After taking in a week of film study on how to cover and contain Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman had two more hours of film to watch Saturday night.
Norman watched “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” in his hotel room the night before he and the Panthers would face Johnson, whose Megatron nickname derives from the toy and film franchise.
This week, he even brought an action figure of Optimus Prime, the protagonist in the film series and chief rival of Megatron, into the locker room.
“I love the action figure, they called me that back in the day and fitting I brought that in,” Norman said. “We were playing Megatron, so it was a reminder of how we got to play. We’ve got to play big.”
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Johnson, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, was limited to six catches for 83 yards in the Panthers’ 24-7 victory Sunday. He was targeted 13 times, including one would-be touchdown he couldn’t control and another tipped pass that resulted in a Melvin White interception.
“We knew as a secondary that a lot of this was going to fall on our shoulders,” safety Thomas DeCoud said, “because we know our front seven was going to come out and play and they were going to put the ball in the air and challenge us. I think we rose to the challenge.”
Johnson wasn’t without his “wow” catches, including the game’s longest play on a 25-yard pass on third-and-6 in the first quarter. But he wasn’t nearly as effective Sunday as he was last Monday night against the Giants when he grabbed seven passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Part of Carolina’s success against Johnson came from the secondary keeping Megatron in front of them. DeCoud and Roman Harper didn’t let Johnson get behind them like the Giants did in Week 1, and that stymied his big-play ability.
Stafford tried Johnson deep in the second quarter, and Johnson caught the ball in the end zone for what would have been a 31-yard touchdown. But with the help of safety Roman Harper tugging at Johnson’s arm, Johnson couldn’t control the catch to the ground and the Lions attempted—and missed—a field goal.
Stafford looked deep for Johnson early in the fourth quarter in a comeback attempt, and he paid the price for it. Stafford underthrew Johnson, and the ball was tipped by DeCoud and intercepted by Melvin White at the 7.
“You have to give him a chance,” Stafford said. “I just wish I would have thrown it out there a little bit more, throw a better ball. Just a poor physical throw, I guess.”
Carolina shaded a safety to Johnson’s side of the field occasionally, but often White or Antoine Cason were asked to cover Johnson one-on-one. While containing Johnson, the Panthers were also able to shut down Golden Tate after the first quarter.
Tate had four catches for 51 yards in the first quarter. He had one catch for 7 yards the rest of the way.
With those receivers and Detroit’s tight ends, Carolina’s defense had its hands full. But DeCoud said there’s no such thing as preparing too much for Johnson, and he wasn’t shocked by just how well they played against him.
“Your offense is going to want to feed (Johnson) the ball and he’s made huge plays for the offense in the past,” DeCoud said. “I don’t think you can put too much emphasis on him being a threat for your defense.
“We expect to play well and go and make plays. It wasn’t surprising to me at all.”