Athletes like Calvin Johnson are a rare commodity in the NFL. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Johnson has a rare blend of speed, size and strength that make him one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. In just two seasons, he has become one of the pre-eminent deep threats in the game and is capable of making a big play at any time, making his battles with Vikings cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin this week's matchup to watch.
The coaching staff has spent much of the week scheming against Johnson, because his track record of big plays is phenomenal, especially given the revolving door at quarterback the Lions had last year. Four different QBs started, but Johnson's numbers never suffered and Griffin said that will be a key in defending the Detroit passing game Sunday.
"He's a great athlete," Griffin said. "Coach (Leslie) Frazier and (defensive backs coach) Joe Woods are going to put us in position to make plays. We're going to try to come up with a scheme to stop Calvin and keep him from making big plays, because that's what he does well. He's an explosive receiver and any time he gets the ball in his hands, it can be a home run. We just have to eliminate the big plays and get as many guys around him to keep them from throwing the ball to him."
Johnson is a freak of nature with his athletic skill set. Winfield said the Vikings have to prevent big plays, which has become his forte. They know he will get his catches, but they're willing to let him have the short passes in front of them, just not the potential huge game-changing plays deep down the field.
"He has so many good features about him," Winfield said. "He has good size, great speed, good hands – and most of his routes are down the field. He makes big plays and you have to be aware of that and not let him get the chance to get behind you."
Last season, despite the turnover at quarterback, Johnson had four 100-yard games and nine games with more than 80 yards. He finished the season with 78 catches for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. Of the five touchdowns Jon Kitna threw, two of them were to Johnson. Of Dan Orlovsky's eight TD passes, seven of them were to Johnson. Of Daunte Culpepper's four touchdown passes, two of them went to Johnson. He was Mr. Everything to the Lions pass offense and, despite almost constant safety help, he was still able to produce big plays.
So how do you stop him? Just get physical.
"Getting a jam on him at the line is a must," Winfield said. "He's not really quick off the line. He's a long strider. When he comes off the line, you have to jam him and make him re-start. If he gets a free run, he's going to take off on you."
While it is unlikely that the Vikings will be able to completely shut Johnson down, taking away the big play over the top will be critical. There will be times that Winfield or Griffin will be locked one-on-one with Johnson, but Griffin said that is what they're paid to do, making this the matchup to watch in his mind.
"We're NFL professionals," Griffin said. "If we can't handle the matchup, we don't belong out there."
Key matchup: Cornerbacks vs. Calvin
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