October 7, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

No Calvin, no chance: Lions' dependence on Johnson is alarming

Green Bay, Wis. When Calvin Johnson hurts, the Lions hurt worse. More pain, no gain. Thats the fear, and it was on graphic, grimy display Sunday.

This wasnt going to be easy for the Lions against the desperate Packers, even if Johnson had played. But it shouldnt be so ridiculously difficult in this place, year after year. The Lions dont have the only NFL offense that relies heavily on one player, but they rely the most on a receiver. And it was alarming to see how his absence underscored the importance of his presence.

Theres always something when the Lions visit Wisconsin, isnt there? This time, it was Johnson sidelined for the first time in three seasons with a sore knee, which basically shut down the offense in a 22-9 loss to the Packers. The drought continues no victories in Green Bay since 1991 but in years past, the Lions were simply outmanned. This time, they were out one-manned and it changed everything, and cost them a chance to seize first place by themselves.

Johnsons injury isnt a long-term deal and he warmed up Sunday morning to see if he could play. And the Lions (3-2) dont have to apologize for building an offense around the best receiver in football. But if they want to continue evolving into a legitimate contender, not just an offensive oddity, they need more sturdiness from Matthew Stafford, from Reggie Bush, from other receivers, from the offensive line.

The Lions defense fought hard, repeatedly holding Aaron Rodgers explosive group to field goals. But youve seen how the Tigers offense looks without half of Miguel Cabrera, right? Ugly, ugly. Now you know how the Lions offense looks without all of Johnson.

We cant make excuses for ourselves, said Bush, held to 44 yards rushing. This is part of football, guys are gonna get injured and we gotta find a way. This ones on the offense. I gotta do a better job of running the ball. I didnt play well.

Irreplaceable

After his dynamic return from injury last week, Bush ran smack into a reality the Lions want to avoid. They sort of knew it was coming because Johnson hadnt practiced most of the week. Once the Packers saw it coming, their huge front line was able to attack without threat of getting burned deep.

If Johnson had played, the Packers wouldve double-covered him constantly. Instead, they didnt double any receivers, crowded the line and made Stafford miserable. He was sacked five times after getting sacked a total of three times in four games.

Calvin fought tooth and nail to try to be out there, he just couldnt do it, Stafford said. Weve lost Nate (Burleson) for an extended period of time, Pat (Edwards) is just trying to come back and (Ryan) Broyles the same way. We gotta continue to get healthier.

Injuries always are a factor in the NFL, and the deepest teams usually turn out to be the best. The Lions have collected some good players, but incredibly after all these years, theyre still struggling to find receivers.

None of their four leading pass-catchers Sunday tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, backs Joique Bell and Bush are receivers. Kris Durham was the top wideout with three catches and a touchdown. Pettigrew and Durham are nice comeback stories, but theyre not game-breakers. And without Johnson, the Lions essentially lost their other game-breaker, Bush, because the defense was geared to stuff him.

Grinders

All of this made Johnson a forlorn guy in the dressing room, knowing how much pain his pain caused. Hes been amazingly durable, missing five games in seven seasons, and its no secret how Calvin-centric the Lions are the Vegas line shot them from a seven-point underdog to nine points upon news of his deactivation Sunday morning. Johnson believes the sore left knee is a short-term deal, and he nearly felt well enough to play.

It was close, he said. Im just working to get back as soon as I can. Its tough to see your buddies out there grinding and not be out there with them.

The Lions were grinding admirably for a while. Linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch were all over the field, but the Lions committed a couple gaffes, and that was enough. James Jones got loose for an 83-yard touchdown catch and Randall Cobb broke a 67-yard run, as the Packers piled up a 449-286 advantage in total yards.

Jim Schwartz firmly repeated the mantra Well bounce back and the Lions probably will upon Johnsons return. The schedule remains manageable, with a pending trip to Cleveland. But after the optimistic stir of the 3-1 start, this was a biting jolt for the offense, and for a line that had played very well but got pushed around.

They beat us up front, center Dominic Raiola said. We didnt fight for our ground. Our defense played their butts off and we couldnt get it going. We took one on the chin.

The hurt began before the game began, when Johnson tried to loosen up. It was a tough blow, but it also presented the Lions a chance to pull off something special, to win where they never win, and do it without their best player. It didnt happen, and I doubt they want to try it again anytime soon.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Lions Kris Durham and Joseph Fauria can't pull in a long pass near the end zone late in the second quarter, which summed up the team's offensive woes without star receiver Calvin Johnson / Daniel Mears / Detroit News