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Monday Breakdown: Megatron's majesty is something to behold

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

As I perused our Lions' coverage from Sunday's game, a photograph of Calvin Johnson helped illustrate why there has been so much public outcry related to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.

The picture here, taken on Johnson's 57-yard reception in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal over the Bears, perfectly captures his incredible ability to contort his body and make difficult catches despite being 6-foot-5. That trait, along with his speed and strength, is a main reason why he's one of the greatest receivers to play in the NFL.

Calvin Johnson holds on to a catch under pressure by the Bears' Harold Jones-Quartey during overtime. The play set up the Lions' winning field goal.

Unfortunately, we didn't have many chances to see Johnson make similar plays this season. He had his three longest plays of the years — receptions of 57, 43 and 39 yards — in Sunday's game, and after he finished with 166 yards on six catches, something became abundantly clear.

We have to appreciate Johnson's stellar performances as long as he's making them because there's no telling when — or why — they might end.

That's not to say the 30-year-old Johnson is in the midst of some rapid decline, of course. There are many things out of Johnson's control — questionable coaching, poor quarterback play or fluky injuries — that could limit what he can do, and considering his 488 receiving yards put him on pace for about 1,300 yards, it'd be tough to argue that he's much worse now than in previous years.

"Can he still run by people? Absolutely," coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. "Can he jump over the top of folks and make catches? You better believe it. Can he score touchdowns? All right? He can do all those things, so in that regard, I think his performance speaks for itself."

Lions hope to build momentum from first win

Within that praise are reasons people are right to be frustrated with Lombardi and Caldwell. Yes, the Bears have one of the worst secondaries in the NFL, but Johnson has shown he can make the plays he did Sunday against even the best defensive backs in the league.

And until his impressive performance Sunday, Johnson didn't have nearly enough opportunities to prove that he can still be the man worthy of the nickname Megatron. Whether it was a mandate from the coaches or poor reads from Matthew Stafford, the Lions simply haven't trusted Johnson enough to make plays this season.

Johnson hadn't gained 166 yards in a game since Week 11 of 2013, a season during which he dealt with consistent pain in his right knee — which required regular draining of fluid — and a broken finger. Then, last year, a high ankle sprain effectively took him out for five games, but he still eclipsed 1,000 yards for the fifth straight season.

This year, though, coaches and Johnson have talked about how healthy he is, yet it still took until the sixth game for him to show that he still has the deep-ball skills because of the Lions' conservative offensive approach.

While coaches often talk about how good teams can find different ways to win, the Lions, frankly, have not been a good team for much of Johnson's career, but his superb performances have often kept the games close.

Lombardi and Caldwell seem intent on involving everyone in the offense, but at some point, they have to realize Johnson is their best player. And the Lions' chances of winning are directly related to how frequently he touches the ball.

Johnson hasn't been perfect this season, of course. Had the refs not missed the illegal batting call against Seattle, he would've been the target of national ridicule for fumbling at the 1-yard line with a chance to win the game. He also wasn't consistently open in the first five games when the Lions played teams with talented secondaries.

But, if he can run by people and jump over them, then he's always open, and the coaches and Stafford should trust him to make plays when the ball goes his way.

Johnson is second to only Atlanta's Julio Jones in receiving yards per game in his career, but so far this season, he ranks 20th in the league with 81.3 yards per game. He's also on pace to have his lowest yards per reception with just 12.8.

Sure, Johnson might not be one of the five best receivers anymore in a league with a lot of great ones. Jones, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Denver's Demaryius Thomas, Cincinnati's A.J. Green, Dallas' Dez Bryant, Green Bay's Jordy Nelson and Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants could all make a case, and Houston's DeAndre Hopkins is building one, too.

But, on Sunday, Johnson showed the formula for a winning offensive performance by the Lions. Now, it's on the coaches and Stafford to get him the ball downfield until teams prove they can stop him.

And until opponents crack that code consistently, we should continue to marvel at one of the league's most-talented players as long as he provides jaw-dropping moments.

Around the NFC North

*The Lions' win dropped the Bears to 2-4, and as poorly as Chicago's defense played, conservative coach John Fox will have to spend much of this week talking about himself.

*With a 27-20 win over the Chargers, the Packers improved to 6-0 and are one of just two NFC teams that are still undefeated (Carolina).

*The Vikings improved to 3-2 with a 16-10 win over the Chiefs. Fifth-round receiver Stefon Diggs has looked good his first two games with 13 catches for 216 yards.

Around the NFL

*Hopefully, a 5-0 start by the Panthers will make people realize Cam Newton is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His efficiency numbers have never been great, but his ability to put his team in position to win despite having few fearsome weapons is impressive. Plus, Newton is a tremendous threat as a runner, and on Sunday, he led his team to a rare win in Seattle.

*The Ravens (1-5) are just a bad football team. There's little threatening about the offense as they don't have a deep threat to take advantage of Joe Flacco's arm. And, somehow, Baltimore's defense is 27th after years of being among the best.

*Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman is a joy to watch. He has 10 touchdowns in the last five games and is averaging 150.8 yards from scrimmage in those games.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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