The Philadelphia Eagles can’t stop Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson this Sunday. There isn’t a more dominant weapon in an NFL offense today, or player at any position for that matter—quite possibly in any sport. The man they call “Megatron” may very well be the most unstoppable athlete on the planet.
Defenses can only hope to contain him. Fortunately for the Birds, defensive coordinator Bill Davis already has the blueprint for that.
Johnson is on track to lead the NFL in receiving yards for the third year in a row. He’s the all-time leader in receiving yards per game with 88.7—six full yards better than second place—and since 2011, that figure has ballooned to an eye-popping 115.0. Don’t forget his league-leading 12 touchdowns this season, either.
That being said, Philadelphia is about as prepared for the challenge as can be having just faced a similar test in Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald this week. Nobody measures up to Megatron, but like Johnson, Fitzgerald is a matchup nightmare for almost any defensive back. He doesn’t possess the same blazing speed but still commands extra attention.
In their 24-21 win over Arizona, the Eagles held the seven-time Pro Bowler to five receptions for 72 yards and a touchdown. Those aren’t bad numbers, but they didn’t allow Fitzgerald to take over the game.
Davis is aware that will be an even bigger challenge against Johnson. The Birds’ defensive coordinator talked about the comparison between the two receivers on Tuesday and what his unit will be up against when the Lions come to town, via PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
Well, he's 6‑5 and his range, he's got a huge vertical. So his radius, his catch radius, is second to none. There are similar players that are big bodied, go up and get the ball away from their body. They snatch it well out of the air. But Fitzgerald is one of the top in the NFL but Calvin is the best when you watch him game‑in and game‑out, what he does and what he can do at that size, speed ratio, he's the best.
The Eagles managed to limit one of the best. Now let’s break down how they did it and find out if they have any chance of slowing down the best of the best.
It Takes a Village
It goes without saying that you don’t just put your No. 1 cornerback on Calvin Johnson and call it a day. Johnson will see some one-on-one coverage out of necessity, but by and large it’s going to be all hands on deck in the back eight.
Yes, that includes linebackers. You might be surprised by how often Connor Barwin and Trent Cole were called upon to help guard Fitzgerald. The most interesting look the Eagles gave all day was when Fitz was split wide and Barwin was lined up on top of him like a cornerback, with cornerback Bradley Fletcher stacked over the top similar to a safety.
Which is essentially what they became. Barwin is going to jam the receiver within five yards and try to re-route him toward the sideline, then appears to be responsible for anything outside the numbers. If the receiver runs a hitch or a comeback, the linebacker is sitting underneath in a zone. If he runs a fly route, the linebacker trails, and Fletcher takes over the top to form a bracket.
And if the receiver breaks a slant or any route to the inside, Fletcher can come crashing down from his safety position and separate the man from the ball or shut the play down for a short gain. With a 6’4”, 264-obstacle like Barwin blocking Johnson’s path, you would hope the pass rush already has it shut down before that even has time to develop.
If you think they’re going to cover Calvin Johnson with just two defenders, you would be mistaken. It takes more than that to prevent Megatron from going over the middle.
Johnson does the lion’s share of his work inside the numbers. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), nearly 50 percent of his 127 targets have been to the middle, so that’s not necessarily where the Eagles will want to funnel him like we saw in the previous section.
This next play looks like standard one-on-one coverage with a single safety deep if you assume the highlighted player at the line of scrimmage—former defensive end Trent Cole—is rushing the passer.
Cole drops instead and is locked in a double-team on Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, the safety has to be cautious not to let anybody get behind him. He’s free to attack once that ball comes out—and this post route is going to be run right at him. This is triple coverage.
The quarterback delivers the football to Fitzgerald, although the wide receiver is probably wishing he wouldn’t have. The three defenders converge on the target to exchange pleasantries, and the pass falls harmlessly incomplete.
Quadruple Coverage? Why Not
At times, the Eagles may even employ four defenders to box Johnson into a tight window. Obviously Bill Davis can’t dedicate four men to one at any given time though. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Okay, so technically this is four defenders covering two receivers. Here we’ve got Fitzgerald highlighted in the box, while at the bottom the linebacker and safety are in zone. The linebacker has him if he comes over the middle, the safety is there to help with anything over the top. Now here’s where it gets interesting.
The other two Eagles are corners, and they’re showing man coverage at first, with the deeper of the two covering Fitzgerald. But when Fitz cuts his route off and heads to the sideline, they switch. Now the shallow corner is on Fitz, and the deep corner took the other receiver. So in all, four people had a hand in shutting the No. 1 receiver down on that snap.
Have fun trying to fit the football in there.
Of course, you can put three or four guys on Calvin Johnson, but so much focus on one player is bound to create room for somebody else to beat the defense. Here the Cardinals are going to go bunch formation with Fitzgerald at the bottom. The formation is going to cause a disruption down the field.
Fitz releases to the middle, but we’re not even watching him now. Look at how the route combination by the other two receivers forces two Eagles defenders to bump into each other. One of them won’t be able to recover.
Now let's check back in with Fitzgerald. Whether this was a designed double-team—and it appears to be—or Nate Allen just got a little overzealous, there is no safety over the top to save the cornerback. This 23-yard touchdown doesn’t count for Fitzgerald officially, but his existence certainly creates it.
At the end of the day, all Bill Davis can do is hope there are no mental mistakes.
Then there’s also the matter of bringing Johnson down once he has the football, because he inevitably will. Fitzgerald wound up with a 42-yard touchdown catch of his own against the Eagles, a result of safety Patrick Chung playing too recklessly on a triple coverage just like the one above. He wound up taking out one of his teammates who was trailing the receiver, so neither one of them could wrap up.
Even if Earl Wolff is cleared from the knee injury that’s kept him out of the last two games and elevated Chung to his spot, Megatron is perfectly capable of breaking the rookie’s tackle too, or anybody else on the Eagles’ defense for that matter. He’s not an easy man to defend before or after he catches the football, so you always have to hope for a little good luck any afternoon No. 81 comes to town.