What Can the Detroit Lions Offense Do Without Calvin Johnson?

Jeff Risdon@@JeffRisdonContributor IDecember 24, 2013

Nov 24, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) warms up before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Star receiver Calvin Johnson is questionable to play in the season finale in Minnesota. Some have even suggested that the Detroit Lions should shut down Megatron for the meaningless contest, as MLive’s Kyle Meinke reported.

Even if Johnson does play, it's likely he will be physically limited as he was in the loss to New York. The best wide receiver in the league did not get a single target after the second quarter against the Giants, and he was able to play just 48 of 85 snaps.

Nov 17, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan looks on from the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 37-27. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClair
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

This forces offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and his crew to restructure the offense on the fly. Johnson is the proverbial straw that stirs the Detroit drink offensively, the keystone of the passing game.

In the one game this year Johnson missed, the results were not pretty.

Detroit failed to score a touchdown until very late in the 22-9 loss at Green Bay in Week 5. Matthew Stafford did throw for 262 yards, but much of that piled up with the game already decided. 

Linehan tried to keep the offense running as if Johnson was available, using Kris Durham in his role. To paraphrase Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, he made a huge mistake.

Looking back to the Green Bay game, the Lions did do some things that hint at what might work without Johnson in the lineup. In fact, their very first offensive play featured something which many fans have clamored for more of all season.

Using running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush in the backfield together worked very well right off the bat in that game.

This play took advantage of the talented duo and the strength of the offensive line. It's a simple concept: send Bush one way, Bell the opposite, and confuse the defense.

NFL Draft Rewind

Even though Stafford is not a good runner, he proved here he can capably run what constitutes Detroit's version of the read-option. When four defenders immediately rush to react to Bush breaking outside, Stafford tucks the ball into Bell on the inside.

NFL Game Rewind

The line blocked it very capably, and Bell made the first tackler miss. This eminently repeatable concept gained nine yards here.

Unfortunately, the Lions quickly went away from having the two most effective offensive weapons outside of Johnson on the field together. They have not been in the backfield on the same play in weeks.

Detroit showed another concept in that Johnson-less game which should work very well against Minnesota.

The Vikings enter the game having allowed the most passing yards in the NFL this season, per NFL.com. Injuries have riddled their secondary, and corners Xavier Rhodes and Shaun Prater are both set to show up on the official injury list when it's released on Wednesday.

There should be opportunities down the field even without Johnson. Once again, the Week 5 game against Green Bay showed there is potential.

Detroit spreads out the formation with four receivers, two to each side. The pass-blocking prowess of the offensive line is relied upon to give Stafford enough time to let the downfield routes develop.

NFL Game Rewind


The outside receivers both run vertical routes toward the sideline, spreading the coverage even further apart. The goal is to open up the middle for the two slot receivers breaking on inside routes.

NFL Game Rewind


This forces the safeties to make decisions on the fly. In this case, the safety at the bottom has to quickly choose whether to run with the outside receiver down the sideline or close inside on the square-in route.

Having the tight end release into the short middle sucks up the linebackers, creating a wider throwing window for Stafford to find either of his crossing receivers.

In this case, Stafford chooses to hit Ryan Broyles from the left side. It's actually the wrong read; Kevin Ogletree is more open coming from the right, but Stafford doesn't see him. 

NFL Game Rewind


Stafford's strong arm and ball-placement skills thread the ball into Broyles, and the play results in a nice gain.

Of course Broyles is now on injured reserve, but Nate Burleson is back. That's an upgrade. In addition, Jeremy Ross has provided a nice, speedy lift to the outside.

Should Linehan find his creative vein once again, using Bush out of the slot is also an appealing option. Given that the entire coaching staff is perched on very thin ice, why not go out in a blaze of creative glory?

No Johnson, no problem? No, that's unfortunately not the case. But it's not as dire and hopeless as it appears on first blush.

The Detroit Lions have the ability to attack a weak Vikings defense and score enough points to come away victorious. It will not be easy, and it requires making adjustments that, for whatever reason, the offense has been reluctant to embrace.