It’s been nearly two years since the Rams last got an up close look at the man known as Megatron.
Considering what Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson has done since that 2010 meeting, it might as well be an eternity. Since that time, the Rams have undergone massive changes to the roster and have only a handful of players who were even there that day.
But if, for some inexplicable reason, the Rams are expecting to see the guy that posted four catches for 54 yards and a single touchdown in that 44-6 Detroit romp, allow newly added defensive tackle
“They have one of the best players in our generation,” Heard said. “I played him last week so I have been on film with him. He’s something else.”
Heard was with Buffalo only a week ago in both teams preseason finale, a game in which Johnson only played one series but caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford to cap off that lone drive.
In reality, though, Heard doesn’t need to remind anyone what Johnson is bringing to the table. The tape takes care of all of that and there’s little doubt that Johnson, not only for his supreme physically skills, but also his respectful demeanor, has the respect of everyone in the league.
Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, not the type to throw out praise unless he truly means it, even gushes about Johnson whenever his star wideout is brought up.
“Let me say this, this is professional football and there’s 53 guys in the locker room that are all outstanding athletes and he does something that makes... When you can make professional athletes stop and acknowledge something, you’ve done something special, and he does that almost on a daily basis,” Schwartz said. “He’s incredibly gifted, he’s tall, he’s fast, he’s got great hands, he’s tough, but it’s the intangible things that the fans, the media can’t see on a daily basis that are especially pleasing to see when you watch him every day.”
By now, the old ESPNism ‘You can’t stop him you can only hope to contain him,’ has become cliché but there may not be a player in any team sport to which it is more apropos.
At 6’5, 236 pounds, Johnson cuts an imposing figure that would make NBA shooting guards blush. Add in sub 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, soft hands, a 43-inch vertical jump and unparalleled body control and it’s easy to understand why the idea of “stopping” him is something that nobody even bothers to mention.
“He’s physical, he’s fast, he’s got a nose for the ball, just a great receiver,” rookie cornerback
Perhaps the scariest statistic on Johnson is this: he’s only 26 years old. The thought that Johnson is only just now hitting his prime is enough to keep defensive coordinators up all night.
Johnson is coming off his best season in 2011, posting 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. The yardage output was the seventh highest in league history and the totals helped him join Randy Moss as the only players in league history to have more than 1,600 yards and 16 or more touchdowns in a season.
Considering Johnson’s production, the continued development of Stafford and an offense led by coordinator and former Rams coach Scott Linehan that doesn’t much care for running the ball, it’s certainly feasible that Johnson could challenge Jerry Rice’s season record of 1,848 receiving yards.
Really, it’s not even out of the question that Johnson could become the first receiver to hit the 2,000-yard receiving mark. He’s that talented.
“He’s just a big target, he’s explosive and Matt (Stafford) does a great job giving him a chance to make plays,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “Matt will throw the ball to him unlike most other quarterbacks. It’s almost Brett Favre-like four or five times a game. He just tilts his shoulders down, throws the ball as far as he can and Calvin usually makes a play, so that’s a challenge.”
The challenge for the Rams will fall to a group of defensive backs with plenty of experience facing top-tier wideouts. Veteran cornerback
Finnegan would give up about seven inches to Johnson but has squared off with him before when Johnson was in Tennessee. That game was way back in 2008 and Finnegan limited Johnson to five catches for 66 yards.
One of the basics of the Rams defensive scheme is a heavy lean toward Cover 2 zone principles but that doesn’t necessarily eliminate having Finnegan keeping a close eye on Johnson. If the Rams want to go that direction, it’s a challenge the feisty and physical Finnegan would gladly take on.
“Everybody wants competition,” Finnegan said. “That’s why you play at the highest level like we do. He’s a great, great model for the NFL and receiver in the NFL, a future Hall of Famer. So you have got your hands full with him always and you just try to contain him. It’s not stopping him, you just can’t do that. You’ve seen that all last year and in the playoffs.”
If Finnegan stays at home, it’s likely Johnson will see his share of matchups with rookies such as Jenkins.
Johnson made note of the prevalence of rookies in the Rams secondary upon watching film earlier this week but expects nothing less than the best, considering the target opposing defenses place on him.
“They’ve got some youngsters back there,” Johnson said. “They’ve got some talent back there as well. With their young guys, they’re going to come up under a veteran that’s probably - I’m sure - helping them out, giving them some skills of the game. Expect to see a good show from them on (Sunday). I’m sure they are going to come out with a lot of energy, so we can’t afford to start out slow. We have to come out here and get off to a good start and hit them first.”
For his part, Jenkins is no stranger to facing top-notch wideouts. Dating to his days at Florida, Jenkins earned a reputation for locking up star receivers such as A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery. Green and Jones are already considered amongst the NFL’s best receivers entering their second season but neither has the skill set or track record of Johnson.
“(He’s got) everything,” Finnegan said. “They have so many weapons around him. He’s a future Hall of Famer. There’s not a lot that he can’t do, if anything.”
Digging deeper, the idea of slowing Johnson might actually have little to do with the secondary. While Johnson is a solid route runner capable of catching short passes and making big gains after the catch, he’s at his most dangerous when he runs deep vertical routes.
Two other solutions exist to help keep Johnson from making those big plays.
The first is to establish a strong running game on offense. A number of long, clock-chewing drives would go a long way toward keeping Johnson from making big plays. It’s hard to do much of anything when stranded on the sideline.
The other option is for the Rams to wreak havoc on Stafford with strong pass rush from the front four and exotic blitzes. It’s hard for those long routes to develop if the quarterback is on his back.
“That’s the only way,” Heard said. “A guy that great you can’t stop him, you can only contain him. Getting pressure and making the person who gets him the ball as uncomfortable as possible then that’s going to hinder Calvin.”