You would be hard pressed not to make a compelling case for Calvin Johnson being the most uncoverable receiver in the NFL right now. While the devastating hybrid receivers like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez might offer defensive coordinators more headaches, in terms of a one-on-one matchup Johnson is without a doubt the NFL's most difficult to cover. His rare blend of size, speed, power, and agility are unmatched league-wide and when blended with consistency, defensive backs struggle to make any impression when left on him alone.
That is, defensive backs who aren’t named Charles Tillman. In the past four seasons few corners have had more success against Johnson than the Bears’ long-time No. 1 corner. Since 2008, Tillman has allowed Johnson only one touchdown reception and two plays longer than 20 yards, and has intercepted three passes. Combine that with a completion percentage allowed of only 53% and you have some entirely un-Calvin Johnson-like numbers.
So what is it about Tillman that allows him to defend Johnson with such success? Well this Monday night in Chicago, Tillman and the Bears offered us another glimpse. This week’s Marquee Matchups takes a closer look at how Johnson was held to a season-low three receptions for 34 yards, on a season-high 12 targets.
Take Away the Deep Ball
The first thing to consider in shutting down both Johnson and the Lions’ passing game as a whole, is to take away the deep ball. On Monday night the Bears did that bluntly and obviously. The ESPN broadcast quickly noticed and highlighted just how deep the Bears were playing their safeties, Major Wright and Chris Conte. Simply put, the Bears were placing a cap on their defense and telling Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense that the deep ball was a no-go.
Of course it didn’t stop the Lions from looking deep, but with only a pair of 23-yard completions to show from five targets, this was not going to be a game-breaking facet of the Lions’ passing game. With Johnson’s downfield skill-set and Titus Young’s blistering speed, taking away the deep ball is really a shot to the knee of the Detroit passing game. In a game context, the depth of the safeties took away the Lions’ ability to pick up a ‘cheap' big play at any point. It steered them toward having to nickel-and-dime their way down the field, and they couldn’t do that efficiently.
From a matchup perspective, that allowed Tillman the confidence to know he could sell-out to play physically and try to confront Johnson on the short and intermediate passes. He knew that if he made a mistake, or was beaten, the help was there over the top. That confidence is akin to a safety blanket and Tillman used it to full effect in this game.
Starting as You Mean to Go
The first drive of any game can be crucial for teams looking to impose their will on the opposition. While it is rarely telling in a game, it allows each team to make a statement to their opposition and to the viewing public. The first drive on Monday night told onlookers this was going to be a long and difficult one for Johnson and the Lions’ offense. From the first snap the Bears deployed their safeties deep and wide, giving little consideration to any threat splitting them up the middle of the field. Wright and Conte initially aligned at around 12-yards deep, but by the time the ball was snapped they had drifted to more than 15 and were set wide, showing their major concern was robbing any opportunity for the Lions’ wide receivers to play sandlot football.
The Lions were were never going to go deep against such a look — it would have been nothing but false bravado to do so. Instead, Stafford looked immediately for Johnson on the sort of short possession route that would surely be pivotal in drawing the Bears’ safeties shorter to open up the deep ball again. Tillman, however, showed he was up to the task immediately. He played off Johnson, but allowed him to eat that cushion quickly and drove on the route as he broke to the inside.
The Bears’ corner used the full extent of his 5 yards to bump (and tug) Johnson as he broke for the pass, before he undercut his man and got a hand in front of the receiver’s left shoulder to knock away the pass — despite Johnson’s immense frame being perfectly positioned to box Tillman out. If the Lions felt they were going to chip away until the Bears brought their safeties up, they hadn’t properly figured on Tillman’s presence.
The weakness in Chicago’s plan for this game is that even with their fine array of coverage defenders, playing your safeties so far off of the line of scrimmage opens up a lot of space between them and the linebackers. This is prime real estate to hit receivers crossing the field for big yards-after-the-catch plays and the Lions looked to make that exact play on their third down on this opening drive.
Even without a play action fake, there was still a massive amount of space to be had in front of Wright, aligned nearly 20 yards off the line at the snap, in a single-high look as Johnson broke to the middle of the field. The Bears somehow conspired to lose Johnson across the middle, with Tillman passing him off to be picked up by nobody. The Lions had in their hands the big play that would make the Bears re-think their plan to suffocate the deep ball, right? Wrong.
Johnson came up with a bad time to register a drop for the fourth straight game and the Lions’ opening drive ground to a halt after three plays. If Detroit couldn’t nickel-and-dime because of Tillman’s aggressive underneath play, and they couldn’t exploit the opportunities presented to them over the middle, they would be in for a very long night.
