Second look: Chargers scheme neutralized Johnson

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Following a game on Sunday in which Calvin Johnson had just four targets and none in the second or third quarters, the Lions explained that the coverage employed by the San Diego Chargers led them to look away from their best player.

A closer look at the coaches' film from the Lions' 33-28 loss shows that that San Diego, while covering Johnson well, actually used concepts that allowed some openings of which Detroit did not take advantage.

With 8:28 left in the first quarter, Chargers defensive backs Brandon Flowers and Eric Weddle show the coverage they used frequently on Calvin Johnson (circled with Flowers) Sunday.
Flowers and Weddle again work together to cover Johnson (circled with Flowers) with 9:37 left in the second quarter.

On Johnson's 30 routes, the Chargers never used bracket coverage, the scheme in which defenses place two defensive backs on him at the line of scrimmage. Instead, San Diego put cornerback Brandon Flowers on him at a variety of depths while safety Eric Weddle shaded toward Johnson's area of the field on most routes.

Based on the analysis, Johnson had true single coverage on routes that weren't predetermined screen plays on just six of his routes, though quarterback Matthew Stafford likely could've audibled out of the screens after scanning the defense.

Even on plays where Weddle didn't key on Johnson, there was typically another defender keeping an eye on him, like the first pass play on which one defensive back ran from the opposite side to the deep middle of the field right before the snap, though the play was a screen to Golden Tate.

On some of those seven single-coverage plays, the Lions did appear to try to take advantage. The first one came on the opening drive as Johnson beat Flowers' press coverage from the slot with a quick slant as Weddle blitzed. Johnson gained 28 yards on the play.

The next time Johnson had single coverage, with Flowers playing 10 yards off, he was open on a deep in route, but nose tackle Sean Lissemore flushed Stafford from the pocket after beating center Travis Swanson.

On his last route of the second quarter, Johnson was one-on-one against Flowers on the outside, but Stafford rushed a short throw to Tate, who'd drawn the attention of Weddle, before Johnson finished his route. Stafford was under heavy duress on the previous play, and although linebacker Melvin Ingram beat left tackle Riley Reiff initially, Reiff recovered to keep a clean pocket.

With the Lions running several screens in the second half, Johnson's next chance to exploit single coverage didn't come until the 9:54 mark of the fourth quarter when he was unmarked in the slot. Weddle was playing 10 yards off, and although Johnson was open on an intermediate in route, a late throw led to an easy break-up for the safety.

The Lions also had an opportunity on the first play of the last drive, but Stafford threw to tight end Eric Ebron after being flushed from the pocket.

Clearly, the Chargers had a plan to keep two players following Johnson on most plays, and it resulted in the Lions looking elsewhere during their stunningly low 47 offensive plays.

Short routes

The Lions threw a variety of screens on of their first nine passing plays of the second half, and one of the four non-screens was a short route by running back Ameer Abdullah.

With the coaches deciding not to test the coverage on Johnson, they favored the short passing game. The running backs had some success with Abdullah gaining 44 yards on four catches and Joique Bell going 27 yards on his receptions. Tate also caught a few screens, but he gained just 24 yards on his four catches.

Lions at Vikings

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: Lions 0-1, Vikings 0-1

Line: Vikings by 3

Series: Vikings lead 69-36-2 (Detroit 16-14, Dec. 14, 2014)

Did you know? The Lions' 34.6 winning percentage against the Vikings is the lowest among their North Division rivals.