It goes without saying that Calvin Johnson, who shattered Jerry Rice's NFL single-season record for receiving yards in 2012 (1,964, breaking the old mark of 1,848), should be considered the best receiver in the league today. Some might even suggest Johnson will go down as the best receiver to ever play the game.
While I'm not ready to anoint Johnson as the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time), I'm certainly fascinated by his exceptional performance as the No. 1 receiver on a Detroit Lions team that lacks established complementary weapons in the passing game, running back Reggie Bush aside. Though defensive coordinators spend hours crafting schemes designed to take Johnson out of the progression, they usually fail to slow him down or neutralize his impact.
Given Johnson's consistent success -- and with Sunday's fantastic 14-catch, 329-yard effort against the Dallas Cowboys fresh in my mind -- I decided to take a closer look at the All-22 Coaches Film to see how Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has created space and opportunities for his top playmaker. What I discovered was a cleverly crafted game plan that routinely maximizes Johnson's talents as an explosive, big-bodied pass catcher with impressive speed and quickness.
Detroit's offensive playbook puts Johnson in a variety of alignments in multiple formations to keep opponents guessing about his whereabouts. With defensive coordinators unable to predict Johnson's alignment in most formations, brackets and complex double-teams are out of the question, meaning the Lions are able to get their top offensive weapon a number of touches in every contest.
Here are some of the ways the Lions use Johnson:
As the flanker on the outside of 2x2 formations
Megatron's combination of size, speed and athleticism would make him an ideal flanker in most offensive systems. In Detroit, he aligns off the ball in static formations, giving him room to maneuver against press-man coverage at the line of scrimmage. Alternatively, Linehan can send him in motion to create free access through potential picks or rubs early in routes.
In the screengrab below, taken from the 31-30 win over the Cowboys, Johnson is aligned at flanker on the outside of the Lions' dubs formation. He is instructed to run a post-corner route to combat the Cover 2 zone that the Cowboys are employing:
By sending Johnson to the corner at 18 to 22 yards -- with tight end Brandon Pettigrew running a flat route aimed at attracting the underneath zone defender -- the Lions are putting their top pass catcher in the soft void of the coverage. Given Matthew Stafford's superior arm strength, this sideline toss is an easy completion for the Lions:
As the split end ("X" receiver) on the back side of trips formations
For years, offensive coordinators have been placing their top receiver on the back side of trips formations to create big plays in the passing game. By aligning three pass catchers to one side of the field (including the tight end, at times), the offense forces the defense to overplay the strength of the formation, often leading to one-on-one opportunities on the back side. If the defense double-teams the "X" receiver instead, the quarterback can target someone on the trips side for an easy completion. However, the Lions continue to attack the double team by routinely using Cover 2 beaters on the back side to exploit cloud coverage.
In the screengrab below, Johnson will run a quick slant to attack the underneath void of the Cowboys' Cover 2 defense:
Stafford will execute a play-fake to Bush to lure the linebackers to the line of scrimmage, creating a bigger window for Johnson on the slant:
Thanks to the brilliant execution by both quarterback and receiver, Johnson snags the pass and streaks to an 87-yard gain.
As the slot receiver in trips formations
The slot receiver is the most difficult pass catcher to defend because he has a "two-way go" on every play. Defenders can't play with proper leverage on the slot receiver, as most offenses feature a series of option routes, which allow the receiver to break opposite the defender's position at the top of the route.
With Johnson in the slot, the Lions are able to attack the middle of the field with their most dangerous playmaker. This tactic enables them to exploit some of the double-coverage schemes that defensive coordinators use to stop dangerous receivers on the outside, leading to more single-high safety looks from the defense.
In the screengrabs below, the Lions have Johnson positioned in the slot in a trips formation. He will run a seam route down the numbers as part of a vertical passing play designed to stretch the deep safety in the middle:
On the snap, Johnson wins on an outside release to work away from the safety coming from the middle. Stafford sees the safety out of position and fires a dart over Johnson's outside shoulder for a 22-yard gain:
That play, of course, set up Stafford's game-winning vault into the end zone.
