Calvin Johnson is NFL’s prime catch

The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Third of 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position.

When Lions coach Jim Schwartz was the defensive coordinator with the Titans in 2008, he had a short week to prepare for a Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Lions.

The Lions hadn’t won a game all season but that didn’t stop Schwartz from staying up late worrying about a solid defensive game plan. He told reporters shortly after taking the Lions head coaching position that it was Lions receiver Calvin Johnson that he was so worried about.

At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, and boasting 4.3 speed, Johnson is one of the toughest matchups for defensive backs in all of football. As Schwartz can attest, he gives defensive coordinators headaches trying to figure a way to slow him down.

“He’s a young player, but he also has some experience now,” Schwartz said. “He’s learned how to persevere through a lot of things in the NFL, he’s learned how to persevere through double teams; he’s learned how to be successful even when he’s being double teamed. He’s taken a really big jump this year as an inside receiver. Inside breaking routes from the slot, I mean those are run after the catch, those things have been really big for him this year. It’s been difficult for him, but his production wouldn’t reflect how difficult it’s been on him.”

Before the Lions added a few weapons to pair with Johnson, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be double and even triple teamed.

Johnson broke through in 2010, earning his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods after compiling 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The fact that Johnson was productive without franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford for 12 games is even more impressive. Johnson played with three different quarterbacks 2010, having to adjust week-to-week with three very different throwing styles.

“I don’t know how many wide receivers are making the Pro Bowl with three different quarterbacks,” Schwartz said.

The scary thing about Johnson is that he feels he hasn’t even reached his potential yet.

“I’m close, but I haven’t gotten there exactly where I want to be,” he said late last season.

Johnson is one of a number of truly gifted receivers in the NFL today.

Right now, there’s probably the biggest collection of Hall-of-Fame caliber receivers playing in the NFL than there’s even been.

Top 10 receivers

1. Calvin Johnson, Lions: He’s the hardest receiver to match up against since Randy Moss was in his prime. Simply put, he’s a freak. There’s a reason they call him “Megatron.” Take a poll of defensive backs around the league and ask them who the hardest receiver in the NFL to cover is and Johnson’s name will likely come up more than anyone else.

2. Andre Johnson, Texans: If anything, he’s consistent. Johnson has averaged nearly 100 yards per game over his last 54 games. He managed 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games in 2010 and that was with the league’s leading rusher (Adrian Foster) as a teammate.

3. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: No one probably did more with less than Fitzgerald. The quarterback play was abysmal for the Cardinals all season, yet he managed 90 catches for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns. It’s his fourth-straight season with at least 1,000 receiving yards and over that stretch he missed just one game.

4. Roddy White, Falcons: White led the league with 115 receptions, a single-season Falcons record, marking the fourth-straight season he’s recorded at least 1,100 receiving yards. White led the NFL with 73 of his catches resulting in a first down.

5. Reggie Wayne, Colts: With an AFC-best 111 receptions, Wayne became the seventh player in NFL history with three or more 100-catch seasons.Last season was his seventh-straight 1,000 yard season. Even more impressive is the fact that he hasn’t missed a game since 2002, a streak of 129-straight regular season starts.

6. Greg Jennings, Packers: Jennings was clutch for the Packers all season, especially when tight end Jermichael Finley was lost to a knee injury. Jennings had 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns and posted 100-yard-plus games in playoff wins against the Falcons and Bears on way to Super Bowl title.

7. Mike Wallace, Steelers: The fastest receiver in the NFL stormed onto the scene in 2010 with 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns. There was some debate as to whether he could flourish as a team’s No. 1 option, but those questions have been put to bed for good. Wallace averaged 21.0 yards per catch, and by the end of the season, he demanded safety help over the top.

8. DeSean Jackson, Eagles: Jackson is lightning in a bottle, whether it’s running the go route for quarterback Michael Vick or returning punts. One of the fastest players in the game, Jackson averaged 22.5 yards per-catch last season, the most of any receiver with more than 10 catches.

9. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: Bowe paced the NFL with 15 touchdown catches in 2010, the most in a season in Chiefs history. There have been questions about his work ethic, but there’s no question that when he’s healthy, and motivated, he’s a fantasy football player’s dream.

10. Hakeem Nicks, Giants: Nicks missed three games in 2010 but still had 79 catches for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season as the team’s No. 1 option. In only his second season in the league, Nicks has become the go-to guy for Giants quarterback Eli Manning.


Wednesday: Quarterbacks

Thursday : Running backs

Friday : Receivers

Saturday : Tight ends

Monday : Offensive tackles

Tuesday : Guards

Wednesday, June 29: Centers

Thursday, June 30 : Safeties

Friday, July 1 : Cornerbacks

Saturday, July 2 : Outside linebackers

Monday, July 4 : Inside linebackers

Tuesday, July 5 : Defensive ends

Wednesday, July 6 : Defensive tackles

Lions ‘steeling’ for success

Lions: Analysis

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Could the Lions be on the cusp of something special?

Every great team in NFL history had to start somewhere.

Take the dominant Steelers teams of the 1970s. Before they won four Super Bowls in six years, they were plagued by decades of ineptitude. It wasn’t before all the right pieces came together that the Steelers became the franchise we know today.

The Steelers got a young, defensive-minded coach. They drafted a franchise quarterback No. 1 overall. They built one of the most dominant defensive lines in football, and pieced together four terrific draft classes that produced five Hall of Famers.

Are the Lions following the same blueprint?

Now, this doesn’t guarantee the Lions the same success as those vaunted Steelers teams, but it’s not a bad start.

The Steelers set the foundation, so here’s how that compares to what the Lions are doing.

Starts with coaching

  Chuck Noll: The eventual Hall of Fame coach took over the Steelers in 1969 after being a career defensive coach, including coordinator under Don Shula in Baltimore. The first thing he did in Pittsburgh was install a defensive system that would become the “Steel Curtain.”

  Jim Schwartz: Also a career defensive coach who was coordinator under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, the first thing he did was implement an attacking defensive scheme.

Get the quarterback

  Terry Bradshaw: The Steelers drafted Bradshaw No. 1 overall in 1970 after they finished 1-13 in 1969. Bradshaw was highly criticized early in his career for throwing too many interceptions and for an apparent lack of aptitude for the position. It took Bradshaw a few seasons to become a premier quarterback.

  Matthew Stafford: Any of that sound familiar? The Lions drafted Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009 following an 0-16 season. Stafford seems to have all the talent in the world — like Bradshaw — but has missed more games because of injuries than he’s started. If he remains healthy, there’s no denying his talent.

Defensive line prowess

  Steel Curtain: In 1969, the Steelers drafted “Mean Joe” Greene in the first round and L.C. Greenwood in the 10th. They became the foundation for one of the best defensive lines in history — and one of the best defenses period, the “Steel Curtain.”

   Schwartz is searching for a name to call his defensive line. The Lions drafted their own version of Greene in 2010 in the form of Ndamukong Suh. Suh was an all-Pro as a rookie, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a dominant player his entire career. Add players such as Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and Nick Fairley to the mix and the Lions are well on their way to having one of the best defensive lines in football.

Draft good players

  Steelers: Between 1969-72, the Steelers laid the foundation for a decades’ worth of success. Starting with Greene in 1969, the Steelers went on to draft Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, receivers Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin, tight end Larry Brown, linebacker Jack Ham, cornerback Mel Blount and defensive back Mike Wagner during those years. All those players played in at least one Pro Bowl and five — Greene, Bradshaw, Ham, Blount and Harris — are in the Hall of Fame.

  Lions: The jury is still out on some of the young Lions, but by most accounts, the franchise has had three straight terrific drafts, 2009-11, since Martin Mayhew took over as general manager and Schwartz as coach in 2009. The last three seasons, the Lions have gotten a franchise quarterback in Stafford, a dynamic runner in Jahvid Best, a top-10 tight end in Brandon Pettigrew, a dominant defensive lineman in Suh, a versatile linebacker in DeAndre Levy, and a Pro-Bowl-caliber safety in Louis Delmas. And defensive tackle Nick Fairley looks to be a first-round steal this year.

