In Wednesday’s key matchup, we look ahead to Sunday’s meeting between the Bears and Lions.
Key matchup: Bears defense vs. Lions WR Calvin Johnson
It has not led to wins — the Lions have lost seven in a row — but WR Calvin Johnson is on a roll, racking up 118 receiving yards or more in each of the past eight games. He already has broken Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season.
However, no team has done a better job of covering Johnson this season than the Bears did in Week Seven, when Johnson had his least productive game of the season — three catches for 34 yards (both season lows) with zero touchdowns on 11 targets.
Of course, Johnson did have a drop on a play in which he was wide open in the first quarter of that Week Seven game at Soldier Field. If he had made that play, we can only guess what would have happened, but it appeared that it would have been at least a game-changing gain for Detroit. Still, Bears CB Charles Tillman shadowed Johnson all over the field and was very effective.
It would be a surprise if the Bears didn’t have Tillman following Megatron again Sunday.
Tillman’s size and length makes him by far the Bears’ top option to defend Johnson, who, at 6-foot-5, still has a significant height advantage over the 6-2 Tillman. However, Tillman has the arm length to defend passes that most cornerbacks are unable to reach. Tillman has to use every inch of his wingspan against a receiver like Johnson, who has such a wide catching radius. Tillman’s biggest challenge will be trying to keep Johnson in front of him, and given Johnson's athleticism and speed, he has the ability to beat Tillman and test the top of the Bears’ defense. The Bears could be weakened at safety — a spot where they already were vulnerable before FS Chris Conte suffered a hamstring injury in Week 16 — with Anthony Walters possibly making his first career start on Sunday.
The Lions don’t have a reliable complement to Johnson in the passing game, and Johnson alone — as outstanding as he has been — has not been enough for Detroit this season. With little fear of TE Tony Scheffler or WRs Mike Thomas and Kris Durham, the Bears can afford to double-team Johnson if need be and try to force QB Matthew Stafford away from his favorite target (though he has targeted Johnson an eye-popping 83 times the past five weeks). Detroit’s complementary targets just aren't consistent enough to warrant more of the Bears’ attention.
Focusing on limiting Johnson has not been enough for defenses to keep him from making big plays, but, at the same time, Johnson’s big plays have not been enough for the Lions to win games.
Regardless, Johnson has the ability to make a play or two that results in a score or puts Detroit in scoring position in a must-win game for the Bears, and he should be looking to make up for that key drop vs. Chicago in Week Seven.