On the outside of empty formations
Linehan is one of several NFL offensive coordinators who use a variety of empty formations to create big-play passing opportunities for his quarterback. The empty formation (with no running backs in the backfield) forces the defense to abandon its pre-snap disguise tactics and show the quarterback whether it is blitzing or playing coverage in the back end. If the defense blitzes, Johnson faces one-on-one coverage against an overmatched cornerback outside. If the defense plays coverage, Johnson has plenty of time -- with just four rushers attacking the signal-caller -- to find open windows.
In the screengrab below, Johnson is about to run a dig route from his outside position in an empty formation. The Lions will bait the inside linebacker by instructing the slot receiver to run a snag route at 7 yards:
Concerned about the snag route, the linebacker refrains from taking a deep drop. Johnson subsequently sneaks into the middle of the field on the dig route, and Stafford makes a pinpoint throw between the hashes, leading to another first down for the Lions:
Out of the slot in empty formations
Empty formations can be a nightmare for defensive coordinators, as defenders are regularly left in isolated matchups without help underneath. Getting Johnson into a one-on-one matchup in the middle of the field -- even if it pits him against an elite defender -- presents a win-win scenario for the Lions, in Linehan's mind.
In the screengrabs below, taken from a Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Johnson is positioned in the slot as part of the Lions' empty formation. He will run a slant route as part of a triple-slant concept on the three-receiver side. The Cardinals are in a man-free (Cover 1) defense, with their defenders positioned on the outside shoulders of the receivers -- meaning Johnson already is in a favorable position on the route:
At the snap, Johnson works upfield three steps before snapping off a flat slant in front of Patrick Peterson:
Although Peterson and the linebacker immediately break on the throw, pinpoint ball placement -- and Johnson's imposing size -- make it impossible to break up the pass. Johnson runs through the contact and rumbles 72 yards for a touchdown.
As the ultimate red-zone weapon
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Johnson enjoys a sizable advantage against defensive backs on the perimeter. He can overpower them with his strength and power or out-leap them on jump-ball tosses in the corner of the end zone. The Lions are well aware of that fact, and they take advantage of it by routinely placing him on the outside of formations in the red zone. This allows them to use Johnson on an assortment of fades and fade-stops, as well as slants and quick in-breaking routes.
In the screengrab below, taken from a Week 4 win over the Chicago Bears, the Lions break the huddle in an ace formation, with Johnson alone at the top of the screen. He will run a fade to the sideline, to take advantage of Charles Tillman's heavy inside alignment:
With Tillman playing on Johnson's upfield shoulder, Stafford throws a back-shoulder fade, giving his playmaker the best opportunity to make the catch against tight man coverage:
Johnson eventually high-points the ball over Tillman for a 3-yard score.
In the screengrabs below, taken from the Lions' Week 3 win over the Washington Redskins, Johnson is positioned on the outside and instructed to run a slant against Cover 2 zone. This is one of the Lions' top routes, as Johnson's size and strength make it nearly impossible to defend:
Though the Redskins play the initial part of the route perfectly, Johnson continues to work into the second window. With so many defenders in close proximity, Stafford normally should avoid forcing a throw to Johnson, but the receiver's impressive ball skills prompt the QB to risk a toss into traffic:
Johnson makes the grab -- with multiple defenders draped over him -- for an 11-yard score.
Savvy offensive coordinators will use an assortment of pick and rub routes near the end zone to combat the tight man coverage favored by defensive play-callers. The close alignment of multiple receivers leads to free access for at least one receiver, while the switch routes force defenders to either communicate about changing assignments or play at various depths. With Johnson positioned in the slot, the defense is faced with a multi-pronged challenge: communicate the switches and/or get into the proper position and contend with a super athlete in a potential jump-ball situation.
In the screengrab below, also from the Cardinals game, the Lions are in a dubs formation, with Johnson in the slot. The outside receiver will run a snag route designed to pick the slot defender (Patrick Peterson), while Johnson will run a switch-fade from his inside position:
Stafford sees the pick unfold and eventually releases a high-arcing throw to the back corner of the end zone for Johnson:
Megatron snatches the ball over Peterson for a 3-yard score.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks