More and more, Shaun King is looking in Keyshawn Johnson's direction when he lets loose
It's not yet Warner-Bruce or Manning-Harrison.
It's not Favre-Freeman, either, even if it has the same alliterative ring and it outdid that Packer duo on Sunday.
King-Keyshawn hasn't yet entered the pantheon of prolific QB-WR duos in the National Football League, but there have been few better in the last three weeks. While Martin Gramatica's long-range kicking has been irreplaceable and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' run defense has begun stifling opposing rushers again, no factor has been more evident in the Bucs' resurgence than this suddenly unstoppable passing combination.
As a pair, Tampa Bay QB Shaun King and WR Keyshawn Johnson does not yet have the pedigree or the full-season stats of those other well-known duos. However, if they continue to produce as they have in the last three weeks, they could become the league's hot new ticket.
On Sunday against the Packers, King found Johnson five times for 51 yards and a touchdown, with that TD opening the game's scoring in the second half. Over the past three contests, King has thrown nine touchdown passes, a three-game total never surpassed in Buccaneer history. Johnson has caught four of them.
The Bucs' 6-foot-4, high-profile receiver, acquired from the Jets in the offseason in the league's most impactful trade, brought a new dimension to Tampa Bay's offense from day one. However, whereas early in the season he was helping most by drawing double teams and freeing up WR Jacquez Green, Johnson is now both taking on extra coverage and coming up with big numbers on his own.
"They tried to take me out of the game," said Johnson of the Packers. "They doubled me a lot, then they tried to pull people over to my side. When we were successful running the ball, that left me in single coverage and that is what we needed."
Over the last three Buccaneer games, all wins, Johnson has hauled in 14 passes for 219 yards and four scores. In fact, Johnson is averaging over five receptions per contest over the last six games and is now on pace to put up 2000 numbers right in line with his career trajectory. Over four seasons with the Jets, Johnson averaged 76 receptions for 1,027 yards and just under eight touchdowns. His current stat rate this year would lead to 74 catches for 947 yards and eight TDs.
King's numbers have taken a similar leap since he started targeting Johnson more acutely in the last three weeks. Over that span, the Bucs' second-year signal-caller has completed 43 of 75 passes for 541 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. That computes to a stellar passer rating of 108.4 and, indeed, King's overall season rating has jumped up to 80.8.
But more importantly than King and Johnson finding new statistical peaks, they have found each other on the field. Johnson is clearly King's favorite target over the middle when big chunks of yardage are needed, and he is also getting the ball short with a chance to run more often. Against Green Bay, King turned two passes that barely crossed the line of scrimmage into gains of six and 12 yards by employing stiff-arms against smaller Packer defenders.
The best moment between King and Johnson, however, occurred early in the second period. Tampa Bay had gained a first down at the Packers' 10 and had picked up five yards on a Mike Alstott run up the middle. On second down, King faked a handoff to Alstott and rolled left. It appeared that King might have a shot to run it into the end zone, but two Packer defenders had a reasonable shot at stopping him.
"Shaun was supposed to run," said Johnson of the play, "but saw me open and pulled up and threw the ball."
Johnson didn't even expect to be a target on the play, but when he came open unexpectedly, King didn't hesitate to give him the ball. Each player reacted instantly and a connection was made. Maybe for some time to come.