Prior to the 2010 season Stevie Johnson had all of 12 career receptions for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Everyone knows how dramatically different the complexion of his career appeared following his breakout 82-catch, 10 touchdown year. With 1,073 yards, a host of clutch plays and several third down conversions now in the rearview mirror the question now is what can Johnson do for an encore?
Bills receivers coach Stan Hixon shared some of his conversation with Johnson at the close of his very impressive 2010 season.
"We talked about his production," Hixon told Buffalobills.com. "Obviously it was very good production, but we also think there are some things that he needs to work on. From a coach's point of view both in the running game and passing game he can be a lot more consistent.
"He made some plays now, but as a coach my job is to be very critical to help him out. He made some great plays for us and he also felt he left some plays on the field and so his numbers could've been a lot better. Overall he's headed in the right direction and he'll get better in the running game, the passing game and on some down the field routes."
The play everyone remembers was the missed opportunity to catch the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to upset the Steelers. Pittsburgh ultimately won the game 19-16. Johnson said late last season that he'd never get over it, but would instead move past it and use it as a learning tool in the future.
Of the 204 points scored by Buffalo's non-kickers (Rian Lindell had 79) Johnson had 60 of them with his 10 touchdowns good for almost 30 percent of the scoring. Posting one season of double-digit touchdowns is hard enough. Going back-to-back is usually only done by the elite of the elite at the receiver position.
Come the second half of the season last year Johnson was already drawing significantly more attention. After pulling in six touchdowns in the first seven games of the season last year, Johnson was put under wraps by opposing defenses particularly in the red zone. He had just one touchdown reception in his last six games.
Hixon believes that kind of attention will continue this season, but he's confident Johnson will not burden himself with the belief that 2011 is not a successful season unless he exceeds his touchdown total of a year ago.
"What happened is Steve realized he took advantage of his opportunities (last year)," said Hixon. "This year defenses might double Steve more and leave someone else open, so that would be the time for the other receivers to make plays. But as long as (Ryan) Fitz(patrick) can read it when Steve is in a one-on-one situation or read the zone and be on the same page he can get the same amount (of touchdowns), hopefully more. The bottom line is just being productive and if it happens and there's opportunity he has to take advantage of it and make the play."
Johnson is not a speed receiver, but he is a very crafty route runner allowing him to gain unusually large separation from defenders quickly. Hixon considers it Johnson's greatest strength.
"Winning against one-on-one," said Hixon. "He's really good at one-on-one situations. It could be a tight defender or a loose defender, but he does a good job of winning one-on-one and a good job of getting separation. And he just needs a little separation. Obviously the faster you are the better, but his ability to separate in one-on-one coverage is really, really good."
Johnson and the rest of the Bills receiving corps will not have an easy go of it in 2011. They face the top two passing defenses from a season ago in San Diego (1st) and Oakland (2nd) and three others in the top 10 including a pair of division opponents that they'll play twice in Miami (8th) and the Jets (6th). On the flip side they also could have big days against the likes of Tennessee (29th), New England (30th) and Washington (31st).
What Hixon believes will help Johnson possibly even more this season is the freedom to improvise a little in Buffalo's passing game.
"One great thing about coach Chan Gailey's offense is it allows players the creativity," he said. "Our main goal is beat the man. That means beat the defender and be where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be there and don't fool the quarterback. Those are the three basic rules.
"You beat the defender, but you might run the same route five different ways. As long as he's at the right depth where he's supposed to be and on time then he's fine. That's the best part of the offense. I've been in other offenses where I had players like Steve, but the offensive coordinator did not give the players the freedom to be creative and they felt handcuffed."
Knowing the creative spirit that Johnson is Gailey's offensive system appears to be a perfect match. Add in the fact that the offense is largely unchanged and the starting quarterback is the same, Hixon believes Johnson could be an even greater threat this coming season.
"Obviously within the framework of our offense we'll move him around a little bit more," he said. "Even last year he was outside and inside. As we say the more you know the more creative he can be and hopefully it also leads to more one-on-one matchups. He's capable of having a great year."