GREEN BAY – It was a strange week of film study for Dom Capers.
Since the Packers’ defensive coordinator arrived in Green Bay, every time he’d turn on the tape to watch Detroit, one guy was impossible to miss.
“You didn’t have to look very far to see Calvin show up,” Capers said.
He was referring to Calvin Johnson, of course, aka Megatron. The star receiver’s rather abrupt retirement after last season means Sunday’s Packers-Lions game at Lambeau Field will be the first without Johnson on the Detroit sideline since Mike McCarthy’s first year as head coach in 2006.
In Johnson’s nine years, he played 16 of a possible 18 games against the Packers. For one of those missed contests, he was a last-minute scratch, so preparing to face the Lions without Megatron is almost a foreign concept for Green Bay.
“When he was out there, I think (QB Matt) Stafford just always looked for him,” Packers defensive back Micah Hyde said this week. “Whether it was two guys on him, or even a third, he was always looking his way and trying to get him the ball. And (number) 81 would always come down with it. He’d always make those plays for him.
“That’s just what we recognized playing against him. It was one thing to guard him, but it was another thing to play the ball when it was thrown to him.”
Johnson’s impact in games against the Packers was undeniable. In those 16 career games, the equivalent of a full regular season, he caught 90 passes for 1,409 yards and 15 touchdowns. That’s quite a “season,” and who could forget his 11 catches for a then-Lambeau Field record 244 yards in the 2011 regular-season finale.
Even more impressive was his consistency. In only two of those 16 games did he fail to either catch a TD pass or gain at least 80 yards receiving. One of those two was way back in his rookie year of 2007 after being the No. 2 overall draft pick, and the other was in 2010.
“In the past, obviously we put an emphasis on Calvin. He always had somebody on him with help over the top,” Hyde said. “In a way, it might have put pressure on other (defenders), because they had to go out there and perform, and they might not necessarily have help.
“This year is a little bit different in that sense, but at the same time, these receivers are explosive guys.”
The most notable characteristic of the Calvin-less Lions through two games is how Stafford has spread the ball around. Six different players have at least five receptions for 50 yards already – receivers Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin; running backs Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah; and tight end Eric Ebron – and four of them have caught a TD pass. Abdullah, though, is now out due to injury.
Stafford’s current 101.2 passer rating would be a career best if he can maintain it.
“Matthew is playing well this year,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “He’s getting the ball out fast, a little faster than normal. It’s going to be a little bit different look for us this week.”
Capers calls it a “space game” the way the Lions try to spread defenses out. They’re also balanced, ranked ninth in rushing and seventh in passing (sixth overall), though now the run game has to adjust without Abdullah.
“All you have to do is look at their stats the first two games,” Capers said. “This is an outstanding offense. It starts with Stafford.
“You can play really, really well, and all of a sudden in three or four plays, …”
Capers proceeded to recap the end of Detroit’s Week 1 victory at Indianapolis. The Lions had just fallen behind by one point on a Colts touchdown with 37 seconds left. They had the ball at their own 25.
Three plays later, they had covered 50 yards on consecutive completions to three different players – Riddick for 19 yards, Ebron for nine, Jones for 22 – and booted a field goal to win.
Stafford was on the verge of another comeback last week, hitting a 29-yard pass to Ebron to convert on third-and-19 in the final minute, putting the Lions roughly 20 yards from a shot at another game-winning kick. Some pressure from the Titans led to an errant throw and interception, Stafford’s only miscue through two weeks.
“You can’t ever relax with this offense,” Capers said.
Even without Megatron.