The Lions: More Than Meets The Eye?

Are the Detroit Lions really a one man team? Could they achieve similar results without Megatron? My answer? They are by no means a one man team but having watched them with and without him, it has shown me that they need him but maybe not in the way you would think. We all know Megatron, Calvin Johnson……you know 6ft 5in 236lb broke the receiving record last season with 1,964 yards….yeah that guy. Let’s talk some percentages. Of the 740 passing plays the Lions had last season 205(27.7%) were targeted at Johnson (18.1% of total plays) which was twice the 100 Brandon Pettigrew who was targeted the second most amount of times had. This season Johnson has missed one of the eight Lions games but still has 79 (23.3%) of the 338 Lions passing plays (14.46% of total plays). So it would seem that yes the Lions rely heavily on Johnson to catch the ball but let’s take a little deeper look at their offence which has often been labelled a “pass first” offence. We will look at their offensive stats from 2009 (Matt Stafford drafted) onwards.

Total Plays Passing Attempts Rushing Attempts
2009* 994 585 (58.57%) 409 (41.14%)
2010* 1037 633 (61%) 404 (38.95%)
2011 1022 666 (65.1%) 356 (34.8%)
2012 1131 740 (65.4%) 391 (34.5%)
2013 546 (as of week 8) 338 (61.9%) 208 (38.09%)

*Matt Stafford played 10 games in 2009 and 3 in 2010 due to injury

We can see the Lions clearly became more pass orientated but are trying to find a balance once again with a more effective running game with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. You would think that all of the Lions offence would go through Megatron but looking at this season as expected, most plays go through the running back and in this case it’s Reggie Bush (who has also missed a game). 21% of the Lions total offense goes through Reggie Bush when running and 11.35% goes through Bell. However, the Lions running backs are versatile and catch the ball a few times a game.  When you consider targets, Bush’s contribution to the offense rises to 29.6% and Bell’s rises to 17.5%. Though this contributes to the Lions pass-heavy offense, it shows the Lions aren’t as quick to throw to Johnson as you’d think.

Well we’ve seen some stats, now let’s take a little break and discuss what I think is, or at least I think should be, Megatron’s role in the Lions offence. I think it’s safe to assume we all know Johnson’s ability. He can make any catch and give even the best DBs trouble. Defenses haven’t really found a way to deal with him.  One can expect that in most situations, he can beat any DB one on one. Double cover him and he will still make the catch (if you don’t believe me ask the Cowboys).

Okay so he makes catches in double coverage….let’s triple cover him.  Well amazingly he can still make the catch as demonstrated perfectly in the Lions loss to the Bengals this season (props to Stafford for throwing the ball into double and triple coverage and trusting Johnson to get the job done). It’s this ability to make catches that amazes us all and strikes fear into defenses across the league. This fear is what the Lions need to take advantage of and have already to some extent. Teams will double cover Megatron because they know one-on-one he will more than likely burn them.

If he’s double covered then that usually means there’s going to be space for Bush and Bell to make plays in both the running and passing game. Of course this also opens up the game for other Lions receivers but is clearly more evident with the running backs as they already contribute so much to the offense. Without Johnson there is no need to double-up on anybody because as much as it pains me to say it, the Lions just don’t have any other threat that warrant it. If everyone is being covered then there is less space to exploit and their offense suffers as they need that little extra edge the fear of Megatron provides. Time for more stats. Let’s look at the Lions season so far with and without Megatron.

With Johnson Total Yards Passing Yards Rushing Yards Total Yards W/O Johnson Passing Yards W/O Johnson Johnson’s Receiving Yards Johnson’s Touchdowns
Vs Vikings24-37 W 469 357 112 432 320 37 0
@Cardinals21-25 L 327 278 49 211 162 116 2
@Redskins27-20 W 448 385 63 333 270 115 1
Vs Bears32-40 W 401 242 159 357 198 44 1
@Browns31-17 W 366 248 118 223 223 25 0
Vs Bengals27-24 L 434 357 77 202 202 155 2
Vs Cowboys30-31 W 631 488 143 302 159 329 1
Without Johnson
@Packers9-22 L 326 262 64 326 262


As we can see throughout the season some interesting stats show up. In the 7 games Johnson has played he has four 100+ yard games. Of those four games the Lions have won two and lost two. When he has gone for over 100 yards their running game has rushed for under 100 yards in all but 1 game. Of the five wins the Lions have they’ve rushed for 100+ in four of them. This is quite interesting as a lot of people say that Johnson is the only weapon the Lions have, but it would seem the fewer yards he gains the better the Lions do.

The fear of him alone is enough to allow the other players to perform better and win. Of course this is all based on stats which is far from foolproof. Just in case you think I’m ignoring his touchdowns, I’m not. What’s interesting is that in the games where his touchdowns have mattered (i.e they won the game – Redskins, Bears, Cowboys) his longest touchdown was 11 yards, which means in those games he was a very useful as a red zone threat. Of course his other touchdowns matter but if you lose the game they aren’t much use to you and I’m sure even Megatron would agree that he would trade away his 72 and 3-yard touchdowns for the W against the Cardinals. I’m also not ignoring the yards he has gained especially in the Cowboys game. Of course they set up other touchdowns and are important in some games, but let’s briefly break down the games:

Green Bay
Without him, Green Bay didn’t have to double up and they limited the running game thus halting the offence.

Vikings, Bears, Browns
In these games he went for less than 100 yards but the running game charged on for at least 110 yards in each game. What’s more is that they rushed for 4 touchdowns and Reggie Bush had two receptions for TDs.

A bit of a strange one. The only game the Lions have won with less than 100 rushing yards. It’s worth noting Bell did have a rushing touchdown and it’s also worth noting that Bush was out for this game which could have hampered the running game. An RG3 fumble was the turning point and a relatively weak Redskins secondary were the reasons for the Lions win.

If anyone would like to explain what happened then be my guest as it left me dumbfounded. It was truly a crazy game with four turnovers – it looked like it was going to be a bad one for the Lions but an unusually stout Lions defense kept the Lions in with a chance to win the game and they did with Stafford’s fake spike. No doubt Johnson’s 329 yard game helped but so did the 143 yard running game that produced 3 rushing touchdowns to the one receiving touchdown which really showed how effective the Lions running game can be.

Cardinals, Bengals
Very interesting games for Johnson. Two 100-yard plus games and four touchdowns but still two losses for the Lions. Their running game was limited to less than 80 yards in both games. It’s interesting to see how much Johnson produced in both games and in it turn hurt the running game but the running game also suffered when he wasn’t fit for the Green Bay game. So if he gets too much of the ball and the running backs don’t the Lions offense can stall and if he’s not playing it can stall as they don’t have the space to exploit.

Is it possible that the Lions greatest weapon the Lions have isn’t Megatron but rather the fear factor he generates that opens up the running game?

In my opinion anyone who suggests that the Lions only weapon is Calvin Johnson is narrow-minded though I am willing to be proven wrong. It’s obvious that the Lions have talented players in Bush, Bell, Burleson and Pettigrew – who in their own right are effective pieces but need someone like Megatron to make them better and turn them into the weapons they are for the Lions.

So as I said earlier, no I don’t think the Lions are a one-man team, but I don’t think they would be the same team without him.

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