- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Calvin Johnson said he was “real close” to playing Sunday against Green Bay. Once real close became not happening, the Detroit Lions learned exactly how much they rely on the NFL’s top wide receiver.
Simply, a whole heck of a lot.
“He’s the best player in football,” guard Rob Sims said. “He’s one of the guys that’s helped us, not helped us but, you know, led us over these past few years, of course you feel a certain way, like, man, we wish we had him.”
After it was all over, after the Lions sputtered to a 22-9 loss at Green Bay, where the offense could only move the ball real late, where a team averaging 26.2 points a game scored only nine, Johnson’s impact became completely obvious.
“He wasn’t one of our 46 [on Sunday], so you can’t say it affected the offense,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “He wasn’t one of the guys who was on the field. We’ll have 46 on the field and those are the guys who affect the offense.
“After that, he wasn’t one of our 46, so that’s all I can say.”
Schwartz appears to be saying Johnson wasn’t active, so it doesn’t matter what he could have done because it was an impossibility. But to say Johnson’s absence didn’t alter Detroit’s offense is almost inexplicable.
Even his players were honest with how much not having Johnson changes the complexion of their offense. For the past few years, Johnson has been the 6-foot-5 security option for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. In Johnson’s career, the Lions are now 2-3 without him available, and played without him Sunday for the first time since 2010.
Teams game plan for Johnson because if an opponent left him in single coverage too often, he would embarrass any cornerback. He is the guy who can make almost any catch imaginable, who on a weekly basis makes the improbable completely possible.
What Sunday proved is Johnson, not Reggie Bush, is the true catalyst for Detroit’s offense. Bush is a great player and is a big reason the Lions started off 3-1, but without Johnson in the game, Green Bay dropped a safety into the box, making it more difficult to run. The Packers also sent enough defenders at the Detroit offensive line that double-teaming any rusher was not an option.
Compare this to when Bush missed a game and a half.
For a half against Arizona and the entirety of Week 3 against Washington, Detroit at least scored without Bush -- and even beat the Redskins in Washington for the first time by putting up 441 yards of offense.
With Johnson out, Bush, who beamed when he saw light boxes the first month of the season, had his most ineffective full game as a Lion with 44 yards rushing and 25 yards receiving.
“Calvin’s obviously a big part of the reason we are successful,” Bush said. “So obviously, it’s hard to replace a guy like that when he’s not in there. We definitely missed him today.
“But at the same time, we have been practicing and preparing for him not to play all week. We have to find a way to get better. We have to step up as a group and pick up the slack.”
Detroit couldn’t Sunday.
In all, the non-Johnson receivers caught nine passes for 93 yards and three averaged more than 13.5 yards per reception, all but eliminating the deep threat. Stafford said a receiver did not draw double coverage all day. To compensate, Detroit focused more on its tight ends and running backs, who saw a combined 22 of the team’s 40 targets.
Detroit prepared for this possibility all week, especially after Johnson didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday. Even Schwartz said the team ran the gamut of potential outcomes in its strategies for the week, from Johnson being completely healthy to what eventually happened, his unavailability.
“It doesn’t change the offense, the play calls and that kind of stuff,” said receiver Kris Durham, who had a team-high eight targets. “Obviously, they usually roll coverages toward Calvin so they were probably able to do a little different things in their game plan now that Calvin wasn’t playing.”
Schwartz said Johnson’s availability or not was not the story of the game. He said his team’s inability to “get it done well enough [Sunday] on offense, defense or special teams” was.
But Johnson’s unavailability plays into that.
Johnson’s impact on the offense has been covered. On defense, he is good for at least a couple of extra first downs for the offense, in turn giving the defense more rest and perhaps better field position provided the special teams can do their job. Considering Sam Martin averaged a net of 42.8 yards a punt, that didn’t appear to be an issue.
“You’re missing your ace in the hole,” cornerback Rashean Mathis said. “Without CJ, he’s probably the best receiver in the game. When you’re not able to spread the ball out like that, it’s going to hurt you a little.”
It hurt Detroit and helped turn an opportunity to win -- the Lions were still in the game for almost three quarters even without him -- into what ended up being a loss. But the offense, it just couldn’t do much without him.
Had it not been for a late touchdown from Stafford to Durham, the Lions would have gone touchdown-less for the first time since 2009. As it was, the 286 yards the Lions gained was the team’s lowest offensive output since a 280-yard performance in Week 14 of the 2011 season.
Detroit always knew Calvin Johnson made a difference. Detroit just learned how big of one on Sunday.