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Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Calvin Johnson's sizzling start

By Kevin Seifert

Calvin Johnson
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson has six touchdown catches in the Detroit Lions' first three games.
Eighteen NFL players have more receptions this season than Calvin Johnson. The Detroit Lions receiver ranks behind 20 others in total yards. But let me ask you this: Has any non-quarterback had a greater impact on his team's start to the 2011 season?

Johnson has caught two touchdowns in each of the Lions' three victories, the first player in NFL history to do so. He's accounted for nearly half of the scoring for the NFL's No. 4-ranked offense, and his most important catch of the season wasn't even a touchdown. I know you're going to laugh at me, but Johnson's efficiency this season -- he's averaging one touchdown for every 2.7 receptions -- makes it worth noting that the NFL record for touchdowns in a season is 23.

The first chart illustrates the 2007 pace set by New England Patriots receiver Randy Moss, who had seven touchdowns after four games that year. We probably won't get serious about it until midseason, but as the second chart shows, no NFL receiver in history has shot out of the gate any faster.

"He's pretty good," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said with a laugh this week.

Lions players and coaches have watched Johnson make circus catches for years, and I think the general public (even ESPN analyst Cris Carter) accepts he is among the best receivers in the league. But it's easy to go unnoticed while your team loses 40 of 48 games, as the Lions did from 2008-2010.

That shouldn't be a problem any longer. The Lions' 3-0 record, to be followed by high-profile games at the Dallas Cowboys and on "Monday Night Football" against the Chicago Bears, will ensure plenty of national discussion. Around here, of course, there has never been much debate about Johnson's elite status. What has piqued my interest this season is how many of Johnson's catches have come at critical moments of games and played such a primary role in their outcome.

A closer look:

Week 1
Touchdown No. 1:
A 36-yard catch on fourth down that erased a 10-6 deficit and gave the Lions a lead they never relinquished against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Touchdown No. 2: A 1-yard grab in the third quarter that provided the final margin of victory in a 27-20 game.

Calvin Johnson
This Calvin Johnson catch on Sunday set up Jason Hanson's game-winning field goal.
Week 2
Touchdown No. 1:
A 15-yard reception that opened the scoring against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Touchdown No. 2: A 1-yard catch on fourth down that put away a game that had been stuck at 20-3 in the third quarter.

Week 3
Touchdown No. 1:
A leaping 32-yard third-quarter grab that started the Lions' comeback from a 20-0 deficit against the Minnesota Vikings.
Touchdown No. 2: A 5-yard catch that pulled the Lions to within three points at 20-17 early in the fourth quarter.

So think of it this way: The Lions have targeted Johnson on 29 passes this season; he's caught 16 of them. Two were fourth-down touchdowns. Two others provided scores that largely made up the deficit during the biggest comeback in team history. Two gave the Lions a lead they wouldn't relinquish, and another set up the game-winning score in overtime at the Metrodome. You've probably seen it on video. (If not, NFL.com has it as part of this highlight video.)

Matched up in single coverage against Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin, Johnson hauled in a 40-yard pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford to put the Lions in position for Jason Hanson's 32-yard field goal.

I referred to it as a Willie Mays-like catch because, like Mays did 57 years ago, Johnson made the catch with his back to the direction the ball arrived from. It sailed not over his shoulder, but directly over his head. That means Johnson didn't see the ball until it was on top of him. The level of difficulty, not to mention the circumstances, already qualifies the play as among the best catches you'll see all season.

Willie Mays
Calvin Johnson's overtime reception Sunday was reminiscent of Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series.
"I don't know what to tell you," Stafford said. "He's an unbelievable player. I just try to give him a chance on some balls."

Johnson isn't your typical bigmouthed receiver, and you don't get much when you ask him to take you through one of his catches. On that 40-yard catch, Johnson noted that he and Stafford had connected on a similar pass during pregame warm-ups and added: "I had a feeling the ball could be up in the air for me, so I just went up and got it."

Yes. Yes he did. But Johnson's impact has extended well beyond his 16 catches and six touchdowns. Consider tailback Jahvid Best's 60-yard screen reception on Sunday, the one that set up Johnson's second touchdown. When you watch the replay, you can see Johnson effectively take three Vikings defenders out of the play.

Lined up on the far side, Johnson drew cornerback Antoine Winfield -- the Vikings' best tackler -- in coverage. Winfield had to stay with Johnson even when it appeared a screen was on the way. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson also took several steps in his direction, leaving him out of position once Best took off with the ball. Finally, Johnson blocked Vikings safety Husain Abdullah as the play developed.

"He changes the game," Schwartz said. "He changes the way people play us, and you can see when people put attention on him there's room for other people to make plays. You don't get 60-yard screen passes if you don't have a guy who's a threat on the outside part of the field. It doesn't open it up for a tight end to get 11 catches over the middle [as Brandon Pettigrew did] if you don't have a player like Calvin on the field."

Johnson's national breakthrough has come at an important time in his relationship with the Lions. His contract continues through the 2012 season, but a projected $18.5 million cap charge next season means the Lions likely will need to extend him before then. Scoring six touchdowns during a 3-0 start has pretty much solidified the value of a receiver who can dictate to defenses the way Johnson can. Don't you think?