Detroit — In the first two exhibition games, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford didn’t have his favorite target, Calvin Johnson, in the lineup.
It might seem like a difficult scenario for Stafford, as it was in two regular-season games last season. But it turned out to be a chance to rest Johnson and lessen the chance he’d be injured before the games that count.
Another benefit Johnson’s absence provided was an opportunity for Stafford to build timing and chemistry with the rest of the skill players, a group that includes new additions in free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate and rookie tight end Eric Ebron.
With Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in the backfield and depth at receiver with Kevin Ogletree, Ryan Broyles and Jeremy Ross, the Lions might have their most potent offense since the days of Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton two decades ago.
The hope for first-year coach Jim Caldwell and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is others will be able to excel if teams continue to focus on Johnson, or spreading the ball around will create more chances for Johnson.
“It’s a totally different offense, so in our division especially, it gives everybody a different look and they don’t know what we’re coming at them with,” Johnson said. “This will be a great year for us if we get everybody on the same page.”
Make no mistake: Johnson still is the go-to receiver. The difference now is he likely won’t have to be targeted as much, as Stafford has many more options.
“I don’t know if you can tell, but the offense has been more wide open, even without (Johnson) on the field,” center Dominic Raiola said. “Everybody’s been alive for Matthew out there … he can throw the ball to anybody.”
It’s a stark contrast to the 2012 season, when Johnson was like a magnet, with Stafford locked on him for almost every pass. Johnson had career highs with 122 catches and 1,964 yards; the next-highest receiver on the team was tight end Brandon Pettigrew, with 59 catches for 567 yards.
Even in his limited time on the field, Johnson has been able to gauge how well the offense might click once the regular season begins.
“It’s just good to see us out there catching the ball and making plays,” he said. “Whether it’s the tight ends or receivers, just for us to move those chains forward, it feels good to see that and gives us a lot of promise.”
Tate, who had 64 receptions for 898 yards with the Super Bowl champion Seahawks last season, is expected to play a pivotal role, putting another playmaking target on the field and keeping defenses honest.
“It’s good having him here, a guy who’s had a lot of success previous to coming here. Guys are not going to be able to lock onto Calvin and we can spread the field,” Ross said. “People won’t be able to crowd (Johnson) and double him all game. Beyond Calvin and Golden, there are other guys they’re going to have to worry about too.
“We’re not just limited to an outside receiver. Everyone can play every position, which is good. We’re unpredictable, which is good for an offense; we can always adapt.”
Ebron, at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, has been utilized in the slot, out wide and in the traditional tight-end role. Broyles, coming off two season-ending injuries, could be one of the biggest surprises of the early season. Corey Fuller, who didn’t make the team last year, has earned a roster spot.
“We’ve got some guys doing well this year in camp. Corey Fuller has become night and day from last year. Ogletree is a very smooth route runner. Ross is doing his thing; he’s strong in there,” Johnson said. “We have depth, so that’s a good thing for us and guys know all the positions.”
For Stafford, the arsenal of weapons can only help the offensive production, especially with an improved offensive line. That unit, which once was considered one of the team’s weakest position groups, has grown into one of the best in the NFL.
“At this point, we’re all healthy, which is nice, but for sure there’s depth. We’ve had some young guys, whether we drafted or picked up last year, that have come on,” Stafford said. “You can tell the Year 1 to Year 2 growth has been good for them. From top to bottom, it’s as good a receiving corps as we’ve had since I’ve been here, for sure.”
Preseason is just one glimpse; the true dress rehearsal begins Monday night against the Giants.