Green Bay, Wis. — When Calvin Johnson hurts, the Lions hurt worse. More pain, no gain. That’s the fear, and it was on graphic, grimy display Sunday.
This wasn’t going to be easy for the Lions against the desperate Packers, even if Johnson had played. But it shouldn’t be so ridiculously difficult in this place, year after year. The Lions don’t 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.
There’s always something when the Lions visit Wisconsin, isn’t 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.
Johnson’s injury isn’t a long-term deal and he warmed up Sunday morning to see if he could play. And the Lions (3-2) don’t 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 you’ve 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 can’t 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 one’s on the offense. I gotta do a better job of running the ball. I didn’t play well.”
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 hadn’t 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 would’ve double-covered him constantly. Instead, they didn’t 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 couldn’t do it,” Stafford said. “We’ve 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, they’re 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 they’re not game-breakers. And without Johnson, the Lions essentially lost their other game-breaker, Bush, because the defense was geared to stuff him.
All of this made Johnson a forlorn guy in the dressing room, knowing how much pain his pain caused. He’s been amazingly durable, missing five games in seven seasons, and it’s 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. “I’m just working to get back as soon as I can. It’s 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 — “We’ll bounce back” — and the Lions probably will upon Johnson’s 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 didn’t fight for our ground. Our defense played their butts off and we couldn’t 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 didn’t happen, and I doubt they want to try it again anytime soon.