Much in the same way opponents of the Vikings see a key to beating Minnesota by limiting Adrian Peterson, opponents of the Detroit Lions know that the team has just one truly potent offensive weapon – wide receiver Calvin Johnson. In a lineup relatively devoid of big-play threats, Johnson is the one lethal weapon Detroit boasts – making his battles with Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin this week's Matchup to Watch.
Johnson is a freakish physical specimen. At 6-5, 239 pounds, he is a huge receiver with big hands and leaping ability. But, combine that with sub-4.4 speed in the 40, Johnson is a home run waiting to happen on just about every play.
While the Lions have struggled on offense, Johnson remains a big-play threat. He has 53 catches for 971 yards and eight touchdowns. The Lions offense has gone through four quarterbacks, but Johnson has remained consistent – catching a touchdown pass in six of the last eight games. He not only has a 96-yard touchdown to his credit, but he has a reception of 30 yards or more in seven games and six catches of 40 yards or more. In a tight game, one big reception to Johnson could be the difference between getting Detroit's offense off the field or giving up seven points.
The challenge will be how the Vikings attack Johnson. Winfield is a strong, physical cornerback, but at 5-9 is grossly outmatched on passes coming in high or in a jump-ball situation deep downfield or on fade patterns. Johnson will win most of the contests that require a leap to make the catch. Griffin is taller, but far less physical a corner than Winfield. When he is assigned to Johnson, it will open up more slant passes for Johnson, who will be able to use his strength to force himself inside of Griffin on press coverage and give Daunte Culpepper a zone to put the ball where only he can catch it. If one of the battles seems like a bigger mismatch, the Lions will keep Johnson on the same side of the field and either exploit that matchup or force the Vikings to flip sides with their corners.
The wild card to this matchup will be the fact that Winfield and Griffin will seldom be alone when it comes to defending Johnson. As most other teams have done since the Lions traded Roy Williams away, Johnson has been subject to double-teams on almost every play. Depending on where he lines up, if he takes off downfield, he is almost sure to have Darren Sharper or Madieu Williams helping out at an angle from the safety position. His chances to get one-on-one downfield will be very few and far between.
The first time the Vikings and Lions met, Johnson had a pretty typical performance – four catches for 85 yards and Detroit's only touchdown. He is someone who can break a huge play any time he touches the ball. Most teams haven't been able to shut him down and, seeing as he is Detroit's only viable big-play weapon, the ability (or lack thereof) or Winfield and Griffin to keep Johnson from posting another highlight film play makes this the matchup to watch on Sunday.
Matchup to watch: Johnson vs. CBs
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