By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – The two brightest stars of the Detroit Lions, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, seemed strangely absent at times in Detroit’s 37-27 loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Johnson, who caught six of 11 passes thrown to him in the first half for 179 yards, was targeted just three times in the entire second half. The ball did not come his way even once in the third quarter, and in the fourth, the three balls quarterback Matthew Stafford did send his way ended up incomplete or intercepted.
Bush, who recorded just 31 yards on 12 carries, was sent to the bench in the fourth quarter while third-string running back Theo Riddick, better known for his special teams work, played instead.
While the omission of Bush was interesting, the Lions largely staying away from Johnson in the last half of the game proved more puzzling considering Johnson’s ridiculously high output in the first half.
Despite the drastic discrepancy in passes thrown to Johnson, though, Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz said the Lions did not go away from Johnson, the NFL’s undisputed number one wide receiver, in the second half Sunday.
“We weren’t going away from him,” Schwartz said. “We threw the ball to him in two critical situations. One was a third and goal, and they doubled him, as we expect. We still threw the ball to him. He wasn’t able to get it down. The other one was on the ball we got intercepted late in the game, which was a repeat of the play we had scored to him earlier in the game.
“Really not a lot of plays on offense through that third quarter and I think they used up about eight minutes of the fourth quarter on that one drive, but he stayed in the game plan,” Schwartz continued. “They were running a lot of the same coverages. We even sort of forced the ball to him a couple of times, ended up with one incompletion and then one play that we got intercepted when we were only down three points.”
In the third quarter, the Lions had enough time on offense for Stafford to target Bush twice, Bell once, Kris Durham twice and Jeremy Ross once, while Johnson did not see a single pass. In the fourth, Pittsburgh did dominate time of possession, but on the final drive of the game, Stafford threw to Johnson just once while targeting Kevin Ogletree twice and Durham three times.
As for the benching of Bush, Schwartz attributed that move to giving the first-stringer a rest and employing a running back with a style that seemed to work better in the rainy conditions.
“We didn’t have Joique at that time, he had gone out of the game, and Reggie had been taking a lot of reps,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to take a little bit of that load off of him.”
The end of the fourth quarter seems a bizarre time to sit one of the team’s best players for rest, especially considering Bush had only 12 carries and has had more than that (including 20-plus in five games) in all but one game this season. Despite the apparent oddity of benching Bush with the Lions behind in a close game, Schwartz insisted that using Riddick instead was not related to Bush’s earlier fumbles.
“That was early in the game,” Schwartz said. “We’re not all of a sudden going to pull him out late in the game on that one … That had nothing to do with it. Now, that being said, we do need to do a better job of protecting the ball because we got away with another fumble early on. We were able to get up and get the ball snapped before they got a look at it.”
Schwartz added that while ball security is key, punishing a player for fumbling by cutting his playing time could be counterproductive, especially for someone with a running style like Bush.
“We want to take care of the football, but … we don’t want to be scared also,” Schwartz said. “If a running back’s scared of fumbling, he’s never going to make a yard. If you run with two hands over it like Larry Csonka, you’re not going to make a whole lot of Reggie Bush plays. There’s a fine line there.”
Schwartz said that, aside from giving Bush a rest, he used Riddick because he thought Riddick’s style, like that of Joique Bell, had worked better in the game, while Bush fumbled and lost his footing on at least one occasion.
“Style-wise, it was a good game for Joique, and Joique was being productive,” Schwartz said. “In horse racing [Reggie] wouldn’t be called a mudder. He’s an explosively quick guy, and he’s better on a fast track – I’m sure Barry Sanders probably went through a lot of that here – where Joique is a little different style runner and was having effectiveness. We get those guys different reps anyway and try to feature both of them.”
Bell, who left the game with an injury and is day-to-day, was the game’s leading rusher with 49 yards on nine carries.
For whatever reason – play calls, Pittsburgh’s defense, the execution by the players themselves – Bush and Johnson did not make the impact they usually do for the Lions, and their timely absences played a big role in the loss Sunday.