Calvin Johnson is the NFL’s most feared offensive weapon. A blend of size, speed and playmaking ability, the Detroit Lions wide receiver impacts defensive game plans on a consistent basis because of his elite talent and ball skills at the point of attack.
Today, let’s break down Johnson’s skill set, focus on the routes that put stress on opposing secondaries and discuss why the All-Pro receiver is the modern-day version of Randy Moss from a game-changing perspective.
Johnson’s Top-Tier Skill Set
Here’s what an NFL scout told me earlier this week on Johnson: “Big, physical, fast, great routes. Can jump out of the building. Mismatch for just about every corner in the NFL.”
Johnson is going to win the majority of one-on-one matchups (even with safety help) because of his ability to create separation within the route stem, track the ball and finish the play. And that was on display in the Lions' Week 8 win over the Cowboys when Johnson produced 329 yards on 14 receptions.
I’m a big believer in technique over talent. Always have been. Footwork, hands, eyes, angles, etc. That sells at any level of football in the defensive secondary.
However, in a league that has become more dependent on schematical matchups within offensive game plans, Johnson’s talent is taking over down the field when the ball is in the air.
And that leads to multiple opportunities for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw the deep 9 (fade), 8 (post), 7 (corner) or the “sting” (stem to corner, break to the post) versus Cover 1, Cover 2, 2-Man, etc.
Find the matchup—and take a shot.
“It’s Johnson’s ball skills and body control,” Bills veteran safety Jim Leonhard told me. “They trust that nothing bad will happen if they throw to him in one-on-one situations. And even sometimes in two-on-one.
“Incomplete pass at worst. Catch or pass interference at best.”
Plus, we have to remember that Johnson isn’t limited to just running the top of the vertical route tree.
Think of the leverage he can create versus both Cover 1 and Cover 2 on the three-step slant, the inside seam route from a slot alignment or the deep dig route (15-yard square-in). Three basic concepts that force defenses to tackle and take the proper angle to Johnson after the catch.
This guy is a nightmare to defend at all levels of the field.
Production at the Point of Attack
When a quarterback floats the ball down the middle of the field versus a single-high safety defense—or a two-deep shell with safeties playing at the proper depth—that should be a pick in the pros.
Drive on the throw, play the ball at the highest point and take it away from the receiver.
But the game changes with Johnson on the field because of his ability to climb the ladder and finish—in traffic.
“He’s really good at the point of attack,” an NFL secondary coach told me on Monday. “And you rarely see 'PBU’s' (passes broken up) versus Johnson. He is so hard to stop when the ball is in the air.”
That shows up on the 9 route versus two-deep, the seam versus Cover 3 and the jump-ball situations down the field that give Stafford an option even if Johnson is covered.
Put it up and let Johnson go make the play.
Plus, let’s not forget about the one-step fade inside the 5-yard line.
In that situation, defensive backs will play for two routes with Johnson on top of the numbers or in a plus-two split (two yards off the numbers): slant or fade.
Take away the slant by alignment (inside eye) and drive to the hip of the receiver on the fade. But with Johnson's ability to play the ball (and the back-shoulder throw) at the point of attack, this is a rough situation for NFL defensive backs locked up in man-coverage.
And it often leads to six points.
The Route Tree
Using the All-22 tape, here are some of the routes that lead to production with the Lions wide receiver versus Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under).
Flat-7 (corner) vs. Cover 2
The Cowboys' young safeties are playing extremely deep in this situation and that will open up a throwing lane for Stafford to target Johnson on the 7 cut with the tight end in the flat (set some bait for the corner).
The corner sinks under the 7 route to cushion the safety, but because of the threat of the deep ball (think 9 or post here), there is plenty of room for Johnson to break outside of the numbers for an explosive gain.
Post vs. Cover 3
With the Cowboys showing a single-high look (Cover 3) and the cornerback playing from an outside leverage position (proper technique), Stafford is still going to test the deep middle of the field help. Force the free safety to take a clean angle and make a play.
This turns into a jump-ball situation for Detroit, but as we talked about above, Johnson wins at the point of attack. The wide receiver climbs the ladder and brings the ball down.
Dig vs. Cover 3
A quick look at the dig (or square-in). Johnson will press this route up the field to a depth of 12 to 15 yards, create separation on the inside cut and put the corner in a trail position. Even with a solid angle from the free safety, this turns into a productive gain because of the leverage Johnson has on an inside breaking route.
Slant vs. Cover 2
In Cover 2, the cornerback has to squeeze the three-step slant and drive to the upfield shoulder on the throw. Here, Johnson creates leverage inside on the release versus Chicago's Charles Tillman, makes the catch and gets seven to eight yards. That’s stealing for the Lions versus Cover 2 or Cover 1 on the slant. And if the corner misses the tackle (as we saw against the Cowboys and Cardinals this season), this basic route turns into an explosive play.
Seam vs. Cover 1
One thing to keep an eye on within the Lions game plan is the pre-snap alignment of Johnson. Detroit will move Johnson inside of the numbers to create matchups versus zone looks and to wok the inside seam. Here is a shot of the seam route versus Brandon Carr and the Cowboys that set up the winning score. Win on the release, stack on the defensive back and stem the route to the top of the numbers.
The “Sting” Route
Every safety who lines up in the deep half against Johnson has to alert for the “sting” route versus Cover 2. With a reduced split (tight to the core of the formation), Johnson will sell the stem to the corner (looks like a Flat-7 combination), force the safety to open his hips and then break back to the post. Tough route to defend.
Here’s a look at the “sting” route versus Cover 2 on the playbook diagram:
Is There a Defensive Game Plan to Limit Johnson?
I would play more two-deep (Cover 2 and 2-Man) along with some Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half) to roll the cloud corner (Cover 2 technique) to Johnson’s initial alignment.
Going back to the 2012 season, Tillman put some impressive play on tape versus the Lions at Soldier Field in single-high safety defenses because of his ability to get hands on Johnson at the line, impact the release and then play to the hip. Plus, Tillman also mirrored the release of Johnson from an off-alignment and played through the route stem.
But can defenses count on consistent technique from their corners playing man-coverage for four quarters versus Johnson? That's a long day of work right there.
What about 2-Man? The Packers have had some success versus Johnson with the trail-man technique (two-deep, man-under), but the addition of Reggie Bush to the Lions rosters creates some issues. Now, defenses have to account for Bush and find the proper matchup versus underneath concepts along with putting a tent on top of the defense to limit Johnson vertically.
The bottom line here is simple: We can find holes in any scheme drawn up on a chalkboard when it comes to scripting a game plan versus Johnson.
This is really about technique in the secondary. And it better be near perfect to have a shot at limiting the Lions wide receiver.
The Modern Day Randy Moss
During my playing career in the NFL, Moss was the guy who scared the heck out of opposing secondaries because of his ability to run the top of the vertical route tree. Elite speed and acceleration to the ball.
Moss was a game-changer.
And when Moss got on top of your cushion, he was putting his hand up.
Time to panic as a defensive back.
Our game plans were forced to adapt versus Moss, and the video guys would have to widen the screen on the film just to get a look at the safeties playing 20 to 25 yards off the ball. Take a false step, open your hips too early or move your eyes inside and it was over.
“Feet don’t fail me now."
That was the saying we had in the secondary versus Moss. Man, he could run and go get the deep ball.
That’s what I see with Johnson in terms of impacting the game plan in today’s league. He can flip the field, blow the top off Cover 2 and eat up cornerbacks outside of the numbers with his ability to stack on the 9 route.
What a player.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.