GREEN BAY, Wis. — To a select few athletes in sports, the defense doesn’t really matter.
Kobe Bryant will take the last-second shot when he’s double-teamed. Adrian Peterson is going to get the ball with eight men in the box. Alexander Ovechkin will drive 100 mph to the net.
So the Green Bay Packers can tilt all the defenders they want toward Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford will still gun the ball to his 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver. And Johnson, so often, makes the circus catch.
“Even if the coverage is leaning toward you or whatever it may be,” Johnson said, “there’s ways to beat it. If we’ve got the right play call on, Matt and myself, he can put the ball in certain places where defenders can’t get to it.”
No, it doesn’t get any easier for the Packers’ beleaguered defense.
Today at Ford Field, Green Bay faces the best receiver in the game. Again, Johnson is on a tear; he has 66 receptions for 1,198 yards with 11 touchdowns despite missing the Oct. 6 game at Green Bay. Defenses don’t stop Johnson. They hope to minimize the damage. And the plan this season, for Green Bay, is complicated.
Detroit (finally) found a legitimate running back. Johnson is flanked by multiple other receiving threats. The Packers say they must mix up their coverages. Sometimes, they’ll shade extra attention the receivers’ way. Other times, they can’t.
He’s a rare receiver with rare gifts.
“God gave him a lot and God gives a lot of people a lot of things but he’s trying to max it out,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. “If he can max out what he has, he has a couple more years of great phenomenal football.
“He’s special. That’s just what it is. I have a lot of respect for the man.”
As Whitt points out, sometimes any defensive strategy is inconsequential. The coach says “there’s really no formula of stopping him.” In the past, the Packers have at least patched the bleeding by sticking Al Harris, Charles Woodson or Tramon Williams on him with safety help over the top.
“You need everybody involved and you have to play almost perfect just to have a chance with him,” Whitt said. “He’s that good.”
Few players demand game-long attention. Johnson, blessed with 4.3 speed, a 43-inch vertical leap and a powerful frame, does.
Whitt remembers when Johnson ran four routes. Four. Now, he has mastered the entire route tree and the Lions move him around. Outside, in the slot, in motion, he can make defensive backs panic before the snap.
Detroit is well aware defenses roll coverage toward Johnson. So they try to keep teams guessing.
“It’s tough,” cornerback Micah Hyde said. “Everybody has to be thinking ‘if Calvin goes in motion, what are we going to next?’ ”
Hyde calls Johnson “one of a kind.” He’ll take on double, triple teams and “get the ball with no problem.”
As the Lions do troll Johnson along the line of scrimmage, Packers safety M.D. Jennings says the Packers must be smart in return. The defense must disguise its own coverages as much as possible to confuse Stafford.
Because, well, this is an offense with other weapons. Veteran Nate Burleson returned from his broken forearm last week. Reggie Bush is a threat out of the backfield. They use multiple tight ends. Even after inexplicably drafting Titus Young over Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith in 2011, the Lions have stockpiled non-“Megatron” options.
Simply bracketing a safety over the top on Johnson all day could also be a death sentence.
“You have to mix it up,” Jennings said. “We can’t just line up and show our hand.”
Added defensive coordinator Dom Capers, “If you’re sitting out there with two guys on Calvin Johnson, then you’re going to be short inside with the run, the screen game, that type of thing. They have a pretty good mixture now of personnel.”
So yes, Capers says, there will be times a cornerback is matched up alone on Johnson.
Will that cornerback be Sam Shields? The fourth-year pro was disappointed in October when Johnson tapped out with a knee injury. This is a contract year for Shields. He wants to prove to the league he is, indeed, a shutdown, No. 1 cornerback.
At practice, Shields has practiced on a limited basis. Wednesday is his test. If he can play, he’ll get his shot.
“Now, he’s trying to make that next step to can he be in the conversation with some of those top corners that are out there,” Whitt said. “I believe the way he’s played — we haven’t played as well as I would hope that we would play on defense and in the secondary, but he has. You can’t take that away from him.”
Johnson said he has followed Shields career all along, recalling their days in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“He’s a good cover corner,” Johnson said. “He’s a good, speedy guy, playing well, but we’ve got to get after him on Thursday.”
Maybe there isn’t a strict “formula” to stopping Johnson. But there is one side effect, one weakness the Packers absolutely must exploit. Johnson is so big, so fast, so strong, the quarterback often too daring.
In a hallway here at Lambeau Field, Capers stretches his arms wide — Johnson has a rare wingspan. Thus, the coordinator says, Stafford plays with a “gunslinger mentality.” If there is a “formula” to beating the Lions, it’s forcing turnovers. Stafford has 13 interceptions in six losses to the Packers.
He’ll force a throw to Johnson. The question is if Green Bay, a secondary composed of stone hands in 2013, will take advantage. The Packers’ four interceptions are tied for worst in the NFL. Davon House is the latest culprit, dropping a potential pick-six against Minnesota.
Capers pointed to the final play of Detroit’s game against Tampa Bay when Stafford lofted a pass to Johnson in double coverage. Players know they’ll have a chance at picks. Last year, Jennings’ 72-yard interception return for a score was the difference in Detroit.
“He spreads the ball around really well, but he’s really looking for 81,” Hyde said. “That’s something we have to keep in the back of our mind, if he feels pressure, he’s just going to throw it up to Calvin.”
Said Jennings, “He trusts Calvin. He will give him chances to go up and make a play. If I had a guy who was 6-6 or however tall he is, I’d probably do the same thing.”
Those God-given gifts have been put to use. Whitt is quick to say Johnson is polished. His game, refined. He’s not playing backyard football. Factor in the size, the route running and you have, possibly, a receiver the league has never seen before.
“The past couple years,” Whitt said, “he’s just been killing everybody.”
On Thursday, Green Bay gets its shot.