Key matchup: Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. Packers secondary

Posted Nov. 13, 2012 @ 2:40 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

In today’s “Key Matchup,” PFW’s Dan Arkush focuses on Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. the Packers' secondary in the Green Bay-Detroit Week 11 matchup Sunday in Detroit.

Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. the Packers secondary

Just imagine if Johnson was 100 percent healthy. Despite knee issues that have limited his practice time, the man they call “Megatron” has been a typically tough customer for opposing secondaries in his last two games. After catching seven passes for 129 yards in Detroit’s 31-14 victory over Jacksonville in Week Nine, Johnson put on quite a show in defeat last Sunday in the 34-24 loss to the division-rival Vikings, exploding for a season-high 207 yards receiving on 12 catches, including his second TD of the season.

The Vikings held Johnson in check for the most part until 5:11 remained in the third quarter. That’s when a 20-yard catch on the left side and a 50-yarder down the middle of the field — Johnson’s longest gain since a 51-yard reception in Week One — led to Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew’s TD with 2:55 left in the third quarter that got the Lions to within six points (16-10).

From that point on, Johnson became a near-unstoppable force, frequent double coverage notwithstanding, as the game became a fascinating mano-a-mano battle between Johnson, arguably the league’s best receiver, and Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, arguably the league’s best runner.

Coming off a brilliant 2011 campaign (96 catches for a league-leading 1,681 yards and 16 TDs), Johnson currently leads the league in receiving yards with 974, 43 more than his closest pursuer (Colts WR Reggie Wayne), and is tied for fifth in the NFC with Giants WR Victor Cruz with 60 catches (16.2 ypc), to go with a league-best 20 catches over 20 yards, as well as two catches over 40 yards.

An obvious shortcoming this season is Johnson's scant TD total — after beginning last season with a pair of TD catches in each of the four first games — but extra coverage on Johnson has opened up more opportunities for other Lions receivers (most notably Titus Young and rookie Ryan Broyles) in the league’s top-ranked passing game.

Double coverage only works up to a point on Johnson, as he is simply too fast for the majority of defenders. If he gets a step, he’s tough to catch, and even in tight coverage, his size (6-5, 236) and strength gives him a significant edge, especially in jump-ball situations.

Interestingly, while the Lions are ranked first in passing yards, they rank a surprising 15th in average gain per pass play. Green Bay’s pass defense, meanwhile, is ranked 20th in yards allowed but a respectable seventh in average gain per pass and 11th in interception percentage.

The Packers’ secondary was dealt a serious blow when S-CB Charles Woodson, an established playmaker of the highest order in the twilight of a great career, suffered a broken collarbone in the Week Seven win over the Rams. But the secondary has held its own for the most part without Woodson, in great part due to the efforts of rookie CB Casey Hayward, who has displayed Woodson-like instincts while registering a team-leading four interceptions.

Nine of the Pack’s 10 picks have been provided by the secondary, with LCB Tramon Williams, who is feeling a lot healthier this season after being limited by a shoulder problem much of last season, making two interceptions, and Woodson, CB Sam Shields and rookie Jerron McMillian making one each.

Williams shadowed Cardinals star WR Larry Fitzgerald in Green Bay’s last game when Fitzgerald lined up outside, and with over-the-top help from the safety, he held Fitzgerald without a catch in those situations.

Expect the Packers to use a similar strategy to defend Johnson, who was held in check in the Lions’ first game against the Packers last season (4-49-1) on Thanksgiving Day, but then torched Williams to the tune of 11-244-1 in the second game on New Year’s Day, as Stafford targeted him 17 times.

While Hayward has exceeded expectations, it’s not a given that he will start on the right corner this Sunday over Shields, who was the starter before going down in the Houston game with shin and knee injuries. With Shields reportedly good to go, the team is saying the right corner has become a three-way battle between Hayward, Shields and Davon House.

Morgan Burnett has been doing a solid job replacing Woodson as the run-force safety near the line, and M.D. Jennings and McMillian have been adequate sharing the free-safety role. Hard-working Jarrett Bush and rookie Sean Richardson figure in the mix in nickel situations.

It’s worth noting the big games star receivers like Wayne (13-212-1) and Marques Colston (9-153-1) have had up to now matched up against the Packers’ secondary, as well as those from more pedestrian types such as Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts (8-116).