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The re-education of Robert Woods

Or, how the Bills’ receiver was so open against the Patriots.

Robert Woods has been a bit like the “red-headed stepchild” of the passing game during his tenure in Buffalo. He runs solid routes, he has quality hands, but he never seems to garner much in the way of attention or targets. He’s played second banana to both Stevie Johnson and Sammy Watkins in his career with nary a complaint to show for it. He’s caught passes from five different quarterbacks in four seasons, and for the first time, it seems as if he’s now the star of the passing game. With Watkins out for the foreseeable future, Woods needs to continue playing as he has over the past two weeks if the Bills’ offense is going to continue to improve.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

As a reference point for this, please check out Nate Geary’s awesome breakdown of Tyrod Taylor from Thursday. I used the GIFs he used to confirm what my eyes told me was true: the Patriots attempted to play a loaded box with one high safety, effectively leaving their corners in 1-on-1 matchups on the outside. The combination of that coverage, a fear of the deep pass, and some creative route combinations led to wide-open receivers all throughout the game.

In the first play Nate listed, Taylor finds a wide-open Charles Clay for a twelve yard gain. Clay had nobody near him because, on his journey from the left hash to the right, his man was rubbed off on a perfectly-executed route run by Mr. Woods. Woods ran his man directly into Clay’s man, and as Nate said, a better pass would have led to a much larger gain. Clay also could have caught the ball cleanly...but a better pass would have made that easier, as well.

Nate’s second GIF was my favorite route of the game. Woods lines up in the slot, with Marquise Goodwin outside of him. While Goodwin runs his man off, Woods dumps towards the sideline; the slot corner assumes that it’s a clearout-flat combo, and he bites to the outside. Woods executes a beautiful stutter-step before cutting back inside to gain the first down. Watching the play, I see a bigger gain if Taylor trusts that Woods will be as open as he becomes. His hesitation gives the corner time to recover, thus limiting Woods’ YAC opportunity. Note that in this play and the first one, the Patriots were playing 10 men in or on the line, daring Taylor to beat their corners. Taylor obliged them.

At the point where Woods catches the third pass shown, many receivers would hear footsteps and gator-arm it. Not Robert Woods, however. He showed his trademark toughness by staying in and hanging on, even with Jamie Collins waiting to slam him. Granted, Taylor did a nice job placing the ball in a spot where Woods could protect himself, but it doesn’t take anything away from the job he does in securing a first down.

The fourth and fifth GIFs show an element of Woods’ game that has been underused throughout his professional career. Woods creates tremendous separation in those plays through playing to the corner’s fear of being burned over the top. While Taylor makes a bad throw in the fourth GIF, just check out how wide-open Woods is. That’s all on him running a great route. He charges hard, running directly at the corner until he swivels as if to go deep with Woods; he also knows that, with a single-high safety, he can’t afford to let a receiver to so close to the end zone. Woods plants hard and breaks outside, clearing himself five yards of separation. In the last play, Woods runs what appears to be an out-and-up, but then breaks it off twenty-two yards down the field. The corner is so intent on avoiding the deep pass (he’s running full-speed with Woods, so when the route ends at the 40, he can’t bring himself to a stop until the 34) that Woods can break the route off with ease. An out-and-up deep comeback route off a roll-out...what a great call by Anthony Lynn!

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

So, to bring this back to Woods...what does it all mean for the fourth-year player? Will he continue to shine in a revamped passing attack that finally suits his strengths? Will he parlay that success into a big free-agent deal somewhere else? Does he stay with Buffalo, now that he seems to be developing the chemistry with Tyrod Taylor that we noted he previously did not have? The overlooked man in the passing attack has suddenly garnered more looks than he’s used to, and has actually just played the best two-game stretch of his career (13 catches). My guess is that the Rams will note how New England played and switch up their look, with some more double-high safety looks, which could still play to Woods’ benefit. With Taylor more confident throwing over the middle, and Woods being no stranger to running in that area of the field, his role should only continue to increase.

I love it when the supporting actor finally has a shot at a starring role.