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Enemy Lines: Calvin Johnson

Posted Nov 21, 2013

WR Calvin Johnson is in the midst of the most prolific pass-catching stretch in NFL history, and one of the Lions' secrets to unlocking his full potential has been to move him all around the offensive formation

  • Calvin Johnson's production has exploded since the Lions began lining up in many different spots
  • Johnson has proved more than capable of handling the extra mental workload of learning different positions
  • Over the last two seasons, Johnson is averaging more than 120 receiving yards per game
NFL observers are anticipating a marquee matchup this Sunday between Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and there is little doubt that Revis will figure heavily in the Bucs' attempt to slow down Johnson.  If Revis istasked with sticking to the Lions' 6-5 receiver the entire game, however, he's going to have to do a lot of moving around before the snap.

Finding different starting points from which to attack opposing defenses with the ultimate mismatch that is Megatron is one way that Detroit has managed to get more and more out of their star receiver every year.  The Lions' current head coach, Jim Schwartz, arrived in Detroit in 2009 with that very thing in mind for Johnson.

“He’s improved every single year," said Schwartz, now in his fifth year of working with Johnson.  "When I first coached against him, in 2008, I was with the Titans. Calvin didn’t get moved around a whole lot; he played the Z position all the time, ran a lot of outside routes, a lot of deep routes and stuff like that. Every year, he’s done a little bit more. We move him around an awful lot."

Schwartz's assessment of Johnson's career trajectory is right even from a simply statistical standpoint.  In his first four seasons in the NFL, Johnson averaged 69.9 receiving yards per game, including marks of 70.3 per game and 74.7 per game in Schwartz's first two years in town.  In 2011, that number spiked to 105.1 per game, and then it jumped again to 122.8 last year when Johnson set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards on the year.  This season, it has stayed nearly the same at 120.3 per game, but Johnson has increased his touchdown production from five in 16 games to 11 in nine games.

Yes, this trend does coincide with quarterback Matthew Stafford's rise to stardom after two injury-plagued seasons in 2009-10, but Johnson contends it is the greater variety in his looks at the line of scrimmage that has allowed him to make the most of what Stafford brings to the table.

-- Lions WR Calvin Johnson has topped 100 receiving yards in 16 of his last 25 games
“Over the last couple years, I’ve realized that, even with Matt, the awesome arm that he has, I can’t just stay in one position and expect him to be able to fit the balls in tight windows way on the outside of the field," said Johnson.  "Even though we’ve seen him do it before – he can do that – but moving me around, it … helps out the offense, helps me get the ball in my hands and you can get some different looks from the defense. [Detroit offensive coordinator] Scott [Linehan] knows what he’s doing, so he can get the looks that he wants so we can run the plays that we need to run to be successful.”

Schwartz said that it's a testament to Linehan and to Stafford that Johnson can keep producing at such an incredible level, week after week, even when opposing defenses are obviously going to make him their number-one priority.  Over the past two seasons, Johnson has surpassed the 100-yard mark in 16 of the 25 games in which he's played.  Of course, if Linehan is going to devise a long list of possibilities for Johnson, that means Johnson is going to have to do quite a bit more studying than is average.  That hasn't been a problem.

"He knows every single position in our offense," said Schwartz.  "We play him in the slot, we play him at the X, we play him at the Z, sometimes even line him at number three, where a tight end would usually be aligned. He’s outstanding blocking in the run game. He’s sprung a lot of big runs for us. He’s improved every year at inside routes, run after the catch. Sometimes teams are going to take away his deep routes and he’s going to have to make it with making underneath catches and running after the catch.

"I imagine every single defensive coordinator, when they start their game plan, they start with number 81 [Johnson] and what they’re going to do to stop him, and regardless of that attention, he still set the all-time NFL record for receiving yards last year and he’s on a great pace this year. He’s hard to take out of the game plan. I think that’s probably been the biggest thing is he’s multi-dimensional. He runs short routes. He runs long routes. He’s got great speed over the top. He can also take a short catch and go the distance with it. He’s one of the best players in the NFL and obviously a key to us."

One of the reasons to move Johnson around, of course, is to create those mismatches, and to get him away from the defenders best suited to stop him.  That particular advantage could be lessened if Revis simply tails Johnson all day on Sunday.  Of course, the Lions are pretty confident in Johnson winning one-on-one battles, too, no matter what competitor is lined up across from him.

“It can go both ways," said Johnson.  "I’m going to win some. The other person, they get paid too, they’ll probably win some as well. They’re the best of the best at their position. Everybody in this league is the best of the best, so that’s why we get paid to do what we do.  But I do like the fact that, when we get one-on-one, I’m going to make the play, I’m expected to make the play, I expect myself to make the play.”