Ultimate Deep Threats

Two of the NFL's premier long-ball targets, Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson, square off on Sunday.

Detroit’s Calvin Johnson had a 67-yard touchdown in Week 1 against the Giants.

Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson had an 80-yard touchdown in Week 2 against the Jets.

No surprise about that, because they have been the NFL’s most dangerous big-play receivers over the last three-plus seasons.

Since the start of 2011, Johnson has a league-high 50 receptions of 25-plus yards.

“Man, just the balls that Matt Stafford throws between guys and he still catches it,” cornerback Sam Shields said this week. “That’s very impressive. So, you know, just a guy like that, you have to be on like glue. You never know when the ball is in the air, he’ll catch it any type of way – behind him, under, any way. I’ve seen a lot of those spectacular plays.”

So has Tramon Williams, who has seen plenty of Johnson over the years. In fact, Williams said his first career game playing defense for the Packers came against Johnson – then a rookie – in 2007.

Williams said it’s a team effort to slow someone with Johnson’s combination of size, speed and jumping ability. Not that having two or three guys on Johnson means taking him out of the game.

“At any given time, whether he’s in double coverage or triple coverage, he can still make a play,” Williams said.

Going deep to Johnson is a big part of the Lions’ plan. In two games, he’s been targeted nine times on passes of at least 20 yards, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Last year, his 36 targets on downfield passes tied for third.

Johnson is more than just a deep threat, though. Among wide receivers, he was tied for 10th in the league by forcing 10 missed tackles last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. It’s little wonder: At 236 pounds, he outweighs Shields, for instance, by 52 pounds.

“He’s not that easy to tackle,” said Williams, who gives away 45 pounds to Johnson. “He’s one of those guys to where if you go high on him, you’ll probably fall right off him. You have to get down to his legs and sideboards. And it’s not easy doing that, either, because he has a good stiff-arm.”

Nelson and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas are tied for second in the league with 43 receptions of 25-plus yards since the start of the 2011 season. Last season, Nelson led the league with 19 receptions of at least 25 yards – tied for fifth-most in the league since STATS began tracking that figure in 1994. Johnson (2012) and Jerry Rice (1995) lead that chart with 21.

“We know why he gets targeted,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin told reporters in Detroit this week. “He catches the ball, he has run-after-catch ability and he can take a small one and make it a big one.”

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com, and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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