We're going to assume when we tell you that Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is really, really good, that's not breaking news to you. Like few players in the history of the NFL, Johnson has an almost unstoppable combination of size, physicality, speed, and route awareness. At his best, he will shred double and triple coverage and make opposing defenses look very small. Johnson certainly did that on Sunday in the Lions' 31-30 win over the Dallas Cowboys, amassing 329 receiving yards -- the second-most in a single game in NFL history -- on 14 catches. It was the fifth time Johnson went over 200 yards in a game, and the fourth time since the start of the 2012 season. Clearly, the guy's on a roll ... which made Dallas' coverage of him all the more curious.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin tried sending man and zone coverages after Johnson, but it was clear that nothing his defenders did worked. Then again, one could argue that little the Cowboys have done with their pass defense has worked this year. There have been 14 games this season in which defenses have allowed more than 400 passing yards, and Dallas has four of them. According to ESPN, no NFL team has ever allowed that many 400-yard passing games in a season, and Kiffin's guys still have half a season to bolster that mark.
"It's crazy, shoot, I mean, we got one-on-one coverage and were able to hit on it a lot," Johnson said. "I don't know what our percentages were, but we were able to hit on a lot of deep passes, intermediate, we were all over the place."
After the debacle against Megatron, cornerback Brandon Carr -- who was left on the hook for most of Johnson's productivity -- tried to explain what happened. Carr was portrayed as the goat in this game, but he's been one of the NFL's better cover cornerbacks over the last few seasons -- with the Cowboys and with the Kansas City Chiefs before that. The extent to which Kiffin's schemes put Carr in solo coverage on Johnson on several plays, and helplessly waiting for coverage assistance on others, should tell you where the blame should really go. The best coaches put their players in the best positions to succeed, and though Kiffin has been a great coordinator for a very long time, one has to wonder what's going on right now.
"It was challenging, we never had an answer for him," Carr said of Johnson. "That's the guy they kept feeding and keep feeding. We just didn’t adjust quick enough to take him out of the game and they rode him to a victory ... an awareness of who’s hot, who’s the go-to guy and just different things you have to fight back and find a way to make a play on them, or find a way to get them covered up. He was hot and they just kept feeding him, which is what you’re supposed to do with your horse."
What's implied there is that the Cowboys didn't give Johnson the coverage respect he deserved, and the tape certainly backs that up. However, it would be a mistake to simply assume that Johnson's big day was the product of Dallas' mistakes and Johnson's ability to run himself open. Detroit's offense has been more expansive in many ways this season, and this helped a lot.
Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan frequently put Johnson in the slot, or as the "Z" receiver with a slot man inside to his side, which created additional matchup issues for Dallas' secondary. We saw this on quarterback Matthew Stafford's first throw to Johnson, with 38 seconds gone in the first quarter. Detroit had third-and-7 at its own 23-yard line. Johnson was lined up in the slot, with nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick over him, and Carr outside, covering receiver Jeremy Ross. Pre-snap, Ross moved inside to create a twins look, and Carr hooded over in coverage to take Johnson. When Ross cut inside, Scandrick followed him, while Carr went with Johnson outside. But Carr got turned around for just a split-second, and though he recovered well, only an overthrow prevented Johnson from taking it to the house -- and he almost caught the ball anyway.
But things really got weird when Johnson was on his own on a side. With 46 seconds left in the first half, the Lions had 1st-and-10 at their own 20-yard line after a five-yard touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant put the Cowboys up, 10-7. Johnson was wide left in the formation, which featured tight end Brandon Pettigrew and running back Reggie Bush aligned tight with the line, one on either side. At the snap, Carr was tasked with covering Johnson solo on a deep route winding through the numbers, and Dallas' coverage concept had to be seen to be believed.
While linebacker Bruce Carter covered Bush in the left flat, safety Barry Church -- who was originally aligned to provide deeper coverage help -- came up to the box to help linebacker Sean Lee cover Pettigrew, who ran a short slant route. Given that Lee is perhaps the NFL's most aware linebacker when it comes to pass coverage, and he had two interceptions in the game, one might assume that he could have handled Pettigrew on his own. Carr, however, could not handle Johnson on his own, and the result was a 29-yard gain.
Johnson scored one touchdown in the game, but he came close to two more -- on an 87-yard play in the first quarter that was a simple slant punctuated by some really bad tackling, he was pushed out of bounds at the Dallas three-yard line. The second play came on Detroit's final drive, which ended with Stafford jumping over Dallas' defense at the one-yard line. The play that set it up was Stafford's 22-yard connection with Johnson with 33 seconds remaining, and it's worth reviewing.
Through the game, the Cowboys tried to alter their coverage concepts to give Carr help and use some more zone concepts. It was a good try on this play, but the timing between Stafford and Johnson was just a tick better than the calibration of the Cowboys' zone coverage, and that proved to be the difference.
Johnson was in the right slot this time, with cornerback B.W. Webb covering Jeremy Ross outside. Safety Jakar Hamilton, who had just been called up from the practice squad earlier in the week, was up top over the opposite seam, and rushed to assist Carr with the coverage. Johnson rode Carr up the numbers and beat him over the completion of the route, and Stafford threw a perfect pass to his main target -- just between Carr and the converging Hamilton, who managed to stop Johnson from going into the end zone. The narrative led with the injured Barry Church on the bench at that point, but it's also fair to wonder why Hamilton was that far away from Johnson if the Cowboys were going to play a single high safety.
“They have other players on their team that we felt like we had to defend as well and certainly we gave Calvin Johnson a ton of attention," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after the game. "Immense amount of respect for the guy -- we’ve played against him before, we’ve seen him play against other guys and we felt like we had a pretty good matchup with Brandon and we challenged him. We gave him some safety help by leaning that way or playing cover 2 or reroute at the line of scrimmage or do a combination of those things. He’s a damn good player, and there were instances in that game where we had two guys on him, they threw it up anyway and he went up and made the play. He’s that kind of player.”
Instances, yes -- but not enough of them. And that's why Calvin Johnson had some unexpected help in his best day as an NFL player -- from the opposing defense.