Every week the Vikings secondary goes up against the best wide receivers the NFL has to offer. Almost every team in the league has a go-to receiver that defensive coordinators have to pay special attention to. But few wide receivers are as dominating or as virtually unstoppable as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
There was some consternation among Lions fans that Detroit took Johnson in the 2007 draft ahead of Adrian Peterson. They had good reason for that concern. The Lions had used three of their previous four premium first-round draft choices on wide receivers – getting less-than-hoped results from Charles Rodgers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. None of them made a significant impact and two of them were flat-out released, while Roy Williams was traded away.
However, in Johnson the Lions got a big-play receiver who, at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds with sprinter’s speed, is almost impossible to single cover.
“He has it all,” cornerback Lito Sheppard said. “He’s got size. He’s got strength. He’s got speed. You have to play special attention to him, because he doesn’t need to be open to make a big play. You can do everything right and he can make a play.”
That, it would seem, is the problem with a man known as Megatron. Defenses almost always provide safety help to give the cornerbacks an assist on him, because, when it comes to defending the unstoppable force, one mistake can turn into a big play.
“It’s hard to press him at the line, because he has such good strength,” Frank Walker said. “If you don’t get into his body, he’s strong enough to push you aside. He can cover a lot of ground in a hurry and gets up to top speed really quick. With a lot of speed guys, you want to get a body on him at the line, but with him, it doesn’t always work.”
Johnson is a handful for anyone who has to deal with him and even the safeties who are asked to provide help over the top have their concerns.
“When you watch him on film, it’s hard to believe he can do some of the things he does,” safety Husain Abdullah said. “Most receivers have one thing that sets them apart. Either they’re big and can go up and get passes at their high point or they have great speed or they run great routes. Calvin Johnson does all of those things. You can have him shut down for a lot of the game, but one mistake and he can make you pay for it.”
The Vikings have done a fairly good job of containing Johnson in his short career, but they realize he can’t be completely shut down no matter how hard they try. In the last five games against the Vikings, he has scored a touchdown in three of them and, in the games he didn’t, he caught eight passes for 84 yards in one game and six passes for 56 yards in the other.
Although he is listed as questionable with an ankle injury and hasn’t practiced all week, the Vikings are preparing as though he will be on the field. They believe that, with just one game to play, if there’s any way he can play, he will.
“I think he’ll find a way to be on the field,” Walker said. “He plays the game hard and competes. A guy like that will make his way on the field if he can. We’re planning to see him out there.”
With a team that is blossoming with young players like running back Jahvid Best and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, the Vikings believe that, as dangerous as Johnson is, having a talented supporting case (which also includes former Viking Nate Burleson), he could become even more lethal.
“When he first came in the league, you could double him up and try to take him away,” Sheppard said. “But they’ve added a lot of talent to the offense. They kind of make you pick your poison. If you really want to take one guy away, it’s possible if you make sure you bracket him all the time and force the quarterback to look somewhere else. But those guys have other players that can make plays and, if you pay too much attention to (Johnson), those other guys will make you pay. I don’t think we’re going to change up things too much, because they have other guys they can find and make plays with.”
It would appear the only thing that might stop Johnson isn’t the Vikings defense, but his ailing ankle. If he can go, don’t be surprised to see him wind up in the end zone with a touchdown.
“He’s going to get his,” Walker said. “We know that. He always does. That’s what makes him a great receiver. We’re going to do what we can to keep him from making big plays, but he will still get his touches. Our job will be to keep him in front of us and try to make sure he doesn’t turn a short pass into a big gain.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.