Packer defense avoids Calvin Johnson
GREEN BAY—Word that Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was on the inactive list spread through the Green Bay Packers locker room about 90 minutes before the noon kickoff Sunday.
All week, the Packers pooh-poohed the knee injury that limited Johnson in practice and caused him to be listed as questionable Friday and went about their business implementing a plan defensive coordinator Dom Capers had for defending the NFL's most talented receiver.
Instead of feeling relief that the 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver known as "Megatron" was not going to play, there was an air of disappointment—at least where the defensive backs were concerned—that they would not be able to match their skill against the best the NFL has to offer.
"It was a big challenge, a big guy, a Pro Bowl guy, " said cornerback Sam Shields, who was going to spend most of the day shadowing Johnson. "That was my challenge for me and I was ready.
"Things happen. You just have to move on and play the same. I went in like I was going to play him."
Nevertheless, it wasn't the same. Not even close.
The Packers held the Lions out of the end zone until the final minutes in their 22-9 victory and gave up a good portion of quarterback Matthew Stafford's 262 yards passing to their tight ends, who combined for eight catches for 114 yards.
Members of the Lions' patchwork receiver unit, which also was missing starter Nate Burleson (broken arm), caught 9 of 18 passes targeted to them for 93 yards and a touchdown. The lone score came on Kris Durham's 13-yard catch with 2 minutes 6 seconds left in the game.
"I felt that we played well today," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Obviously, I think everyone felt his presence wasn't there on the field. We know we'll see him next time, but we still had to go out and do what we planned to do.
"And that's to get the win."
Capers' plan was to play with five defensive backs most of the day and continue to use Williams in the slot. In some previous games, Williams had followed Johnson wherever he went, but with Casey Hayward out Williams has proved to be the only player who can handle the inside position.
So, with Williams in the slot, Shields was going to play against Johnson anytime he lined up outside regardless of the side. The two safeties, Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings, were going to provide help over the top most of the day.
It would have been a great chance for Shields, a free agent after this year and the Packers' best corner through the first month of the season, to prove he could be a stopper. The Packers would love to see him blossom the way Williams did during the Super Bowl XLV season, and playing well against Johnson would have been a step in that direction.
But it didn't materialize and Shields stayed on the right side and Davon House on the left.
"We want to play against their best, especially Sam, he was going to follow him around, so it kind of sucks for Sam more than anything," House said. "It was his time to show he is that guy. And why not a great test like playing against Calvin?
"But in the back of our minds it was, 'OK, it's good that he's not playing, it's more important for us to win.'"
Other than not moving Shields around, the Packers kept the same game plan and applied it to the Lions' remaining players.
The part that had to be most enlightening for Capers was the play of his front seven. Had Johnson played, Stafford still would have had to work to get the ball to him because of the pressure in his face.
The Packers sacked Stafford five times and knocked him down five other times. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown, good for a passer rating of 89.8.
"They have guys that bring a lot of pressure in rushing the passer and they were doing a good job on the back end, so I had to hold onto the ball a little bit," Stafford said. "I thought our offensive line played good, but that is a big defensive front in the middle and we struggled to run the ball today."
Capers made a huge change in the lineup, replacing 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry with Mike Neal at the left outside linebacker position. It marked the second time in Perry's 10-game career that he had not started.
Neal had an extremely active game with six tackles, including his first sack of the season, and one other quarterback hit. What's more, he did a good job setting the edge and making it more difficult for Lions running back Reggie Bush to get around the corner.
The Packers' strategy was to funnel Bush inside and it worked. A week after rushing 18 times for 139 yards and a touchdown against Chicago, he was held to 44 yards on 13 carries and four receptions for 25 yards.
"Those guys up front did an excellent job beating the guys in front of them and got to the quarterback," Williams said. "We gave them some different looks today, a lot of eyes on most of the guys, and broke and made tackles.
"We executed the game plan."
Despite not starting, Perry's presence was needed in the third quarter after linebacker Clay Matthews suffered what a league source said was a broken thumb. Perry responded to being benched by compiling five tackles, including two sacks, and a forced fumble.
If Matthews has to miss time with the thumb injury, Perry will need to continue to play that way for the defense to succeed. The fact Neal played the way he did provided the Packers hope they might finally get pass rush help opposite Matthews.
"I don't know how many tackles I had, but I just know I kept hearing my name called," Neal said. "So it was enough. I just need to keep that up, keep the pressure on."
As for the final outcome, the Packers were happy to be sitting 2-2, especially with a road game against defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore next week. They will get another shot at Johnson on Thanksgiving Day in a far more hostile environment.
He'll be waiting.