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How the Lions' New Offense Will Add Creativity to Calvin Johnson's Game

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How the Lions' New Offense Will Add Creativity to Calvin Johnson's Game
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The Detroit Lions have rarely needed creativity to get the football to Calvin Johnson, a receiver with no historical or present-day peer matching his blend of physical gifts and ability. 

Line up Calvin out wide, throw Calvin the football. Then rinse and repeat, usually to devastating effect. 

While he will turn 29 years old at the end of September, Johnson still provides the Lions with many of the same securities. In a November game in Dallas last season, the Lions ran Johnson on 51 routes—43 on the outside—and he caught 14 passes for 329 yards, just seven yards short of the NFL record.

But what if just a dash of scheme creativity was added to Johnson's game? New Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi plans to find out, as noted by DetroitLions.com's Tim Twentyman:

A disciple of the New Orleans Saints' offensive machine, Lombardi brings to Detroit a playbook that helped position the likes of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham into so many favorable situations over the years.

In New Orleans, both Colston and Graham were moved around the field like chess pieces, with each play designed to force defenses to identify and then somehow handle the two elite pass-catchers. 

For most of his seven seasons in Detroit, Johnson has been the offense's "X" receiver and nothing more. Lining up outside in the same position been more than enough—he has averaged 82 catches for 1,333 yards and nine scores per year in the NFL—but his role is about to expand.

Calvin Johnson/Marques Colston in the Slot, 2013 Season
Routes Rec Yards TD YPPR*
C. Johnson 147 16 328 4 2.23
M. Colston 299 44 590 5 1.97

Source: Pro Football Focus *YPPR: Yards per Route Run

Deception for Megatron could help further along the transformation process of the league's most dominant receiver. 

On Friday, the Lions will get their first look at the Lombardi offense with Johnson involved. He's expected to make his preseason debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  

“It will be an interesting challenge not only for defenses trying to figure out where he’s going to be and stop him, and all of that, but for us to counteract that as well,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said, via Twentyman

To understand how Lombardi plans to use Johnson, a trip back to the Big Easy is required. While in New Orleans, Lombardi's Saints frequently used deception to get Colston into the right matchups

Below, we see the Saints in a 2013 game against the Dallas Cowboys. Colston is at the top of the screen, with running back Darren Sproles situated behind him off the line of scrimmage. 

NFL Game Rewind

The Cowboys are running zone, with three players covering two on the left side of the field. Should be nothing there for the Saints, right? Wrong. Deception helps makes the play. 

Sproles stutter steps and runs a quick out, drawing up the overaggressive cornerback against his presence in the flat. There's now no depth to the coverage at the intermediate level. The safety on the play drifts far too deep, and Colston is able to pop open at about 10 yards on a simple out pattern. It's then an easy pitch and catch for Drew Brees

This play could be easily replicated in Detroit. Johnson as Colston; Reggie Bush as Sproles. Bush demands respect as an underneath receiver, while Johnson would receive a similar type of cushion from just about where the safety sits, given his ability to make defenders look silly on vertical routes. Stafford could make a 10-yard out throw against this coverage in his sleep. 

New Orleans used many formations and route combinations to spring Colston open. Another classic Saints play can be seen here from 2012: 

NFL Game Rewind

The Saints run trips right, with Colston, Graham and Devery Henderson as the three receivers out wide. Colston mans the slot. The San Diego Chargers counter with a zone that also has the math in its favor: five defenders are tasked with covering three receivers. 

Space is created with the route combinations. Graham goes up the field, taking away the outside cornerback and occupying the safety. Henderson runs a short drag route across the middle of the field, and just the quickest of peaks from Brees causes the strong safety and inside linebacker to bite. 

The Saints now have the matchup they want. Colston is one-on-one with a slot cornerback playing zone. He finds the soft spot and Brees hits him for a first down. 

Again, the Lions could easily run this play with their own personnel. Rookie tight end Eric Ebron is dangerous enough as a vertical receiver to play the Graham role, while Golden Tate has the run-after-the-catch ability to be a legitimate threat underneath. Defenses would have to respect both options, while also handling Johnson in the middle of the field. 

These aren't the kind of sexy, highlight-reel plays that will make SportsCenter on Sunday nights. But they are high-percentage throws that move the chains while lessening the need for Johnson to be individually dominant on every route he runs. 

Also, moving Johnson around the formation should force defensive coordinators to make tough decisions about blitzing Stafford. Any help in that department will be a positive for the Lions offense. 

When blitzed last season, Stafford completed just 52.9 percent of his throws, averaged 6.1 yards per attempt and tossed six interceptions, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His passer rating was just 79.0 when defenses brought an extra man. 

Positioning Johnson in the slot can make defenses think twice on bringing pressure. Colston and the Saints have thrived against blitzes because the middle of the field is usually vacated. 

Watch this example below: 

NFL Game Rewind

Colston is in the slot, just to the right of the offensive line. The Carolina Panthers bring a blitz off the right side, but this plays right into the Saints' hands. 

Colston runs nothing more than a 15-yard deep in. But when the blitz is picked up, and Brees steps into the pocket, a completion becomes too easy. Neither Carolina linebacker retreats deep enough into the zone coverage, giving Brees a huge window to make the throw. Colston makes the catch, heads upfield and picks up over 30 yards. 

Another positive of Johnson playing in the slot—where he ran just over a quarter of his routes last season—is the lessened effect of the double-team. Putting two defenders on Johnson is simple when he's lined up outside. A cornerback can play trail coverage with a safety over the top. But much more goes into putting two players on a slot receiver. 

The cumulative effect is a scheme that increases efficiency and cuts down on the reliance on Johnson's individual dominance. 

The Saints have found countless ways of getting Colston the football through formations and matchups. The Lions haven't needed to work hard getting Johnson touches, but Lombardi's dash of creativity should give the game's most dominant receiver many more stress-free catches in 2014. 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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