All about numbers

  Steelers 1969-72: The 1969 Steelers were one of the worst teams in football at 1-13. Their lone victory? Over the Lions. But the Steelers got progressively better the next three seasons — 5-9 in 1970, 6-8 in 1971 and 11-3 in 1972. In fact, they reached the AFC championship in 1972, losing to the soon-to-be perfect Dolphins.

  Lions 2008-11: Since the 0-16 season in 2008, the Lions also have gotten progressively better — 2-14 in 2009 and 6-10 in 2010. The Lions are a hot pick by some national pundits to reach the playoffs this season.

Ownership royalty?

  Rooneys: Ask Steelers fans in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s what they thought of the Rooney family? The Steelers played second fiddle to the Pirates, and were known as the “lovable losers” until the 1970s. They made questionable personnel calls — they cut quarterback Johnny Unitasin training camp! It wasn’t until the Steelers started winning that the city truly embraced the Rooney family.

  Fords: Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Fords have been under fire for years. From the hiring of GM Matt Millen in 2001 to the draft debacles that followed, the Fords have made their fair share of mistakes. The family isn’t exactly beloved by Lions fans, and won’t be until the team is a consistent winner.

Now, all this doesn’t mean that Schwartz is the next Knoll or Stafford and Suh are the reincarnation of Bradshaw and Greene.

It doesn’t mean the playoffs are in the cards for the Lions in 2011, or that four Super Bowls are on the horizon.

It just means there’s hope for Lions fans. And history behind that hope.

Lions coordinator Scott Linehan survives season of changes

Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Allen Park – Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is earning his paycheck this season.

A plethora of injuries at key positions on offense forced Linehan to game plan on the fly. He’s prepared three different quarterbacks to start games this season and also been through three starting running backs.


Consider the challenges Linehan has faced: Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford has started only three games with backup Shaun Hill starting nine (before Sunday’s game against the Vikings). Third-stringer Drew Stanton got pressed into duty for three.

Rookie running back Jahvid Best battled turf toe most of the season, Kevin Smith recovered slowly from knee problems and Maurice Morris didn’t emerge as a real contributor until Week 15 (109 yards against the Bucs). But through all the scrambling, ups and downs, and plenty of patchwork, the Lions offense has maintained a steady flow of production. Lions coach Jim Schwartz credits Linehan for finding answers.

“It’s not just playing with those guys, it’s finding a way to keep being productive and I think Scott and our offensive has done a good job at both,” Schwartz said.

“It’s about production and putting points on the board and I think we’ve done a good job at finding a way to do that.”

Despite all the lineup changes, the Lions offense has scored at least 20 points in 10 games this season and 32 or more four times.

Linehan doesn’t appear to get too caught up in the pats on the back he’s received lately.

“It’s your job,” he said. “What happened this year is certainly the exception and not the rule.

“It’s challenging, but that’s why you’re a coach. If you have adversity you’ve got to be able to step in and go with somebody else and trust (them).”

Linehan has found of ways to get the football into the hands of his playmakers.

None has benefited more than Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson, who’s been targeted 134 times this season, seventh-most in the NFL. Eight of Johnson’s 12 touchdowns on the season have come in the red zone.

Best also has benefited from Linehan’s guidance. He’s struggled to run the ball effectively all season, but has 52 receptions and is averaging 8.9 yards per catch with three touchdowns.

Stafford sees Linehan’s body of work as a reason to get excited about the future — when he envisions a healthier team.

“We’ve had a lot of different starts and he’s had to do a lot of work,” Stafford said.

“The best thing is that he’s stuck to his system. He knows it works. We know it works.”

Johnson to play?

Schwartz said Monday that Johnson could play in the season finale against the Vikings even if he wasn’t able to practice on his sore ankle all week. And that’s exactly what could transpire. Johnson did not practice again Friday and will be a game-time decision.

… Cornerback Chris Houston didn’t practice all week and has a shoulder injury that will require offseason surgery. Tye Hill will start in his place.