The Cincinnati Bengals are coming off of a nail-biting overtime win against the Buffalo Bills in Week 6. The defensive secondary was given all they could handle by the inexperienced Thad Lewis. This week, however, they face the Detroit Lions' dangerous duo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
It is relatively impossible to completely stop the All-Pro 6'5" wide receiver known as "Megatron." However, the Cleveland Browns were able to dial up a formula to contain him during their Week 6 contest against the Lions.
The Browns were able to limit Johnson to just three receptions for 25 yards on eight targets. Granted, Johnson was not at full strength last week, as he was a game-time decision after suffering a knee injury two weeks prior. However, he was a full participant in practice before the game and was inevitably able to play.
Lions WR Calvin Johnson is active today. Since 2011, Johnson leads the league in targets (395), Rec yds (3,957) and Rec 1st downs (185).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 13, 2013
How did Cleveland manage this feat?
By using top cornerback Joe Haden in constant man coverage, as well as utilizing appropriate blitz packages at the right moments, they were able to render Johnson mostly ineffective throughout the contest.
One play that summed up how the Browns treated Johnson came in the fourth quarter this past Sunday. After single coverage on Johnson throughout the drive, the Browns decided it was time to dial up a blitz and halt the Lions' efforts to get points on the board.
Johnson is lined up on the outside of the bunch formation at the bottom of the screen. This formation is intended to confuse the defense by using the other two receivers in the bunch to free up Johnson on an underneath crossing route.
However, the Browns have a perfect play called to combat this third-down attempt, as they are overloading the right side of the line while pressing the Lions wide receivers:
As Stafford takes the snap, he immediately looks away from Johnson. This is all part of the plan as he expects his wide receiver to get an open look across the middle. The Browns' overload blitz works, and the quarterback does not see a free-blitzing Quentin Groves coming from the right side. Meanwhile all eyes in the secondary are on Johnson's release from the line:
The Browns remain disciplined and do not allow Johnson to break free. Buster Skrine shadows the wide receiver to the middle as the bunch formation breaks. Stafford releases the ball and is immediately hit by Groves:
Skrine's early break on Johnson's route allows him to time his contact with the receiver perfectly and jars the ball loose just as it arrives, forcing a failed third-down attempt:
Groves was actually called for roughing the passer on the play which extended the Lions' drive. However, the play call and execution were perfect examples on how to keep Johnson away from plays in space.
Now, watch the play in its entirety:
Despite doing things very well against Johnson, the Browns tried to overthink their defensive strategy at times.
During this play, Haden breaks off his coverage against Johnson on a corner blitz. Safety T.J. Ward needs to get over to the receiver quickly in man coverage. This is a mismatch that Stafford will try to take advantage of every time. Johnson beats Ward and Stafford delivers a perfect throw. This play would have gone for a nice gain; however, Johnson ended up dropping the pass:
There is plenty of tape for the Bengals to study this week. The takeaways from the Lions' Week 6 contest against the Browns are plentiful. Dialing up appropriate blitz packages at the right time and shadowing Johnson with top-tier cornerback Leon Hall look to be the best ways to contain this dangerous wide receiver.
Normally, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer does not keep a one-on-one matchup like this throughout the course of a game. However, the film study of the Lions' Week 6 matchup provides plenty of reasons why the defensive guru could potentially alter his mindset heading into Week 7.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.