WR Keyshawn Johnson is primed to break away and break out against Detroit
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play host to the Detroit Lions on Thursday in a prime time game televised nationally by ESPN. It will be wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson's first night game in sparkling Raymond James Stadium; should Johnson be tempted to look skyward, he might see the stars aligned perfectly for his breakout Buccaneer performance.
Johnson has snared a team-leading 26 receptions through his first six games as a Buccaneer, a pace that would lead to 69 by season's end. No Tampa Bay player has had that many catches in a season since 1989, and yet there is a feeling that Johnson has yet to fully hit his stride in pewter and red.
That feeling is not coming from Johnson's corner, however. Whatever statistical expectations were tied up in his arrival in Tampa, Johnson's own ambitions are reflected in the win and loss columns.
"I will satisfy my personal goals if we win a championship," said Johnson. "If I'm a cardboard cutout over there on one side, and I've got two guys on me, I've done my job."
That being said, the best afternoons and evenings of the season are probably still ahead for Johnson, a 76-catches-per-year man in four seasons with the New York Jets. Thursday night against the Lions would seem to be the perfect stage for just such an outing.
First, the Lions were the victims of Johnson's most prolific game of the season, an eight-catch, 84-yard affair in the Silverdome on September 17. Johnson didn't find the end zone that day in the Bucs' 31-10 win, but he did earn six first downs on those eight catches and set up a Tampa Bay field goal with a 38-yard reception.
As a whole, the Bucs have thrown the ball well against Detroit, averaging 254.7 gross passing yards per game over the last three contests. The Lions played soft on Johnson in the last game, allowing him to catch a lot of short and intermediate passes, many of them on sideline hitch routes. The Bucs don't expect the Lions to change their approach drastically.
"We're looking for the same type of defense, but I don't necessarily have to run a whole bunch of hitches," said Johnson. "I could run some slants, where I can run with the ball after the catch. I'd rather get it on the run."
Second, Johnson and QB Shaun King hooked up well in practice this past week.
"I think this was our best week in practice throwing the football," said Johnson. "I think someone – I don't know who – whispered in Shaun's ear, told him just to throw the ball and not worry about it. He threw the ball great this week."
Reaching that comfort zone is a two-way street, and Johnson is moving in the right direction, as well. "I'm really happy down here," he said. "I'm starting to fit in more and feel more relaxed."
The same can be said of the Buccaneers as a whole, who had grown somewhat tense over the three-game losing streak and the few but notable breakdowns that led to each of those losses. The atmosphere in the Tampa Bay locker room this week, following a well-timed bye, was more in line with how the team felt after downing Detroit the first time.
"We're back to a point where we're feeling like we did when we were 3-0," said Johnson. "We feel like we can bust each other's chops again. They've been killing me every day in the locker room, calling me Alvin Harper and Bert Emanuel. We're over it."