Stafford to Megatron: Ticking timebomb or dud?

Oct 24, 2012, 11:29 PM | Updated: Oct 25, 2012, 9:00 am
After leading all receivers in touchdowns in 2011 with 16, Detroit's Calvin Johnson has just one this season. (AP)

Last season, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford connected with receiver Calvin Johnson 96 times for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. After six games this season, Stafford and “Megatron” have yet to connect for a single touchdown.

With Seattle playing Detroit on Sunday, Seahawks fans are left wondering whether these two are a one-hit wonder or a combination that is about to explode on the Seahawks defense.

Stafford is headed for another 4,500-yard season but he’s also on track to throw more interceptions than touchdowns. At this point last year, he had thrown 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. His numbers this year, five touchdowns and six interceptions, make him one of the six NFL quarterbacks with more INTs than TDs. Two of those six are rookies – Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill. The rest are Tony “The Gunslinger” Romo, Cam “I’m an emotional wreck” Newton, and Matt “people cheer when I get a concussion” Cassel.

Not good company.

It’s the same story for the other end of that connection. Johnson’s numbers project another 1,600-yard season but he has only one touchdown reception and that was delivered by backup quarterback Shaun Hill. The only people more frustrated than Lions coach Jim Schwartz are the multitude of fantasy footballers who drafted Megatron with their first pick. In most preseason fantasy draft projections he was the only receiver deemed to be top-10 worthy and was ranked ahead of a lot of running backs and quarterbacks.

So what’s the problem? Some of us are wondering whether this connection is an inevitability that will occur at some point. With Stafford’s arm and Megatron’s measurables, it’s bound to happen eventually, right? Johnson is 6-feet-5, 236 pounds and has sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. He can stand flat-footed and stretch his arms to a height of 8-feet-8 and his vertical leap is 45 inches. That means that he can reach anything that former 7-foot-2 NBA center Shaquille O’Neal can reach. Last year, ESPN’s “Sports Science” determined that because of Johnson’s height, arm length, speed and jumping ability, his catching range is roughly the size of a two-car garage.

One explanation was explored on “Monday Night Football” by former NFL head coach Jon Gruden. I like the way Gruden’s mind works and his explanation and interpretation of the game is top-notch. Gruden suggested that the Lions are facing more zone coverage this season as opposed to the man-to-man coverage they saw last year. Makes sense considering Johnson is such a physically dominant player and perfectly built to win any one-on-one battle.

But do all of his measurables help him sit down between two zone defenders? Probably not. As a matter of fact, a receiver like New England’s Wes Welker, who is on the opposite end of the physical spectrum, is more suited to beat zone coverage. Welker is small, quick, takes short strides and can stop on a dime – all attributes that allowed him to catch 122 passes last year, mostly sitting down between zone defenders.

The Stafford-to-Megatron connection is bound to get going at some point. Both players are too good to be kept down for long. But I don’t see it happening against the Seahawks defense and especially not against two physical and rangy cornerbacks like Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. If the Seahawks do decide to play man-to-man defense, it will be a fun matchup to watch. But safety help over the top would be a safer bet just in case that big monster shakes loose a few times.

If the Hawks are able to neutralize Johnson – quick, name another Lions receiver not named Megatron. OK, Nate Burleson. That’s only because he went to O’Dea High School here in Seattle and used to play for the Seahawks. But he’s out for the year with a broken leg, so if the Seahawks can contain Johnson, I like their chances against the Lions’ running game and the rest of the receiving corps.

Whether defensive coordinator Gus Bradley decides on zone or man coverage or both, the best pass defense is a good pass rush. After the first five games, the Seahawks had recorded 16 sacks and were on a pace for more than 40. But it took them 59 minutes to sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady two games ago, and against the 49ers they sacked Alex Smith twice but didn’t even get a whiff of him in the second half.

Sacks, pressures, batted down passes and hurries will make Stafford less likely to be able to throw into that two-car garage.

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