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Lions struggling to utilize Calvin Johnson

Defenses have been dedicating extra men to stopping Calvin Johnson lately. (ZUMAPRESS.com)

Through eight games of the 2011 season, Calvin Johnson was averaging 100.5 yards per game and had 11 touchdowns, bringing up the possibility that he could break Randy Moss' single-season receiving TD record of 23.

Since Detroit's Week 9 bye, though, a span of five games, Johnson has made just one touchdown grab and he's averaged 37 fewer yards per outing.

The reasons for the dip have been plentiful -- a shaky run game, Matthew Stafford's hand injury -- but Lions coach Jim Schwartz pointed out the most obvious one: Teams are making it priority No. 1 to take Johnson out of Detroit's offense.

"I still remember Jamaal Lewis when he was playing running back for the Ravens, and he gained 2,000 yards, and they didn't have a very good passing attack and everybody was in an eight-man front to stop the run -- he still had 2,000 yards," Schwartz said. "I think that Calvin is similar in that regard. People have been trying to take him out; he's still been productive. But it was probably an unrealistic pace but, with Calvin, there's nothing that's really unrealistic."

Johnson's Week 14 performance in a win over Minnesota was his quietest yet. He had three catches for 29 yards and was targeted just four times -- all season lows; he also had a three-reception, 29-yard day in Week 2 vs. Kansas City, but caught two touchdowns in that game.

The defensive attention Megatron's warranted lately has been incredible.

A brief snapshot from the Lions' Week 13 loss in New Orleans gives us some indication what the Saints were trying to do:

That's three defenders bracketing Johnson -- and on a 3rd-and-16 when Stafford had at least three other receiving options, no less.

Minnesota employed a similar tact:

Johnson saw this type of coverage all game Sunday, despite Minnesota's depleted secondary.

The Lions still jumped out to a big lead early, and Stafford wound up throwing just 29 passes, his second lowest total this season. Schwartz cited the Vikings' pass rush for disrupting the Stafford-to-Johnson connection:

 "I mean, we didn't do a very good job of protecting, and a lot of those times with Calvin, to get him shaken free, the quarterback would have had to hold the ball for a long time. ... There's some where it looks like he's getting open late."

Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan have also been more than content for much of the last several weeks to exploit defenses with underneath patterns. The increased focus on Johnson means more room for the Lions' tight ends and running backs on dump-of patterns. With a ground game decimated by the losses of Jahvid Best and then Kevin Smith, Detroit has often eschewed straight run plays for short passes.

Still, the recent lack of production from Johnson -- and the lack of looks by Stafford in his direction -- is somewhat alarming. Even with increased production from Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young, the Lions have not been able to free Johnson up from opposing secondaries.

That's even true in goal-line and red-zone situations, where Johnson has excelled throughout his career.

This is how the Saints chose to defend Johnson with the Lions on the 1-yard line last week:

The only time you see coverage like that is on punts, when the return teams load up on the opposing gunners. On this particular play Kevin Smith found his way into the end zone for a touchdown.

But defenses are content to live with that right now. They're telling the Lions, "Go ahead ... beat us with your run game, Titus Young or Brandon Pettigrew. We're not going to let Johnson beat us."

And aside from leaning on those complementary weapons, the Lions haven't found a way to counter the Johnson-centric defensive approaches yet. Until they do, one of the NFL's top receivers will continue to see his numbers suffer.
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