Niyo: Lions know using Megatron more is worth the risk

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — He’s darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, apparently.

And with a wry smile Wednesday, Matthew Stafford probably said it best, “I mean, I sometimes just feel darned.”

Sometimes, that’s the only explanation. And in this case, as Stafford and his coaches are being asked to explain just why Calvin Johnson seemed like an afterthought — if that — in Sunday’s season-opening loss at San Diego, it’s probably the best darned one he can give.

Same goes for Johnson, who caught one pass on the game’s opening drive, another on the game’s last, and nothing in between, as the Chargers blitzed the Lions in a second-half comeback. There were two other official targets for Johnson on Sunday, and when asked if getting four balls thrown his way in a game was ever enough, the Lions’ highest-paid player couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I mean, I guess the laugh should say it all,” he replied.

Now, losing is no laughing matter in the NFL. But this is how it goes for Stafford and his star receiver, at least when it comes to this Catch-22 debate.

Yes, they’re well aware this wasn’t ideal, or even acceptable. And just as they knew what was coming Sunday, for the most part, they knew what was coming after the loss.

“Absolutely, I understand it,” Stafford said of the second-guessing, which by now feels like second nature to him. “Anytime you lose a game, you know, you’re gonna get questions about why you lost. And a guy like that, that only has two catches in a game, I totally understand it.”

Still, he added, “I’m trying to do the best I can, throw the ball to the right place.”

Some will take that as a subtle jab at the shackles that’ve subtly been placed on Stafford, the franchise quarterback whose chronic turnover problems were part of the reason this new coaching staff was hired 20 months ago.

Or as a sign of exasperation. Maybe it’s Stafford’s way of saying, “See?” This is what everybody wanted, isn’t it? For him to rein in the recklessness? And to quit forcing the issue to Johnson? That’s something he was accused of doing in that second-half collapse in 2013, when he targeted Megatron 77 times in seven games, completing just 48 percent of those attempts and tossing as many interceptions (five) as he did touchdowns.

But the sense I get, honestly, is this is just what Johnson was telling me a few weeks ago, describing Stafford’s dilemma in dealing with all the criticism he faces as the face of a franchise steeped in futility.

“I remember one time he said it, ‘Man, that’s just the way it is: They’re gonna hate me for doing everything I do,’ ” Johnson said of his quarterback, now in his seventh NFL season. “But he’s at a point now where he’s like, ‘I’m just gonna do me. I’m just gonna do the best I can.’”

There’s no doubt he can do better than he did in the opener in San Diego, though to be fair, it’s hard to do much of anything with 46 offensive snaps — not including that halftime kneel-down — and a few protection breakdowns that nearly got him killed.

It’s up to Stafford & Co.

And for the record, on that third-quarter attempt where Stafford got clobbered by Melvin Ingram and threw his first interception Sunday, the play was designed to go to Johnson — one of the few times he drew single coverage outside all day. (It was Stafford who changed the protection call at the line, so he ultimately put himself in jeopardy.)

Calvin Johnson

Regardless, I think it’s a safe bet Stafford — and his offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi — will find a way to get the ball to Johnson this week against the Vikings, even if it means taking a few more chances. Because as Stafford himself agreed, “When you have a great player like that, you want to get him the ball as much as you can.”

Johnson only faced the Vikings once last year, catching four passes for 53 yards — a team high — in a 16-14 defensive struggle in Week 14 at Ford Field. But the previous time he faced Mike Zimmer’s defense — when the Vikings’ coach was a coordinator in Cincinnati — Johnson was targeted 14 times and caught nine passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

But that’s beside the point, really. Because most teams tend to do what the Chargers did Sunday, running a safety at Johnson whenever possible. Which means it’s up to Stafford & Co. to either make the opponent pay by exploiting other matchups or take some chances that Johnson can make them pay despite the double coverage. Or both.

“Calvin’s done a great job getting open against looks that most people can’t get open against,” said Stafford, who insists he’s fine despite the compression sleeve he’s wearing on his injured right arm. “And they try and give him that look probably more than anybody in the league. So it’s just on us to find ways to get him the ball.”

Answer is clear

And if that means taking a risk here or there, so be it.

“Have I been guilty in my career probably of throwing it to him when some other guys in this league may not have?” Stafford asked rhetorically. “Yeah. But I have trust in him.”

And trust me, he knows what happened Sunday can’t happen again. Not if the Lions want to win a divisional game on the road.

“You get in crunch time, there’s an old saying out there: ‘Think players, not plays,’ ” Stafford said. “And sometimes you gotta find 81, there’s no question about it.”

Oh, there are questions, all right. But everybody knows the answer here.

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