sunday, he'll have that record all to himself.
His four-yard touchdown catch came late in Sunday's game to tie it at 10 and ultimately force overtime. And Buffalo's offense had to make adjustments at halftime to make that lone touchdown happen.
"We adjusted," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "But the Chiefs did a good job of giving us some different looks. The man-to-man coverage that they had shown all year wasn't there on third downs. They were playing more zone stuff and we adjusted and did just fine in the second half."
Johnson is also starting to climb the AFC charts in receptions (14th) and receiving yards (13th), two categories where he did not even rank in the top 25 just two weeks ago.
"It's nice to see him be able to get out there and have the opportunity to make plays," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "He's a tough guy to cover. You guys can watch the film and watch the game. You can't cover him on the line if you're going to try to press him. No matter what the coverage is he's going to get open."
And Fitzpatrick has looked for him. In three of the last four games the Bills quarterback has targeted Johnson more than any other receiver in the Buffalo passing game. For the most part Buffalo's offense has been rewarded. Johnson ranks in the top 10 in the AFC among receivers with 10 third down receptions, with teammate Roscoe Parrish a catch better (11).
"A lot of it is dictated by coverage," Fitzpatrick said. "When we have one-on-one matchups it's who I like the best. But we've moved Stevie around a little bit. Him and Lee are switching sides sometimes and that's more so the defense doesn't get a bead on where guys are and such. I love all four guys that are in there. Roscoe had the most yards Sunday and Stevie had the most targets, but I'm throwing the ball to whoever I think is going to be open."
Fitzpatrick says despite Johnson's outburst of success the past few games, defenses have yet to throw even an occasional double team or safety help to his side of the field.
"They're still playing (him) straight up," Fitzpatrick said of opposing defenses. "But it's hard with the guys we have our there to sit and double more than one guy. Nobody has really changed."
And that's just fine by Johnson, who has five or more receptions in each of his last three games to go along with his streak of six touchdowns in his last five games.
"Every Sunday is an opportunity and I'm just looking to take advantage of each one," he said.
As Buffalo's offense continues to evolve in year one under Chan Gailey, one thing that won't change is how the Bills make use of their clever young wideout.
"We're just going to continue to work to his strengths," said Fitzpatrick. "And hopefully it will be successful for us."