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Film Room: Is Marcus Johnson the Colts’ number one receiver going forward?

MoJo has stepped up in a big way in 2020

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Facing another season with a decimated receiving core, the Colts signed old reliable in Marcus Johnson back to the Practice Squad in week three of the 2020 season. After spending week four and five as a gameday elevation from the Practice Squad, he was signed to the active roster. The results with him on the roster this year so far have been outstanding.

This marks the second year in a row that Johnson has been a late add to the Colts’ roster. The Colts re-signed the veteran halfway through last season to provide a spark to an injured receiver core. On what was one of the least explosive offenses in the NFL, Johnson finished the season with 17 catches for 277 yards (16.3 ypc) and 2 touchdowns. He also hauled in team long receptions of 46 yards and 50 yards on the year.

Fast forward to this season and MoJo has continued his stellar play. In three active games this year, he has 9 catches for 188 yards (20.9 ypc) with catches of 27, 36, and 55 in that three game span. He has been every bit as good as he was late last season.

So with the injuries and disappointments in the Colts’ receiving core this year, should Marcus Johnson be the number one guy going forward? Today we are going to look at some of his film to find out.

Film Room

Johnson is typically running away from defensive backs on film but there are times where he is not open when running deep. Here the outside cornerback has good coverage and there is safety help over the top. Quarterback Philip Rivers sees this but decides to trust his receiver and throw it up anyway. The best thing about Johnson is that along with his speed, he has really quick and strong hands in traffic. These were on display on this play as he rises above the corner and makes a nice play in traffic.

While this is a great play design, Johnson’s speed makes plays like this possible and effective. This is a beautiful design with the 3X1 set to the right and with a dagger call as Johnson runs vertical and TY Hilton comes inside on the deep in. The stacked look confuses the Browns’ secondary and Johnson is able to run free over the top. Rivers’ deep throw brings him a bit too far inside which takes away the potential touchdown but Johnson does a great job of hanging on to this pass through contact down the field.

This is where speed simply kills in the NFL. The Colts get the matchup they want in the slot with Johnson against the deep safety in man. Johnson sells the inside route before cutting back outside and completely burning the slow footed safety. This probably should have been called a touchdown on the play as from every angle he looked to have fallen into the end zone. Regardless, it is a great play and it is nice to see these schemed vertical shots against a good matchup result in a big play.

Some plays are a bit easier than others but this was still a huge catch in context of the game. The Colts are facing a third and seven late in the first half still down 10 at this point. Johnson is able to work in the zone and find the soft spot for a big 20 yard gain and conversion on the play. While this is likely a miscommunication in the secondary (I think the corner should have been in man), it is still a big catch to move the chains in the first half.

This is just a beautiful connection by a quarterback and receiver who were cooking all day. Still late in the second half and the Colts need yards in a hurry. With the Bengals sitting in a soft zone, the Colts test them with this C route on the outside. Rivers delivers an absolutely gorgeous throw outside the numbers and Johnson is able to make the toe tap catch for another 20 yard gain. This connection was on fire in this game and hopefully we can see more of this going forward.

Final play of the film room but Johnson was mere inches away from having a 170 yard game on Sunday. This pass by Rivers just barely sails over Johnson’s head but look at this route on the outside. Facing off man coverage, Johnson puts a little stutter step on the corner at the top of his break and is able to pull away for a ton of separation. To quote Philip Rivers in his post game presser, Johnson has the “juice” on the outside. The Colts would be wise to continue utilizing him in the offense going forward.

Final Thoughts

Marcus Johnson has been pretty outstanding for the Colts since late last season. Look at an interesting stat I found today when researching some Colts’ passing numbers from the past two years.

Keep in mind that those numbers are with Johnson only playing in 11 games over the past two years. He has been nothing short of great for this team and he needs to continue getting opportunities in this offense.

To answer the question I posed to start this article though, I don’t think he should be the traditional “number one receiver” for this team. I do however think that he should be an every game starter, even once Michael Pittman Jr returns. He has proven that his speed opens up this offense and allows them to move the ball more efficiently.

Once Pittman Jr comes back after the bye, the Colts really should have a starting trio of Pittman Jr at the ‘X’ spot, Johnson at the ‘Z’ spot, and Hilton moved back inside to the slot. That way the three best receivers are on the field and the Colts can attack defenses in multiple ways.

Overall I have been really impressed with the play of Marcus Johnson the past 11 games. He has proven to be an effective deep threat for a team that said they wanted more explosive plays. If they want to continue being explosive on offense, they will continue throwing the ball to MoJo.