By: Will Burchfield
“He can break tackles. He can make you miss. He can outrun you. He can run over you,” Jim Caldwell said of David Johnson, and the head coach was far from finished.
“Then you couple that with the fact that out of the backfield…he’s caught over 80 balls. That’s a real strength of his. He’s a very good route runner,” Caldwell went on. “There’s probably not anything on the route tree that he can’t run and run well.
“So, yeah, he creates all kinds of matchup problems for you.”
The question for the Lions is simple: Can they come up with any solutions? The fate of their season-opener likely hinges on it.
There’s no stopping Johnson, of course. Not entirely. He’s too versatile to be wiped off the map. He was held under 100 yards from scrimmage just once last season, and that was in the final game of the year when he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter.
When Johnson gets his touches, he inevitably does damage.
“It’s a tricky equation,” said safety Glover Quin. “It’ll take a lot of study, a lot of preparation to make sure that we’re in tune to the game and clicking on all cylinders and in a good rhythm to try and slow him down.”
The Lions like to say facing the likes of Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah in practice has helped prepare them for Johnson. But Johnson is a different beast.
“He has the entire route tree. He’ll run deep, he’ll run slants, he’ll run unders, he runs all the different things,” said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. “He runs most routes that are receiver routes, so when you split a safety out on him or a linebacker out on him they haven’t covered those routes very often. That’s what makes him tough.”
With Johnson in the backfield, the Lions can stack the box. Of course, that will leave them vulnerable against the pass. And the Cardinals have a pair of deep threats in Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown.
“You want to try to limit the space just in case he does break through the line and you gotta make those tackles. But then you can’t play too shallow because they’ve got speed guys on the outside who are rolling,” said Quin.
The linebackers will certainly have their hands full with Johnson. When he’s not running with the ball, he’s running to receive it. And he’s lethal after the catch.
Rookie Jarrad Davis will have to prove more capable in coverage than he did last month against the Patriots. Veterans Tahir Whitehead and Paul Worrilow will have to do their best to keep Johnson in front of them.
Said rookie linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, “We just gotta make sure we’re solid up front, everyone’s filling their gaps and hustling to the ball. He’s elusive, the more hands you can get to him the more you can slow him down.”
On the defensive line, tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata will be prove critical in smothering Johnson before he gets going. And the D-ends — Ziggy Ansah and Cornelius Washington, in particular — will have to do their best to keep him from bouncing it outside.
The Lions could be best served by trying to take away Johnson’s run game, with the hope that Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson can handle their responsibilities on the outside. It’s all about minimizing Johnson’s impact.
“They have a lot of other weapons as well, but he’s one that can get you a number of different ways,” Caldwell said.