How to Slow Down Calvin Johnson

Detroit Lions, Inside the Game, New Orleans Saints, Playbook War Room

In this week’s matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions, one of the Saints’ keys to victory will be slowing down Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. In the regular season, Johnson was the game’s best wide out, registering 96 catches, 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns. With the numbers he has produced and how essential he is to Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense, Johnson is virtually impossible to shut out of a game. However, when teams make a conscious effort to limit Johnson’s opportunities, the Lions have struggled to win games.

The first team who arguably made a concerted effort to slow down Calvin was the 49ers. Up until Detroit’s Week 6 matchup with San Francisco, Johnson had recorded 9 touchdowns in only 5 games.  Though Calvin finished the game with 7 catches for 113 yards, a good game for most NFL Wide Receivers, the 49ers kept him out of the endzone and started to put together a recipe on how to slow Calvin down.

What the 49ers did was simply decide that they were not going to let Calvin Johnson beat them and dedicated their defense’s focus on making that happen. They did this by double teaming him with a cornerback and typically a safety. Of the Lions 55 drop backs, the 49ers double teamed Calvin on 49 of them (89.1%). The most common double team in the NFL as well as in this matchup, has a Safety shaded towards a Wide Receiver, as he is guarded by a Cornerback. The 49ers utilized this high-low concept, but added their own wrinkles to it.

The first wrinkle brought the Cornerback up into the face of Calvin at the line of scrimmage.  Johnson is so big and strong that consistently being able to jam him off the line is very difficult. However, putting a Cornerback that close allowed the 49ers to have the threat of pressing looming in both Calvin and Stafford’s minds, but more importantly the Cornerback was able to be in Calvin’s hip pocket at the snap. In this case, Calvin can beat the Cornerback off the line because the Safety is still shaded towards him to help cover against any passes deep.

The other wrinkle saw the 49ers swap the responsibilities of the Cornerback and the Safety. The Safety would flash down inside, towards Calvin, which hindered Calvin’s ability to run slants and in-routes. With the Safety taking away the shorter options, the Cornerback would have a 10+ yard cushion, which allowed him to keep Calvin in front of him and limit his ability down the field.

When the Saints and Lions met week 13, the Saints took a page out of the 49ers book and limited Calvin to 6 catches for 69 yards. The Saints added a new wrinkle to the 49ers recipe by utilizing their Linebackers in the effort to slow down Calvin. Using the linebackers goes back to the same overall concept the 49ers used, provide a defender high and one low against Calvin to limit his ability to get open.

What the New Orleans Linebackers were able to do was hinder Johnson’s ability to run across the field on drags and crosses, something he had started doing more and more since Week 6. More specifically, the Saints used two different double team schemes. The first saw a Linebacker run directly towards Calvin at the snap. What this did was put another defender’s focus completely on Calvin. Having two players trying to stop him makes him alter his routes, which slows down timing and in effect, hinders Matthew Stafford’s ability to get him the ball consistently. The second wrinkle saw the Saints drop their Linebackers and angle their zone responsibilities towards Calvin. By angling towards him, the Saints were able to minimize the open windows for Stafford, while making it harder for Calvin to have a clean path across the field. These schemes really disrupted Johnson and forced the other Lions’ pass catchers to beat the Saints, which they were unable to do.

Last week against the Packers showed that Calvin Johnson will continue to put up ridiculous numbers if a defense does not make a concerted effort to slow him down. The Packers double teamed Calvin only 30%, of their 61 dropbacks, which resulted in 11 catches for 244 yards and a touchdown. If the Saints want to improve their chances of winning, they need to once again make a concerted effort towards slowing down Calvin Johnson.

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