ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Calvin Johnson has that look right now of an elite athlete who refuses to be denied.
It wasn’t enough to help his team, the Detroit Lions, win their last game in Minnesota, but Johnson certainly did all he could do.
His 12 catches for 207 yards and one touchdown added up to quite a performance under the circumstances.
Johnson hasn’t been practicing much because of knee and stinger injuries. He’s taken some serious hits to the head going back to the first month of the season. He’s slow to get up at times these days.
But he keeps on living up to the “Megatron” nickname.
“I’d say his production is unprecedented based on having three guys covering him every week,” Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “He’s always been one of the toughest guys I’ve been around. This is taking it to a new level.”
Much has been made about Johnson’s failure to score touchdowns like he has in the past — only two in nine games compared to 11 at this time a year ago — but he ranks first in the NFL with 974 receiving yards. His 60 receptions are tied for seventh.
A year ago, he had 54 catches for 885 yards through nine games.
So, despite the dropoff in touchdowns and the team’s inconsistent offense, Johnson’s numbers remain impressive.
It’s all part of what Linehan believes could go down as the best career ever for a receiver in the NFL “when it’s all said and done.”
Johnson, in his sixth year in the league, is now tied for third all-time with three 200-yard receiving games in his career. The record is five, held by Lance Alworth, who played for San Diego and Dallas from 1962-72.
With the 4-5 Lions trying to reestablish themselves as a playoff contender, Johnson has taken the mindset lately that he needs to carry them through this adversity.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Johnson said. “It’s doing everything from little details, but the main thing is just do your job to the best you can. Don’t try to do anybody else’s.”
Johnson found himself in the middle of a controversy last week. He had told the media he suffered from a concussion and nerve damage earlier in the season.
The club vehemently disagreed with Johnson’s assessment. The two sides later released a statement in which both said Johnson had not been concussed and that the nerve damage was actually a common football injury known as a “stinger.”
Asked Thursday about how much pain he’s been playing through, Johnson laughed and said, “I ain’t talking about nothing injury-related.”
It’s clear that these hits have been adding up and taking a toll, though, even on a 6-foot-5, 236-pound freakish athlete.
Despite the nickname, he’s still human.
“Last game I took some shots to the head so I took my time getting up,” Johnson said. “That one time I got up real fast. You’ll find yourself going back down if you do. Take your time getting up. Ain’t no rush.”
There has been speculation that opponents are targeting him with hits to his head this season.
Johnson, who practiced Thursday for only the second time in the last three weeks, wasn’t pointing any fingers.
“People have said it, but I haven’t been looking into it too much,” he said of the head-hunting theories. “I don’t know. It’s hard to do. It’s hefty on the pocket. Big fine. If they are, it’s not very smart on their part.
“I took some shots. It’s part of football, though.”
The effects from the hits were showing just a few weeks ago when Johnson made several uncharacteristic drops. He had a total of only six catches for 80 yards in back-to-back games against Chicago and Seattle.
The tough times have only made him more determined. He didn’t even get on the practice field two weeks ago, but he still went out and had a standout game in a victory at Jacksonville.
In the last two games, Johnson has 19 catches for 336 yards.
For teammates who have seen it all in practice and games many times over the years, you could understand if they took some of it for granted at this point.
Center Dominic Raiola doesn’t.
“You still get amazed because of the stage he does it on,” Raiola said.
Despite all of Johnson’s efforts of late, his team is running out of chances to get its act together this season. The Lions take on the Green Bay Packers Sunday at Ford Field, the first of three straight home games. They probably need to win at least two, if not all three, to save their season.
Players like Calvin Johnson are expected to make big plays in big games like these, even when they’re not full strength.
“He’s going to come out here and put the team on his back,” rookie receiver Ryan Broyles said.
Johnson knows what’s expected and needed of him, and he’s delivering.
But he can’t do it alone.
“You hate to say must-win, but this is of the utmost importance to get these wins,” Johnson said. “You can’t stand by and think they’re going to come. You’ve got to go and take it.”
Johnson is reaching and grabbing and holding on tight. He just needs a few more teammates to grab on and pull with him.
Cornerback Chris Houston, who injured his left ankle in Sunday’s game, returned to practice Thursday and expects to be ready for the Packers. “It’s getting better each day,” Houston said.
… The only players on the 53-man roster who didn’t practice were safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) and safety Amari Spievey (concussion).