The box score for Sammy Watkins versus the New York Jets wasn't what you'd call impressive: three receptions for 14 yards on only seven targets. Yet the only part of his game being talked about was the play made on the Buffalo Bills' final offensive series, a four-yard catch on third down to extend the series when the team was desperate to run out the clock.
Watkins put on an absolute clinic running that route, and we'll talk about it in a bit. But first, let's look at two other plays that illustrate just how effectively Watkins was playing last week. His route-running was absolutely dialed in, and he was winning one-on-one against Darelle Revis on the majority of his routes. A couple of better throws from Tyrod Taylor and some better protection in spots, and we would be talking about Watkins' dominant night the same way we did when he played Miami.
Here, we have a look at the first play turned in by Buffalo's offense against the Jets. You can click the video to open it up in a new tab, which I'd recommend if you want to try pausing, reversing, or slowing down the video.
Watkins is singled up in man to man against Revis, as he was for almost every snap. Revis starts in press coverage but shifts to off coverage before the snap. The Jets were in Cover 3, with Revis covering the deep zone against Watkins and a safety moving into the box before dropping into coverage against potential short passes.
Watkins sells the route in multiple ways. First, his drive off the line is aggressive, with pumping arms and "vertical" eyes. That keeps Revis in a backpedal, and a healthy three yards away. At the 27-yard line, Watkins bends his route inside and subtly turns his head and shoulders as if he'd be breaking off his route for a catch. He twists his hips back outside to fake a slant-and-go route, driving hard with his body to push Revis towards the sideline, and with the middle of the field now vacated, he bends his route once more towards open space. Revis isn't in position to catch him, and a better pass toward the middle of the field would have been a touchdown. Unfortunately, Taylor wasn't able to step into his throw, and the poor foot placement led the pass toward the sidelines. Watkins slows down and bends his route back out, but he jumped too early and couldn't make the catch. Route-running win, but not something you'd see on the scoreboard.
Watkins won a lot of battles with some absolutely filthy footwork, but a big reason for his success was that he was able to use his physicality to gain separation. On this play, Watkins is the 'X' receiver in press coverage against Revis. His first three steps are authoritative, and he brings up his hands almost as if he were run blocking. No worries, as he was fighting within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage. After Revis hits his backpedal, Watkins uses his right arm to push away Revis's arms, and he's free. Unfortunately this was another off-target pass. A better pass would've led Watkins upfield (as most of Taylor's sideline throws against the Jets were doing), and would've been placed lower rather than up above Watkins' head. Still, Watkins had his hands on the ball, and he should have come down with it. He likely would've had the first down had he made this catch.
This last play is the one everyone's talking about, and rightfully so. It's absolutely beautiful. Off the snap, Watkins brings both feet out so he can square his hips to the line, and Revis counters by immediately putting his hands into Watkins' chest. Undeterred, Watkins uses both arms to rip Revis away, pivots, and breaks hard inside. He pumps his arms, stares into the slant route, and takes a big step inside. On his next step, Watkins plants his leg and breaks outside, while Revis is still breaking on the slant route. Watkins dodges the cornerback's grasping right arm, calmly turns for the pass, and drifts two yards past the sticks to ensure a completion. As Revis turns his body, Watkins steps out of bounds five yards away, ball in hand.
In a September feature with The Buffalo News, cornerback Stephon Gilmore remarked that every route run by a receiver "tells you a story." The deception contained in each route only succeeds if the defense believes the story being told. Is a receiver going deep? Not if his head is turning inside, or if he's taking smaller steps. Will the receiver break inside? Not when his hips are pointing to the sideline. The best receivers find ways to tell a complete story with their routes. Speed and short-area explosion can increase separation, but great receivers have to earn that initial separation with the way they run their routes. When a receiver incorporates his whole body into creating deception, integrates his athletic talent, and adds a layer of physicality, he starts separating from defenders. Then his success comes down to the precision of the route run and the timing and throw with the quarterback.
When he's played this season, Watkins has shown the route-running potential that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.