Adam Thielen can break Calvin Johnson's record Sunday against his old team

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News

During Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season of 2012, the Lions wide receiver was a one-man wrecking crew in an otherwise underwhelming set of options for Matthew Stafford.

In that 4-12 season, Titus Young was second for wide receivers with 33 catches while Nate Burleson missed 10 games with an injury, and Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell and Kevin Smith shared carries for a pedestrian rushing corps.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) can break Calvin Johnson's record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games Sunday against the Lions. Thielen has matched Johnson's record with eight straight games.

It’s little wonder that among the accomplishments that year, Johnson was able to set the NFL record for consecutive 100-yard games with eight.

Adam Thielen’s chase for the mark, which could culminate Sunday as he goes for his ninth straight against Johnson’s former team, has been within a more diverse offense amidst more successful results.

While Johnson dazzled each week with his powerful running after a catch and ability to snatch high passes in traffic, Thielen is in snagging in all situations, whether with his trademark yellow gloves or the whites he switched to last week.

“The thing that impresses is his quickness and his ability to make awkward catches,” Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “It’s almost like his catch radius is really something. Regardless of where the ball is, he seems to be able to catch the ball and come up with it.”

Thielen has been vying for the attention of former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is in his first year with Minnesota. Cousins has options, as Stefon Diggs is comfortably on pace for more than 100 catches and 1,000 yards; Kyle Rudolph is a prolific tight end; and running backs Dalvin Cook (who has been limited with a hamstring injury) and backup Latavius Murray are a formidable duo for the Vikings.

“He’s a phenomenal receiver and a guy that does a lot for their offense,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “He kind of goes in a lot of different packages and is very explosive and dynamic.

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“Obviously, he’s a player we’re going to have a hard time trying to handle him. He runs really good routes, has a great change of direction, he can get vertically very quick.”

Thielen’s ascension to the league’s best began as an outside receiver under former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (Dearborn Heights, Michigan State) in 2016, but the current New York Giants coach moved him to the slot last season. This year, new coordinator John DeFilippo has Thielen doing both.

The undrafted Minnesota State standout from Detroit Lakes, Minn., grew up mimicking Randy Moss and Cris Carter and has made an unlikely rise to their former spot as the Vikings top threat and one of the most reliable targets in the league.

The Vikings went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship last season, as Thielen was eighth in the league with 91 catches and fifth with 1,276 yards in Minnesota’s second playoff season in three years.

In contrast, the Lions won the first game of Johnson’s record-setting stretch, but lost the next seven. Johnson had just 72 yards in the season finale against Chicago — the Lions' eighth straight loss to close the season.

As Stafford’s next most prolific pass catchers that season were Brandon Pettigrew (59 catches), Bell (52) and Tony Scheffler (42), it’s no wonder the quarterback looked at No. 81 as often as he did.

Johnson also didn’t eke out 100-yard performances like Thielen did Sunday in a 103-yard output against New Orleans, where Thielen caught all seven of his targets.

Johnson's lowest total of the span was 118 yards at Lambeau Field, while five of Thielen’s eight games have been below that.

Over the eight games, Johnson caught 76 passes for 1,254 yards and four touchdowns, while Thielen has hauled in 74 passes for 925 yards and six touchdowns.

Still, Thielen has a chance for more records this season. 

Halfway home, he’s on the pace to break Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 receptions with Indianapolis in 2002, and to accumulate the third-most receiving yards in league history, trailing only Johnson’s 1,964 in 2012 and Julio Jones of Atlanta, who had 1,871 in 2015.

“He’s really a special guy,” Pasqualoni said. “Just an excellent, excellent receiver.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.