How do you stop Calvin Johnson?
It’s a question that has riddled NFL coaches and defensive coordinators for the better part of the Detroit Lions star wide receiver’s eight-year career, and it’s the unenviable brain-teaser the Panthers must answer Sunday.
Coming off a “Monday Night Football” performance that included seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns, Johnson is arguably the best receiver in the NFL. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he combines size with unusual speed and the ability to rise above defensive backs.
“He’s a force and he can change a game in a hurry. He plays above-the-rim football, if you will,” said Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, using a basketball reference for Johnson.
“The good thing for us is we’ve got some long corners that give ourselves a chance to play above the rim and get our hands on him. At the same time, like always, it’s the rush and the coverage and how those two package together.”
While the focus on how to defend Johnson will be on the secondary, Carolina’s pass rush might be the most effective tool in containing him.
Monday night, the Giants sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford just once. On Stafford’s two first-quarter touchdown passes, he showed deft footwork scrambling in and out of the pocket to find a passing lane and, ultimately, Johnson for scores.
Johnson, who has picked up the nickname Megatron, beat man and zone coverages, and he wasn’t affected by a press at the line of scrimmage by New York cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the second quarter that resulted in a 24-yard gain.
“With a guy like that, you have to turn over all stones and make sure that your plan is sound and solid, and yet play fast at the same time,” McDermott said.
“You always want to have people to present themselves to him at the line of scrimmage and try to get them some help over the top when you can. But you can’t play the whole game like that.”
Carolina hasn’t played Johnson and the Lions since Week 11 of the 2011 season, which was coach Ron Rivera’s and McDermott’s first season with the Panthers.
Johnson was targeted eight times and caught five passes for 89 yards. The other three passes were a drop, throwaway and an interception.
The Panthers, whose personnel looks much different now than three years ago, got pressure on Stafford twice in those eight throws, and those two plays resulted in a drop and the interception in the end zone.
Outside of that, Carolina did not get consistent pressure on Stafford, and the defensive backs played 5 yards off Johnson rather than pressing him. The Panthers respected his ability to beat a jam and opted instead to contain his speed.
Three of Johnson’s five catches in the 2011 game went for at least 15 yards. Monday night, as Rivera watched while taking notes, Johnson had five catches for at least 15 yards.
“A lot of guys can go up and put themselves in position, but he catches the ball very well,” Rivera said Monday afternoon. “A lot like what Kelvin Benjamin did for us (Sunday), catching a ball behind a guy, off a guy’s shoulder pads. That’s what this guy does.
“And we faced him a few years ago and he made a couple big-time catches against us. So believe me, that’s fresh in our memory.”
Carolina’s defensive backs do have experience against tall receivers – Benjamin has a similar body to Johnson, though not top-end speed. Carolina also has practice squad receivers Stephen Hill and Marcus Lucas, who are both 6-3.
Tampa Bay featured 6-5 receivers Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Carolina’s secondary limited the group to 99 yards on 10 catches as the defensive front sacked quarterback Josh McCown three times and forced two interceptions.
Detroit also has big targets, plus a much more mobile quarterback and an explosive runner in Reggie Bush. With Johnson as the wideout, the Lions’ three tight end set is comprised of 6-4 Eric Ebron, 6-5 Brandon Pettigrew and 6-7 Joseph Fauria.
“(Johnson’s) a heckuva receiver, and we’re going to have our hands full. That offense is a great offense with the new system they’ve got out there,” McDermott said.
“They have a lot of weapons that’ll probably keep me up most of the week.”