Keep the ball out of Johnson's hands
Each week, John Lynch breaks down a dynamic NFL offensive playmaker, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Lynch examines how he would defend against Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, former NFL quarterback Chad Pennington breaks down how San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith should attack the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense.
Divas. Prima donnas. Loudmouths.
Knowing I played defensive back in the NFL for 15 years should be all the clue you need to guess what position I’m talking about.
Think about it: Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco. Keyshawn Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Plaxico Burress. Need I go on?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that attitude is necessarily a bad thing to play that position. Stars, the great ones, want the ball. And sometimes attitude helps them get it.
Then along comes the anomaly: Calvin Johnson.
The Detroit Lions wideout clearly has become one of the game’s best, most explosive receivers. He’s big (6-foot-5), he’s fast (sub-4.4 speed) and he can jump (40-plus-inch vertical leap). And the first four weeks of the season, he’s also done what no other receiver has ever done: catch two touchdowns in each of the first four games.
In fact, former Minnesota star Cris Carter is the only other receiver to ever catch two touchdowns in four consecutive games. But what makes Johnson so special, in addition to his physical attributes, is that he’s so humble.
I talked with Johnson before the Lions-Vikings game in Week 3 because I was calling the game for FOX. I asked him about making only three catches the previous week in Detroit’s blowout of Kansas City. I told him I knew he was humble, but c’mon — didn’t he want “the damn ball,” like another Johnson once stated?
He told me that as long as they were winning he was fine with it. He said if the other guys on his team kept “eating,” it was only going to open up more things for him. He’s a very sincere guy, and I think he truly meant it.
Now for the tough task . . .
My assignment this week: Game plan for the Chicago Bears defense in trying to stop Johnson, Matt Stafford and the Lions’ offense.
Lions GM Mark Mayhew has done a tremendous job of putting talent on that team. Look at that offense. As Calvin said, there’s been a feast going on with the Lions’ receiving corps, which includes Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Even Jahvid Best is getting into the act.
But if I’m the defensive coordinator this week, the first thing I’m looking at is Detroit’s running game. It hasn’t been too effective, averaging just three yards a carry (ranked 29th in the NFL). I’m going to look at stopping the run with the front seven and applying pressure to Stafford. I’d never leave Johnson without safety help. Without a strong Detroit running game, you don’t have to. The Lions’ weakness has been protecting Stafford, especially at the tackle position. That allows you to get pressure on Stafford with your front four.
I’m not going to let Johnson beat me. I’m going to be bumping him on the line of scrimmage every play, with safety help over the top. Johnson reminds me of Moss in his prime, and that’s how we used to try to cover him. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The goal is to frustrate him. That’s what you have to do with great players.
However, the difference between Johnson and Moss is that he’s more of a complete receiver. Shawn Jefferson, the receivers coach for the Lions, has done a great job working with Calvin; he has shown tremendous growth in the past few years. He not only knows how to run every route, but he also runs them all out. And he’s a tremendous blocker.
Moss is the closest parallel when it comes to Johnson. Players like that are game changers. An example: A safety normally plays 12 yards off the line of scrimmage. But with those guys, they’re 17 yards back because of the respect they have for them. And corners who normally play five yards off the line are backed up to nine yards. That, in itself, can change a game.
You saw it in the Dallas game last week, when the Lions rallied from a 24-point deficit. The Cowboys had two guys on Johnson and you started seeing the defensive backs doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Instead of playing the ball, they started playing Johnson.
If you start panicking, you have no chance. If you start playing Johnson, three things can happen — and they’re all bad. He’ll outleap you for a catch, he’ll catch a touchdown pass or you’ll get a pass interference called against you for grabbing. Against him, the defenders have to almost forget what’s back there and play the ball. They have to trust their ability as well.
Then there’s Stafford to worry about, the yin to Johnson’s yang. Besides the great chemistry the two are developing, the third-year quarterback is completing 62 percent of his passes, he’s averaging more than 300 yards a game, and his 11 TD passes are third-most in the league, behind Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s pretty good company. His No. 1 attribute is that he’s got a cannon for an arm. He’s done a great job of getting the ball out of his hands and the ball comes out quickly. He can get it into small windows that not too many other quarterbacks can put it in.
But where he’s improved the most is his footwork. Watching all of the great quarterbacks, you see it. Brady, Manning, Brees . . . they always have their feet underneath them and they’re ready to deliver the football. Stafford's footwork now is looking like those guys. Stafford’s a little bit of a gunslinger, like Rodgers, but right now he’s doing everything right.
That includes getting the Lions off to a 4-0 start, their best since 1980. Three wins came on the road, including two big comebacks, the latest and most impressive being in Dallas.
First the good news about the comebacks. The positive the Lions can take away from them is this: You do that a few times, you start believing that you’re never out of a game. It was like that when I played against Denver with John Elway at quarterback in my early years.
The reality: Your luck eventually runs out. You can only do that so many times.
So, the three keys for the Bears defense to remember Monday night (which by the way is the first time the Lions have played on a Monday in 10 years):
No 1: Like I said earlier, I’m not going to let the superstar (Johnson) beat me. That gives you a chance. That’s how you approach greatness in players; you take that away. If you get beat by someone else, more power to them.
No. 2: Get after Stafford! The Lions have struggled to protect him lately. I’m going to take advantage of that and go after him. That affects any quarterback.
No. 3: I’m going to get my defense to finish. The Lions are talented enough and they believe they can come back. Put out the fire.