On track for his sixth-straight 1,000 yard season, Calvin Johnson has been the staple for elite wide receivers for the past seven years. But as he concludes his ninth career season as receiver for the playoff eliminated Detroit Lions, disappointment and doubt has surrounded his career as of late, and reason for it is validated.
Megatron, a nickname given to Calvin Johnson by fellow receiver Roy Williams for his freakish athletic ability and skill set to catch virtually every ball thrown his way. However, the past couple of seasons Megatron hasn’t seemed invincible. Downed by both injury and triple coverage, Johnson is now reaching the age of decline for wide receivers in the NFL. And although another 1,000 yard season seems to be approaching him, Calvin Johnson knows his production and presence on the field has been somewhat diminished.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s problem may not consist of injury or double-team, but rather an overall change in the Lions offense as a reaction to the attention their star receiver has demanded the past few seasons.
In the offseason of 2014, the Detroit Lions organization reeled in a receiver from the Seattle Seahawks, now a central piece of Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Golden Tate, Detroit’s main slot receiver, stepped up as quarterback Matthew Stafford’s go-to guy while Johnson was out last season, and hasn’t skipped a beat this year as well.
Also, with injuries to Joique Bell and limited playing time for Ameer Abdullah, running back Theo Roddick has seen more snaps this season as well. His role mainly comes in the passing game, where a Shane Vereen-esque check down/slot option ability has become his niche in the offense. Riddick, combined with Tate were Stafford’s top two receivers last week against the St. Louis Rams.
This transformation of the Lions’ pass offense is the real reason why Calvin Johnson has disappeared from games as was the case last week, where is one reception for 16 yards made him almost irrelevant on Stafford’s radar.
Ever since the promotion of Jim Bob Cooter, former quarterbacks coach and now offensive coordinator, quicker developing plays have been the result. Obviously, Detroit’s offensive line has been an issue the past few seasons, giving up numerous quarterback hits and sacks in important drives during critical games. Add that to the double and triple coverage Megatron faces on a regular basis which force his routes to take time to develop, and slant routes and lateral passes become the only legitimate option for Stafford and the passing game.
Nonetheless, quick passes can still offer extreme advantages and bonuses for the offense. Given little to no time to get to the quarterback, opposing pass rush defenses get worn out extremely fast, allowing the offensive run game to get going triggering a two-dimensional attack. Quick passes also allow the quarterback to gain confidence and improve in accuracy as the game progresses, opening up the secondary for opportunities to exploit safeties and take shots down the field.
However, when lateral passes are being stopped for little or no gain and when slant routes are getting bottled up in the flat, dependence on the run game becomes the only option. And on Sunday against the Rams as well as frequently throughout the season, the Lions are getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage due to a weak offensive line and a strong defensive front. Because of the inability to complete short passes, Stafford does not have the opportunity to take shots down the field and wait on his receivers to get open while their routes develop.
Thus, with Megatron being double and triple teamed, he has little chance to get open for a target. Also, other than Philadelphia Eagles’ rookie Eric Rowe, Johnson faces consistent pressure against top tier cornerbacks. The youth and talent at the cornerback position have grown exponentially the past few seasons, and combined with Johnson’s evident increase in age, speed and agility have declined for the receiver as well.
So although six straight seasons of 1,000 yards receiving may sound amazing, and don’t get me wrong it is, for Megatron the standards are way above that. Nonetheless, his decline in production the past couple of seasons may be as real as the fact that Tim Tebow will never be a quarterback in the NFL, much less a backup or starter. The offense is moving away from the Johnson saturated playbook, and it only seems as if this change is the future for the Detroit Lions organization.