DETROIT — For a while this season, Calvin Johnson was so unstoppable he was an NFL MVP candidate.
A wide receiver has never won the award and won't this year because Johnson couldn't maintain the two-touchdown-a-game pace he set in the first four games. But the Detroit Lions' wide receiver nonetheless has blossomed in his fifth season into the NFL's most dangerous downfield receiving weapon.
Johnson will be a primary focus of Green Bay's defense today as he leads the resurgent Lions (7-3) against the Packers (10-0) at Ford Field.
"When you're 6-5, 235 pounds, 36-inch arms, 4.3 (40 time), there's only one of those guys walking around," said Joe Whitt, the Packers' cornerbacks coach.
Johnson, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2007 draft, steadily improved through his first four years and who this season has harnessed his rare physical skills to their fullest. He has the size of a tight end but the speed of an elite receiver, plus a 6-foot-10 wingspan and a 42½-inch vertical jump.
He made his first Pro Bowl last season (77 catches, 12 touchdowns), and this year he's blowing away that performance — after 10 games he leads the NFL in touchdown catches (11), is third in yards (974) and fourth in receptions (59).
The Lions have the NFL's No. 3 scoring offense, and Johnson is the biggest reason. Quarterback Matthew Stafford usually takes several deep shots a game, throwing it up for Johnson whether he's single- or double-covered, and has a good shot at coming up with a couple of big gainers a game. Johnson's size and jumping ability also make him a great target in the red zone — Stafford doesn't consider him covered in such situations, no matter what.
"This quarterback trusts his guy can go up and make the play," said Darren Perry, the Packers' safeties coach. "So regardless of whether you're in position or out of position, you can expect the ball down the field."
The Packers have faced some big receivers this year — New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham is a little bigger (6-6¼, 260) and San Diego's Vincent Jackson (6-5, 230) is about Johnson's size, but neither has anything like Johnson's speed and jumping ability.
The Packers sometimes match cornerback Tramon Williams with the opponent's best receiver, though whether they'll do that with Johnson remains to be seen. They might feel fine with cornerback Charles Woodson covering Johnson at times, as long as the 35-year-old Woodson has help over the top — though it's a good bet the Packers usually will have help over the top against Johnson no matter who's covering him.
Woodson is the taller of the two cornerbacks (6-1 to Williams' 5-11), Williams is the faster of the two, though neither is close to Johnson's physical dimensions. Williams' vertical jump (41 inches coming out of college) is of Johnson's caliber, but his highest jumping point will be well below Johnson's, as will safeties Morgan Burnett (6-1) and Charlie Peprah (5-11).
"You go back and look at the balls (Johnson) catches, it's usually because he's the first one up," Perry said. "That's the one thing you tell your guys — when that ball's up there, you have to be the first guy up, because the first guy up usually wins."
Added Peprah: "He's taller than you, he's bigger than you, he's faster than you, he can jump higher than you. You have to play to your strengths. Play the ball, try to slap the ball out of his hands, just be in position. No special secret, just do the best you can."
To simulate Johnson in practice, the Packers turned to the practice-squad player who's stood in for all the tall receivers they've played this year: Tori Gurley. The rookie from South Carolina measured 6-4 and 214 pounds at the scouting combine but says he's up to 220 pounds. He ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds, had a 33½-inch vertical and was a Division I basketball recruit coming out of high school.
In the lone full practice of this shortened week on Tuesday, Gurley played the part of Johnson, mostly running deep routes and going after jump balls.
"Oh, yeah, (it helps), Gurley's a good football player," Whitt said. "He doesn't have the speed Johnson has, but he can go up and track the ball and get it, and his catch radius is just like him. That's not just this week, but going against big receivers that are physical — (Gurley) is a good player, he's going to play for us one day. It's good to have him to go against."
Johnson has had his moments in recent years against the Packers, mostly in the red zone, though he hasn't consistently beaten them downfield. In five games over the previous three seasons, he caught seven touchdown passes and averaged 6.3 receptions and 79.6 yards a game vs. the Packers.
"He's an elite player in this league, and we'll treat him as such," Peprah said.