How a Calvin Johnson Injury Could Be a Good Thing for the Detroit Lions

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2012

As the Lions climb their way back towards a shot at the playoffs from a terrible start to the season, one thing which could derail their efforts is Calvin Johnson's balky knee.

Johnson expects to have to deal with his knee the entire season and with the toughest part of the season about to get under way, you would imagine that if Johnson goes down, the wheels might come off the whole season.

Is that really the case though?

While losing Johnson for a game, especially now, would be a blow to the offense, in the long run it might actually be a good thing.

Think I'm out of my mind?

Let's think this through for a minute. The aim of any defense is to take him out of the equation to begin with. Defenses have done a fair job of that—Johnson gets tons of yards but can't find the end zone. 

Defenses are willing to allow Johnson to move up and down the field, because they can keep him from scoring and are much more comfortable forcing the rest of the offense to beat them.

Sure, Johnson has been stopped on the one yard line probably more than any other player in the league and some of those stops are converted into touchdowns, especially recently with Matt Stafford playing much better.

Still, teams are content to focus on him and work on containing his impact.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but for the most part, teams stand a better chance of containing Titus Young, Ryan Broyles, Brandon Pettigrew, Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell than they do Calvin Johnson.

The Lions have put points on the board, but not enough to scare anyone.

Yet they are winning now, and scoring just under 25 points a game.

Against the top defenses they've faced—San Francisco, Chicago, Minnesota, Seattle and Philadelphia (all in the top half of the league's defenses)—the points drop to just under 19 though and touchdowns fewer and further between.

The point is, while Johnson has been putting up yards, his not getting touchdowns hasn't sunk the ship yet and yards are something other players can put together.

If Johnson goes down—or they decide to shelve him for a game—the Lions should look at it as an opportunity to get the offense in better shape.

How can the offense get better without Johnson?


Stafford Calms Down

If there is one thing we've seen out of Matthew Stafford this year, it's a lack of comfort that is somewhat staggering.

Even in games where he plays well—such as this weekend against Jacksonville—he has shown little patience in the pocket and a propensity to hold the ball too long, apparently looking for the mythical "perfect play."

It even happens when he's looking for his favorite target, Calvin Johnson.

For an example, let's take a look at a play from that Jaguars game.

On the play, Stafford has Titus Young in the slot, with Calvin Johnson along the sideline. 

At the snap, Young slowly takes his route towards the 15 yard line, while Johnson runs at the defender and puts a nice move on him, easily leaving him in the dust.

Johnson is pretty open, between zones and pretty much all alone.

The announcers on the broadcast later say they wonder if Johnson didn't get open in time, but Stafford holds the ball far too long.

If you look at the next screen cap, it shows you the rest of the sequence of Johnson's route.

  1. Johnson has past his coverage, Stafford presumably looking his way.
  2. Johnson is now completely clear of coverage, who is turning to cover Young, short.
  3. Johnson is completely open. There is a safety deep and a linebacker a little short, but Stafford has made this pass a thousand times. 

Instead of throwing the ball though, Stafford pulls it down and runs. He doesn't even use Mikel Leshoure who has slipped out for a dump pass.

Stafford has been iffy all year, and this is just one example of it. Far too often, he looks for the perfect play—more often than not looking for the perfect Calvin Johnson play.

Without his Megatron pattern security blanket, Stafford would have to think quicker and act more decisively.

The great thing about Johnson is that he'll break coverage at some point. The bad thing about Johnson is you can get into trouble waiting for it to happen.

Johnson is sometimes a crutch for Stafford, to his detriment.

Take that crutch away and the quarterback will have to look for solutions elsewhere. He's spreading the ball out more recently—this will just accelerate it.

Doing this would force another maturation in the offense.


The Other Receivers

Since Nate Burleson went down with a broken leg, both Titus Young and Ryan Broyles have had some great moments. 

Unfortunately, they haven't had enough of them strung together so as to resemble consistency. It's there, on the cusp.

Removing Johnson would force it.

Without Johnson there to pick up all the yards, Young and Broyles (and maybe—just maybe—Brandon Pettigrew) would have to pick up the slack.

They've begun doing an admirable job so far, but with the whole offense constantly looking for Johnson, they haven't become enough of a focal point to pull coverage off Johnson or make teams believe that anyone but Johnson can make them pay.

The Lions can win with the rest of their receivers and we've seen them do it (see: Young, Titus—Week 8).

Losing Johnson could help them make that a habit more quickly.


Big Bad Backfield

Mikel Leshoure's trio of touchdowns overshadowed a nice day by Joique Bell who gained more yards (73 to Leshoure's 70) on fewer carries and with a higher yards per carry average (5.6 to Leshoure's 4.4).

Bell also added a touchdown and on a day when the passing offense never found the end zone, it's good to know the backfield can.

Considering the issues that Johnson has getting into the end zone these days, there has already been some pressure to get the backfield going. 

It's hard to get too excited about a performance against the 27th ranked run defense. That said, both backs looked better than they had in some time.

The Lions will have to depend on them in the red zone against some tough running defenses in the next month.

They should depend on them to get the hard yards early as well. With Johnson out, the run game would have to be more of a focal point.

In the last few weeks they have balanced out the pass-run ratio a little, but it would have to become more  even, more quickly if they lacked Johnson because they couldn't depend on him to make the big plays to move the chains.

Not a huge impact, but another step towards rounding out an offense.

I'm not saying they should bench Johnson—especially now with the teams they have coming up.

Just that if Johnson goes down, it's not the end of the world.

In fact, it might be a good thing, long term, for this offense.

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Follow me on Twitter at @andrew_garda.


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