For the remainder of the first half — and, in fact, for much of the game — things didn’t get much better for the Lions’ passing game. They gained only two first downs in the entire first half by way of a pass (on consecutive plays either side of the two-minute warning), with Johnson held without a catch on one further target. This was one of only two deep shots taken to Johnson in the entire game and, as you would expect from the Bears’ defensive tactics, the play was simply never on.
For most NFL offenses 2nd-and-1 is viewed as a free shot for a deep ball. Because this is a prevalent line of thought for offensive play-callers, most defensive play-callers know it’s coming — just as the Bears knew here. With the Lions running a heavy formation (by their standards), 11 personnel with a sixth offensive lineman (Riley Reiff), chances are the Bears were looking for a deep ball off play action, and that’s what they got. Tillman gave Johnson 7 yards of cushion at the snap and the Bears had Wright stationed at free safety 20 yards off the ball — ample room for a player of Wright’s ability to roam to whichever deep ball Stafford targeted if he wasn’t looked off correctly. Stafford never looked Wright off, staring Johnson’s deep route down from the outset.
The inevitable outcome, with Johnson running a straight streak (no double move or hesitation), saw the Bears’ safety and corner both on top of Johnson’s route as it was overthrown by Stafford. Inexplicably, the Lions then came back with a straight drop and no run threat or short routes on the 3rd-and-1 play to compound their overly-simplistic 2nd-and-short play call.
Detroit didn’t look to throw to Johnson again until the 6:16 mark of the third quarter. On that play Johnson fought to the inside of Tillman’s press coverage on an in-breaking route for a 6-yard gain.
This marked consecutive first downs for Johnson as he gained another from Tillman on the following play. Again working to the inside on a slant, he this time drew a pass interference penalty from Tillman as the Bears’ corner tied his right arm down and prevented Johnson from reaching for Stafford’s high throw. With the Lions’ now set up with 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line, was the tide turning in the game?
Tillman Closes the Door
Simply put, no it wasn’t. On the very next play the Lions went to the well once again looking to press home the momentum swing, and looked for Johnson to work a back-shoulder route to the outside, having gotten the better of Tillman to the inside on the two prior efforts — seemingly the perfect set up. Tillman, however, played it like he knew what was coming and, as a savvy veteran, didn’t over-react to a lazy inside step from Johnson; Tillman never bought that the route was going anywhere but to his outside and didn't flinch in turning his hips to track Johnson.
Tillman closed in, not giving the Lions’ burly receiver any room to box him out and, while Johnson did get his hands to the ball first, Tillman responded quickly and swiped Johnson’s hands and the ball away before it could be secured for a touchdown. When Joique Bell fumbled the ball trying to dive into the end zone on the very next play, the momentum was firmly and decisively gone from the Lions and Johnson. For the second time in the game, the Lions’ suffered a deflating red-zone turnover that owed more to poor ball security than excellent defensive playmaking.
Tillman’s Night to Shine
This marks only half of the targets that Tillman saw from Johnson in this game, but the die was already cast. The next target to Johnson at the end of the third quarter was much like the opening third-down failure, but this time with Stafford missing on the throw rather than Johnson dropping the ball, as the Lions’ failed to connect in the void between the Bears’ safeties and linebackers.
The Lions’ second deep shot to Johnson, midway through the fourth quarter, ended much like the first with Tillman stacked atop Johnson’s route and no chance of a completion, even before the two clashed and fell to ground. Johnson and the Lions were at least able to pad their stats on the next drive, finally working for a pair of catches on hitches as Johnson ran Tillman off the line with a hard vertical release. However, those catches contributed nothing towards turning the game; who knows, with an earlier focus on such routes it might have made a difference, but that focus wasn’t there.
The brutal simplicity of the Lions’ passing game was what made it tick last season, but it always left a certain air of vulnerability due to the single-dimension nature of the offense. With a defense as sound in coverage as the Bears — one that not only possesses a corner of Tillam's nature, but one that is willing and designed to take away Detroit's key aspect — you have the recipe to bring the Lions’ passing game to its knees.
Detroit’s season has stalled out of the blocks, if they are to improve (particularly in their rematch against Tillman and the Bears in Detroit in Week 17) they simply must offer a more versatile passing game, one able to find and exploit the areas of weakness that the Bears’ game plan on Monday Night left open. They cannot let this Marquee Matchup between Tillman and Johnson decide the outcome of future games.
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