Starting the season with zero snaps on defense, doors opened for cornerback Kevin Johnson in an all-too-common way in the NFL. Injuries. Filling in as a slot corner for Taron Johnson starting in Week 2, a shoulder injury to Levi Wallace against the Philadelphia Eagles allowed time as the CB2 as well. A few weeks after Wallace’s return the Buffalo Bills began rotating Wallace and Johnson. What did the Bills see that warranted such a move? Let’s head to the tape.
Note: As Kevin Johnson earned his way into the CB2 lineup on merit, we’ll focus on games in which he played in that role.
It’s hard not to discuss Kevin Johnson without comparing his play to Levi Wallace. Both react well, responding to plays quickly. A big difference between the two is athleticism. Kevin Johnson drives into the play and covers a lot of ground very quickly. Johnson’s overall better speed and acceleration allow him to use a bigger cushion in coverage.
Johnson is staring at the ball the entire time. Craning your head back is usually just about the best way to slow the rest of your body down. He’s still running right next to his man without any difficulty.
I’ve already shown the backpedal to drive, but it’s worth seeing again. This exact play also shows two reactions in short order. Kevin Johnson appear to drive when his man breaks to the sideline. Based on the timing of everything else, I really like his odds of getting to the ball on time had it gone to his receiver. Instead it goes to the shallow route and Johnson reacts a second time by doing an impression of a missile.
About the only improvement you could ask for would be for Johnson to contort his body to look back for the ball. This is fringe pass interference and it’s that fringe that makes it a near-perfect play. Johnson starts with a backpedal but reacts quickly when he recognizes the route. He avoids significant contact as he goes up to defend the pass and, as a result, this is nearly a mid-air jersey swap.
I tend to speak glowingly of Kevin Johnson because a lot of elements jump off the screen thanks to his physical ability. He’s far from perfect, though, and I’m not trying to suggest the Bills should flip the snap counts between Wallace and Johnson to favor the latter. Tiny lapses on his part and/or deception from the receiver can get him in trouble too.
This play is just fun to watch. Covering a route has a lot of routine to it as receivers (and corners) are trained to use common types regardless of team or level of play. A corner trying to cover the chaos of a play breaking down can be a true test. We’ve all see a miracle play as a result of a defense allowing a play to continue too long and this is part of the reason why. Coverage can come undone when the unexpected happens. Johnson’s athletic ability keeps him in position.
With so many positives to Kevin Johnson’s play you may be wondering why I’m NOT calling for increasing his playing time over Levi Wallace. Make no mistake, I like both players quite a bit and wouldn’t be opposed to that. Still, there’s a simple answer as to why it hasn’t happened yet.
Levi Wallace is the better zone corner, and Kevin Johnson is better in man coverage. As a team that likes it’s zone work, Wallace is often the better fit. One thing I love about this situation is that rotating the two players allows them to effectively swap defensive game plans on the fly, which can put a lot of stress on a quarterback trying to figure out who will be open.
In regards to Kevin Johnson and the question we always try to arrive at, I assume you know my answer by now. Try to keep him.
- All-22 analysis of Kevin Johnson’s 2019 season
- All-22 analysis of Levi Wallace’s 2019 season
- Contract projection shows a pay increase for Kevin Johnson in 2020
- Buffalo Bills don’t have enough cornerbacks for 2020 offseason
- Value free agent options limited at cornerback
- 2020 NFL Draft prospects could be starters or depth
- Opinion: Bills would be fine with Wallace as CB2, but they’ll need to add depth or re-sign Johnson