By Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

Matthew Stafford raised some eyebrows in June when he said the Lions might be harder to defend this season without Calvin Johnson.

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Less predictable. More versatile. More balanced.

All that.

The Colts, who are preparing to face the Lions in Sunday’s season-opener, don’t necessarily agree. In fact, coach Chuck Pagano was clear in his preference for game-planning against Detroit without Megatron.

“Heck of a lot better than it is with him,” Pagano said. “Calvin is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer as far as I’m concerned, or anybody in this organization is concerned. He’s a great, great football player and he’s a matchup nightmare, obviously.”

Even as his numbers dipped a bit in the 2015 season, Johnson remained one of the most lethal wide receivers in the game. He hauled in 88 catches for nine touchdowns and over 1,200 yards.

The man boasted every attribute one could hope for at his position, from his blazing speed to his massive frame to his soft hands to literally-you-name-it.

“We’re kind of excited [we] don’t have to battle him,” Pagano said.

Who could blame him?

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In the wake of Johnson’s retirement, Lions GM Bob Quinn signed Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin to help fortify the receiving core. Those two, along with Golden Tate, figure to give Matthew Stafford three dependable targets.

And the coaches continue to stress the importance of a balanced attack.

“I think some of the really good offenses I’ve been a part of have had multiple weapons. Multiple options in the pass game, multiple guys that can win versus man-coverage, win versus all sorts of different types of coverage,” said offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.

“We have weapons. We’ve got guys we can throw the ball to,” said Jim Caldwell.

Pagano acknowledged the same thing.

“They’re still a group of guys that can all play,” he said.

But there was a sense of courtesy in that remark, Pagano trying to redeem an obvious truth: the Lions receiving core without Johnson just isn’t as good. It’s no disrespect to Tate, Jones or Boldin, three capable players in their own right, but it’s a reminder of Johnson’s irreplaceability.

And it rebuffs the notion that the Lions are somehow better without him.

The coaches and players have all said the right things in the post-Megatron era. They’ve given Johnson his due while projecting confidence in his absence. It has come across as earnest and sincere.

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But the cart has seemed to overtake the horse recently regarding the team’s potential with a Hall of Fame receiver removed from the picture. If Pagano’s comments are any indication, it may be time to reel it in.