METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he’s very guarded with the term “elite” and doesn’t use it often to describe a player. But Payton said it applies to both Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
So yes, Payton said, significant adjustments would need to be made by both teams if either player is held out of Sunday’s game between the Saints and the Lions.
Graham (shoulder) and Johnson (ankle) are both highly questionable for Sunday’s game at Detroit. But neither has been ruled out yet.
“Any time you take an elite player -- and I use that term very guarded or not often – obviously that changes things. And it would be the same thing with regards to Jimmy,” Payton said. “And yet I think we know when you play in this league long enough that each week you’re going to have to make those adjustments. And we’ve had to do that as well, take a guy like [Jairus] Byrd, who we consider to be an elite-level safety. You make those changes.
"We’ve gotta prepare for [Johnson] and make sure we’re ready in the event he plays and go into the game expecting that.”
Believe it or not, Johnson hasn’t been the go-to guy in the Lions’ offense this season as he has battled the lingering ankle injury.
Although Johnson has a respectable 22 catches for 348 yards and two touchdowns, it’s newcomer Golden Tate that leads Detroit with 38 catches for 495 yards and a touchdown. Running back Reggie Bush also has 20 catches for 142 yards.
The Lions will look to get both of those dynamic playmakers in open space and stretch the field as wide as they do deep – much like the Saints’ offense. That's no coincidence, as the Lions’ first-year offensive coordinator is former Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi.
And that will put the Saints' defense to the test, since they’ve struggled throughout the year to make tackles in the open field and stay disciplined in their assignments.
“They’re definitely gonna space you out. They’re gonna shift. If they’re anything like our offense, it’s gonna require a lot of discipline,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Some teams that just stand around make it easier on you. But this team is gonna have a complex scheme, and it’s gonna be kind of like training camp with Coach Payton.”
The Lions will likely try to feature some short, quick throws to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford out of trouble. Stafford has been sacked 21 times this year, which ranks as the third-most in the NFL.
The Saints would love to get him in some third-and-long situations by stopping the run (something they did great two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, but horrible three weeks ago at Dallas). The Lions’ rushing offense hasn’t done much this year, led by former Saints runners Bush and Joique Bell and former Saints fullback Jed Collins. Detroit ranks 29th in the NFL with 86.3 rushing yards per game.