- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Detroit Lions reporter
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Plus, Detroit's right tackle, Corey Hilliard, injured his knee on the play. Down by seven points and backed up to a third-and-18 with 12 minutes, 10 seconds to go in the game, he stepped into the shotgun.
Later, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz would say what came next was “schemed up.” Except not all of it could have been. No chance at all. Because no one schemes throwing to a receiver in triple coverage, even if it is Johnson.
And no one can realistically expect Johnson to come down with that catch. Yet he did.
Stafford lined up in shotgun, a running back directly to his left. Receiver Kris Durham was wide left and Ryan Broyles wide right. Johnson was in the slot and tight end Brandon Pettigrew was just off the line to the right side.
Then the ball was snapped.
“Rolled out right and they did a great job of playing deep to short (Sunday) with Calvin on the field,” Stafford said. “Held it as long as I could.”
Stafford rolled and actually had time to let Johnson streak down the field. Left tackle Riley Reiff, who had re-entered the game on that play after injuring his right hamstring earlier Sunday, had a good single block on Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson.
Around the same time, Johnson -- who had been running just inside the numbers on the right side of the field -- cut inside to the post at the 30-yard line. Cincinnati safety George Iloka looked to pick Johnson up at this point in what appeared to be zone coverage. Iloka, though, could never get in front of Johnson, trailing him from the back the entire way.
Meanwhile, Stafford was running forward with Michael Johnson trailing him and closing fast.
“Matt had to buy a little time in the pocket and, you know, we saw that guy bearing down on him and didn’t know if he was going to be able to get that ball off,” Schwartz said.
He did, releasing the ball at the Detroit 48-yard line toward the end zone. What happened next was the surprising part.
Johnson found some room in the end zone, but was blanketed by Iloka behind him, linebacker Vontaze Burfict just to the left of him and a closing safety, Reggie Nelson, running toward the play and lining up to either intercept the ball or knock it down.
Nelson jumped with one foot instead of two and appeared to almost tip the ball, but Johnson appeared to reach up over him to grab it. He declined to talk with reporters after Sunday’s game.
“Oh man,” said Durham, who was close enough on the play to be the first Lions player to reach Johnson after he caught it. “That was in triple coverage. You’ve just got to say ‘Wow.’
“He’s probably the only person I’ve ever seen that could be able to make that play.”
Stafford didn’t see much of it. Michael Johnson hit him milliseconds after he threw the ball. Stafford’s head was initially down, but he looked up after a few seconds.
“Didn’t see a whole lot of it,” Stafford said. “Saw the very end of it with one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”
It was one big catch in a day of many large catches for Johnson, who finished with nine for 155 yards and two touchdowns. None, though, as spectacular as his 50-yard grab in triple coverage -- a catch Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green called “unbelievable” and “the best I have ever seen.”
“He was also Megatron yesterday,” Schwartz said Monday, answering a question about Johnson’s health. “He wasn’t Calvin yesterday. He was Megatron yesterday.
“And he did everything he could to get us in position to win that game.”
Matthew Stafford had looked, kind of, for Calvin Johnson the play before. He was rushed. He threw the ball away and backed his team up with a rare intentional grounding call.