The All-22: A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson display full arsenal in Lions-Bengals game
The Bengals’ A.J. Green and Lions’ Calvin Johnson matched wits Sunday in a mesmerizing duel of arguably the NFL’s top two receivers. The pair tied at 155 yards receiving each, with three combined TDs between them (two by Johnson, one by Green). Megatron needed nine catches to reach the 155-yard plateau; Green hit it on just six, aided by his early 82-yard score.
And no matter what the opposing defense did, or what routes Johnson and Green ran, they found ways to get open.
The All-22 takes a look back at the variety of ways the talented receivers got the job done on Sunday:
Neither the Lions nor the Bengals (nor any other team that’s defended Green or Johnson, really) have figured out exactly how to go about matching up with the opponent’s No. 1 WR. Detroit played off coverage most of the day, giving Green a cushion at the line. One of the ways in which he was able to beat the more conservative approach was with an easy 13-yard reception on a slant route.
Green lined up outside to Andy Dalton’s left, with CB Rashean Mathis providing him with a hefty cushion at the line. Detroit was in a Cover-1 — one deep safety, who was 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Green simply grabbed an inside couple of steps on Mathis, then nestled into the space between Detroit’s linebacker and its safety.
Johnson found the same opening, with Cincinnati also giving him space at the line and shading a safety his direction to defend against a deep ball. It was an almost identical play to the one Green finished off, though Johnson lined up in tight to QB Matthew Stafford, stacked with another receiver.
The problem with defending either Green or Johnson (and particularly Johnson) on a slant or dig route is that it doesn’t really matter if a corner plays press or off coverage. Cincinnati tried to press Johnson at the line with Terence Newman on a separate slant play. Johnson won the hand-fighting at the snap, then shielded Newman from the ball with his huge frame.
So the press tends to be a moot option against these receivers, given their size, and it also leaves cornerbacks susceptible to being beat deep. But if those corners drop back a few steps …
… then this becomes an issue.
Green had multiple grabs on easy-as-pie comeback routes in the second half, both against Detroit rookie corner Darius Slay. Here’s the setup for one such reception, with Slay a good eight yards off the line and the Lions again in a Cover-1 — leaving Slay with less help over the top.
Green sprinted directly at Slay for five yards, then hitched back toward Dalton. Lions DE Willie Young peeled off the line and nearly got his hands on Dalton’s pass, but Slay had backed even further in anticipation of a bomb, giving Green six more yards to work with as he turned for the pass.
The Bengals tried the same approach with Johnson, walking a safety up toward the line at the snap and leaving themselves with man-coverage wide in a Cover-1. Johnson’s window was about six yards on the play captured below. And, as Green did, he spread that gap down the field by sprinting directly at Cincinnati’s corner, then planting and receiving the pass.
So why are those cornerbacks so afraid of losing their man downfield? Well …
Johnson scored one of his two touchdown on a basic vertical route from 27 yards out Sunday. The Lions’ superstar slid into the slot for that play, with fellow wide receiver Kris Durham to his left. Cincinnati again opted for press coverage at the line with one safety back.
That scheme took away anything inside for Johnson and Matthew Stafford, but it also left the Bengals vulnerable outside the hash marks. Megatron doesn’t need much room.
In fact, this is what it looked like from the far end zone when Stafford’s pass eventually made its way toward Johnson and CB Dre Kirkpatrick:
There’s really nothing else the Bengals could have done there. Kirkpatrick slowed Johnson slightly at the line, then ran stride-for-stride with him downfield. And the safety help arrived in time, had Stafford overthrown the football or missed inside.
But he did not, instead dropping one in off Johnson’s outside shoulder, away from Kirkpatrick’s reach. Touchdown.
Green’s equally gifted at catching the ball in tight spots — and Dalton, like Stafford, does not hesitate to give his best receiver a shot. Green’s third grab of the game was a 27-yarder that saw him start with a corner on him in the slot, before LB Ashlee Palmer slid over to help in coverage. A deep safety gave the Lions three levels of defense on Green.
Once Green managed to get a step on Palmer (not too difficult of a task, given the WR-on-LB matchup), Dalton let it fly with a floating pass that sailed over Palmer’s head and reached Green before Detroit’s safety help could arrive.
Again, very little room with which to work …
Defenders almost have to sell out on Green and Johnson right after the snap in an attempt to anticipate where their next moves will take them. That’s all well and good if a defender guesses correctly. Often, they do not, setting the table for …
Johnson’s ridiculous 50-yard TD — a leaping grab over two Bengals with a third closing — came after he faked a corner route and broke back in on a flag pattern toward the middle of the field. On that particular occasion, the Bengals did a solid job staying with Johnson, as they committed a bevy of defenders to him.
Had he been in one-on-one coverage, however, he would have been running free behind the defense, just as Green did on a TD in the first quarter.
That’s Chris Houston, who later was benched by Detroit’s staff, biting on Green’s out move and failing to recover on the up pattern. Dalton slightly underthrew Green (as he did again later, leading to an incompletion as Glover Quin bailed out Houston), but Green had plenty of space to adjust and make the grab here.
He then outraced the chasing defense to the end zone, flashing high-end speed that only adds to his complement of tools. Johnson has that breakaway gear, too, which is part of why defenses tend to play him so carefully.
Yet, as we saw again Sunday, there is no good way to guard either Green or Johnson. Both players are physical marvels with the potential to find openings at any spot on the field.