Why Calvin Johnson’s Quiet Start is Good for the Lions’ Offense


Sep 22, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) walks off the field after the game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Lions won 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been following the Detroit Lions this season, (and if you haven’t, what are you doing here?), you may have noticed that Calvin Johnson has not been his usual dominant self through the first quarter of the season.

Sure, he’s been really good, and his touchdown numbers are back up, but the man who pulled down more receiving yards than anyone in history in the 2012 season is currently 16th in the NFL in both receptions and receiving yardage so far this year. He hasn’t really taken over a ball game or put the team on his back, the way Lions fans are used to seeing.

Through four games, Johnson has 21 receptions for 312 yards, less than Cecil Shorts of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last season through four games, Johnson had 29 catches for 423 yards. That may not sound like a big difference, but it figures out to a difference of about two receptions and 28 yards per game.

That means the man talked about as potentially posting a 2,000-yard season is currently on pace for under 1,250. That’s almost a hundred yards less than he had in 2008 with five different quarterbacks taking snaps.

This all begs the question: What’s wrong with Calvin Johnson? Why isn’t he putting up those game-changing numbers so far this year?

The shortest answer is that stats aren’t always how players affect the game. Johnson may have posted a bunch more yards through four games last season, but the Lions were 1-3 after four games  in 2012, not 3-1.

For years now, opposing defenses have known that if they sell out to stop Johnson, the rest of the Lions offense tends to sputter out. The Lions knew that too, so what you have seen from this team is Matthew Stafford forcing the ball in to Johnson, his most (or only?) reliable weapon. Johnson is good enough to make some spectacular plays in double and triple coverage, so the result was big numbers for Johnson in a highly inefficient offense.

Even if he’s world-class, forcing an entire offense to rely on a single outstanding skill player is not a recipe for long-term success (see Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings).

The best offenses tell defenses to pick their poison. Selling out to stop one weapon means opening up opportunities for another. The Lions generally haven’t had that other option. It was more like telling defenses to pick between poison and prune juice. The prune juice might make them a little uncomfortable at times, but it certainly won’t kill them.

In 2013 thus far, teams are still selling out to stop Calvin Johnson, and it’s working. He has only been the leading receiver in one of the four games the Lions have played, and that was against Arizona — their only loss of the season. The difference is, the Lions are starting to achieve the kind of balance they need to punish teams for going all-out to stop Johnson.

Johnson had only four receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown against the Bears. But what else happened in that game?

Stafford threw only 35 passes, and was sacked only once. He completed passes to six different receivers, all of whom had between 20 and 60 receiving yards. The Lions won the turnover battle and time of possession.

Oh, and Reggie Bush repeatedly gashed the Bears defense up the middle, with 139 rushing yards on over 7.7 yards per carry. That’s also important.

See, the whole concept of stopping Johnson is that teams put two or three guys on him, and bet the the other weapons on the field can’t win one-on-one matchups. And for a while, that was painfully true. Even when it wasn’t, there wasn’t anybody worth fearing. A guy might make a play here or there, but nobody was going to break out and cause serious damage.

The Lions are proving now that they can beat teams with more than just the Stafford-Johnson connection. Bush can hurt teams who overplay the pass, and Johnson is always waiting to haul in a deep pass over some poor unsuspecting defender left in single coverage.

And even beyond those stars, there are other options. Nate Burleson and Joique Bell did more than their part against Washington, and even guys like Kris Durham and Brandon Pettigrew got into the act against Chicago.

What you’re seeing is not a decline in Johnson’s play. It’s an evolution of the entire offense, from one than ran through Johnson and relied on him, to one that uses him as a major part of an otherwise functional offense.

Johnson affects every single offensive play, because his presence changes everything the defense does. In short, he’s creating opportunities for his offense, whether he has the ball or not.

This is a guy who, early in 2012, said he wanted to Lions to run the ball more so he could do more blocking, and he ended up setting the single-season record for receiving yards.

This isn’t a down year for him. He’s playing in exactly the balanced offense he wished for in 2012, and the one he has belonged in since he entered the NFL.