By Ashley Scoby
@AshleyScoby

In a technical sense, Calvin Johnson was a member of the Detroit Lions for the entirety of Sunday’s 28-19 loss to Minnesota. But for all intents and purposes, he was invisible for long stretches.

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Detroit jumped out to a 7-0 lead within four minutes, mostly because of Johnson. Matthew Stafford went deep to the All-Pro receiver on the third play of the game – a bomb that gained 46 yards and the optimism of the Lions fans in attendance. Four plays later, Johnson nabbed a touchdown from one yard out.

He wouldn’t catch another pass until 2:58 remained in the fourth quarter. By that point, the Lions had blown their 14-3 and 17-6 leads, and were down 28-17.

Johnson was targeted twice in the second quarter – once on 3rd-and-16 (a play that any defense could safely assume is going to Johnson) and once on first-down.

During a third quarter where Detroit ran six offensive plays, Johnson wasn’t targeted even once. The team gained zero yards in that quarter. A team in crisis, and imploding offensively, never went to its most talented player.

Johnson finished with five catches for 86 yards, with more than half of those yards coming on the first drive of the game, and the rest coming when it was already too late.

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When the Lions offense is successful, it’s utilizing its talent. Even when Johnson doesn’t catch his targets, he can often  draw defensive pass interference or holding penalties. He did so on 3rd-and-three in the fourth quarter – but again, it all came too late.

“There’s going to be times where they (Vikings defense) are going to make you look bad, I think I mentioned that earlier in the week,” head coach Jim Caldwell said of the offensive struggles. “That happens, but we’ve got to be able to counter that with a couple of big plays to kind of slow it down, particularly some of the stunts and those kinds of things. We weren’t able to do it.”

And although Johnson has continued to say the team can turn it around, and that he’s not angry about his lack of targets, the frustration is obvious.

Johnson knows that continuing to hand the ball off to backs on third-and-long, or dinking and dunking without ever testing the deep ball, isn’t going to get this offense going. Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have consistently said that going to their most talented receiver is easier said than done because the defense isn’t giving it to them. The NFL never has been, and probably never will be, about patiently waiting for the opponent to stop covering your best players. Forcing your will upon another team may be high risk, but it usually brings about higher rewards – like the 57-yard pass to Johnson that effectively won the Lions their only game last week, and the 46-yard pass to him at the beginning of the game Sunday.

Detroit may not want to go the “high-risk/high-reward” route for this offense. But if “no reward at all” is the only other option, the Lions could be staring at an even longer season if they don’t make changes.

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“You can’t let frustration override it,” Johnson said. “It’s encouraging that we can move the ball like we were, it just takes us making big plays. When we make big plays, we score touchdowns. If we’re not making big plays, it’s tough to nickel and dime all the way down the field.”