Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson had a historic 2012 season, setting a new NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards. Perhaps his most impressive feat is that he did this despite going against Richard Sherman and Charles Tillman, the two cornerbacks who made the All-Pro team, in three of his 16 games. In other words, Johnson (or “Megatron,” as he has been dubbed), played three games against the two best cornerbacks in the NFL and still shattered the record for most receiving yards in a season.
How well did Johnson perform in those three games? The answers might surprise you. Let’s take a closer look at the per-game numbers.
It’s apparent that Johnson did not fare very well against top-flight cornerbacks. His completion percentage was significantly lower than either Tillman or Sherman gave up for the year (47.1% and 63.3%, respectively, per ProFootballFocus); the same was true for his yards per target against both Sherman and Tillman (7.3 and 5.9, respectively).
ProFootballFocus assigns grades for players for each individual game based on how well they perform relative to average. In the three games against Tillman and Sherman, Johnson posted three negative scores that together added up to -2.6. By contrast, his other 13 games featured 11 positive scores for a cumulative total of 28.9.
What does this mean for Johnson and the Lions?
Megatron destroys most opponents
Take a second look at those numbers Johnson posted in those other 13 games. He was stellar, averaging over 10 yards per target and 140 yards per game. Sure, some of it was against lesser opponents with terrible pass defenses (the Jacksonvilles and Tennessees of the NFL), but there were some other solid pass defenses in there too: Arizona, San Francisco, Minnesota, and St. Louis jump immediately to mind. The fact that Johnson could still break the previous yardage by over 100 yards record despite having these three poor games speaks volumes to just how incredible he was in the other thirteen.
Credit Tillman and Sherman
The success that these two cornerbacks had against such a dominant receiver speaks volumes to just how great they were last year, especially since on multiple occasions they were left to cover Johnson alone. This is also a testament to the rest of the Chicago and Seattle secondaries, especially the safeties, often helped double-team Johnson. Voters don’t always get their selections for the All-Pro teams right, but in this case they were 100 percent correct in saying that these two were indeed the best cornerbacks in football last year.
If they want to become a winning team again, the Lions need other passing options to emerge as reliable targets.
Even though Johnson was unable to make plays against Chicago and Seattle, quarterback Matthew Stafford still threw his way an average of 11 times in those games. Admittedly, that was down slightly from the 13.3 targets Johnson averaged in the other 13 games, and it was also a slightly smaller percentage of total teams targets (24.1% versus 27.7% on the season); but that is still too many targets for a player struggling to produce.
Against Seattle, Titus Young was able to take the pressure off Johnson, converting his nine targets into nine receptions, 100 yards, and two touchdowns. In the two games against Chicago, nobody was stepped up. Not coincidentally, the Lions beat Seattle and lost twice to Chicago.
Detroit has already made one move to improve their passing game this offseason, signing running back Reggie Bush, a pass-catching specialist out of the backfield. They also will get receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles back healthy. The Lions need them to take advantage of favorable coverage due to teams blanketing Johnson, which will in turn also help reduce the coverage on Johnson and free him to make more big plays.
Calvin Johnson is an incredible player, one who has clearly established himself as the best wide receiver in the NFL over the last two seasons. But his struggles against top-shelf secondaries show that he is not invincible, and the onus is now on Detroit to surround him with the necessary talent that will allow him to dominate against even the best competition.