Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Midseason review: Wide receivers
By Michael Rothstein
This week, during Detroit’s bye, we’ll take a look at each position group at the half way point of the season.
Prior reviews: Quarterbacks; Running backs.
What has worked: Calvin Johnson. The NFL’s leading receiver had the second-best receiving game in league history last Sunday with 329 yards against Dallas and over the past two weeks has 484 receiving yards.
The top receiver in the game often draws double coverage or major safety help (he didn’t all that often against Dallas) and that sets up the rest of the Detroit offense. With teams mostly focusing on Johnson, that has allowed running back Reggie Bush to see lighter boxes for both running and the short screen game. Johnson is in his prime as the 6-foot-5 security blanket for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Johnson has also found a complement in receiver Kris Durham. A guy who wasn’t a guarantee to make the team in training camp now has three or more receptions in five straight games and has 25 catches for 310 yards this season -- more production that he had in his first two years as a pro combined.
He is a good, low-maintenance player who works well in Detroit’s offense as the No. 3 or No. 4 option behind Johnson, Bush and, when he returns, Nate Burleson. Detroit also found a good midseason pickup in receiver Kevin Ogletree, who has caught five of seven passes thrown to him, has yet to drop a pass and has the speed to stretch the field if necessary across from Johnson.
As a group, the Lions receivers are averaging 14.39 yards per reception, sixth in the league. Much of that is due to Johnson, but that’s an important stat considering the Lions have not really pushed the ball deep very often until the past two weeks.
What has not: Much like mentioned with the running backs earlier, drops have been an issue at the position. Lions wide receivers have dropped 4.9 percent of the passes Stafford has thrown to them, 20th in the NFL.
One of the Lions with the roughest drop percentage was receiver Ryan Broyles at 14.3 percent. It was a small sample size, however, as he was only targeted 14 times this season before rupturing his Achilles against Dallas, his third straight season ended due to injury.
Injuries have been a factor here as well. Nate Burleson has missed the past five games after breaking his forearm. Johnson missed a game and was limited in another. Broyles is out for the year. It has left Detroit’s receiving corps with a somewhat rotating group, which can mess with a quarterback’s timing.
Durham wasn’t playing much to start the year, Ogletree was in Tampa Bay and Jeremy Ross was in Green Bay. Now, they are three of the Lions’ top five receivers along with Johnson and Burleson.
The other thing that didn’t work was Patrick Edwards being ready to contribute. The second-year player was once touted as a speed option opposite Johnson, but never really panned out in his second season. He had five catches for 46 yards in four games before being waived and re-signed to the team’s practice squad.
Prognosis: Good, although that could be dependent on the health of Johnson and Burleson. Detroit saw what could happen if Johnson doesn’t play -- a rough performance against Green Bay in the game he missed, stagnating the Lions offense -- but he now has the off week to fully heal.
And when he’s healthy, he’s by far the best in the game.
Burleson’s return, especially with the injury to Broyles, gives Stafford a good option in the slot or outside. He had 19 receptions for 239 yards in his first three games and was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before the pizza accident. As long as teams continue to roll safety help to Johnson or straight double cover him and pay attention to Bush, it’ll open up Burleson for one-on-one coverage.
It’ll be interesting to see how his return affects Durham, who has become a consistent possession target for Stafford. Broyles’ injury probably means Durham will still see a significant number of snaps, but he’ll probably be sharing those a little bit with Ogletree now, depending on down, distance and time in the game. Johnson, Burleson, Durham and Ogletree are probably going to be Detroit’s main wide receiver options the rest of the season, with Ross seeing some snaps in the slot on occasion.
Ross’ role might be dictated more by what happens in the return game. If the Lions stick with him there instead of Micheal Spurlock, he’ll likely steal some offensive snaps as well. If Detroit goes back to Spurlock as a returner, Ross’ role could be determined by the health of the rest of the roster.