Detroit's Calvin Johnson has no peers today, and maybe not in history



When Ryan Clark was talking about Calvin Johnson earlier this week, he referred to the Detroit Lions wide receiver as "this Calvin Johnson," not the player the Steelers faced in 2009 in Detroit who was knocked out of the game early with a knee injury.

When Clark was asked the difference, he morphed into an explanation that was part awe, part reverential, talking about Johnson as though he is some robotic life form constructed with the best body parts of past great receivers. Which, of course, he just might be.

"He's the best receiver I've ever seen," Clark said. "He's a combination of all the greats in one. He has the long speed and jumping ability of a Randy Moss, but he's able to run after the catch like Steve Smith and has the hands like Jerry Rice. You put all those guys together and jumble them up, you get what Calvin Johnson is today. As far as the totality of his game, he's like nothing we've ever seen before as a receiver."

Megatron.

The nickname was given to him by former teammate and receiver Roy Williams, and it couldn't be more appropriate.

On the field, Johnson looks like the gigantic Transformers character, an unstoppable sentient robot capable of inflicting harm and damage on the mere mortals who try to stop him. Off the field, though, he is anything but the villainous creature -- a modest, humble superstar who doesn't like to talk about his wondrous achievements, of which there are many.

"When we look at Calvin we see a superhero," Lions receiver Nate Burleson said in an article in the Detroit Free Press. "When he looks at Calvin, he sees just another guy on the team trying to make the squad. There's no way a guy that talented, with those stats, with that playing ability, that money in his pocket, should show up for work and work harder than everybody."

"That's the first thing I noticed when we were in practice," said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, who played one season with the Lions in 2009. "This guy is one of the hardest workers on the field. When you watch film and you see a big guy coming back out of curl routes, that's impressive."

There are any number of talented players who come to Heinz Field to play the Steelers. And there have been more than several who have put on performances that have been impressively memorable. But it isn't often when a player of Johnson's magnitude -- his skill set, his physical gifts, his achievements -- comes to town and is accorded the respect, wonderment and downright awe as the Lions' seventh-year receiver.

When the Lions (6-3) face the Steelers (3-6) at 1 p.m. today, do not miss the opportunity to focus on Johnson and appreciate his talent. He is not only the best wide receiver in the National Football League, he could, quite possibly, be the best to ever play the game.

"He is as good as advertised," said Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery. "A lot of guys get a lot of hype that probably doesn't match up to their performance. But this guy, everything that is said about him is probably downplaying it. He's an awesome player."

'He's got everything'

It is easy to start a good argument about who is the best quarterback in the NFL -- Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning? And a subjective debate would likely ensue at just about every other position in football.

But there is no such debate when it comes to wide receiver. Johnson, literally and figuratively, is head and shoulders above them all.

He is 6 feet, 5 inches and 236 pounds, was clocked at 4.35 in the 2007 combine and has the mid-air body control of a gymnast. He had a franchise-record 16 touchdowns in 2011, an NFL-record 1,964 receiving yards in 2012 and might be having an even better year this season, leading the NFC with 904 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in eight games.

Through 100 games, only Hall of Famer Lance Alworth had more receiving yards than Johnson' (8,740). He may never catch Jerry Rice's record of 22,895 yards -- not unless he plays 19 years in the league, like Rice -- but he will easily pass Terrell Owens (15,934) for second place if he maintains his current pace.

Two weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys discovered how big a challenge Johnson can be when he caught 14 passes for 329 yards and one touchdown -- becoming only the sixth player in NFL history to have 300 receiving yards in a game and the first to do it in a game ending in regulation.

Last week, the Chicago Bears tried to cover Johnson with Charles Tillman, their Pro Bowl cornerback. But Johnson had six catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-19 victory.

"He's like that Madden character that you can create in the game," Tillman said. "He's tall, he's fast, he can catch. He's got quickness, he's got the speed, he's got the agility, the leaping ability, the extra boost. He's 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10."

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said teams have tried every manner of coverage on Johnson, and not much of it has worked. When Tomlin added, "We are going to take our swing at it," he said it with the same whimsical hope as someone buying a lottery ticket.

Indeed, Johnson said he has seen every imaginable coverage from an opposing defense. The craziest, though, he said was when two defensive backs lined up on him at the line of scrimmage, treating him like a gunner on a punt-coverage team.

"It wasn't even on the goal line," Johnson said. "I've had it out in the middle of the field."

In all likelihood, the Steelers will use cornerback Ike Taylor, who has shut down some of the league's best receivers, to cover Johnson. But they won't let him do it alone.

"To have a man that big, that strong, that fast, that's able to play that position and get the ball in his hands, it's a win-win situation for you," Clark said. "If two guys [are] on him, throw it up, he's probably to going to win that one. One guy, he's definitely going to win.

"That's the crazy thing -- you can stay with him, you can cover him, but the fight with Calvin Johnson comes once the ball is thrown. It's not about the separation he creates."

'He plays his size'

Since 2011, Johnson has more receiving yards (4,549), more touchdowns (30) and more catches of 25 yards or longer (45) than any receiver in the league. Only Wes Welker has more catches (293 to 271) in that time.

Since 2008, no other receiver is even close to his 7,984 receiving yards, 77 touchdowns and 77 catches of 25 yards or longer.

And while Rice played only with Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco, Johnson played with five different quarterbacks in his first three seasons with the Lions -- Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill. That was before he settled with Matthew Stafford, who has played every game since 2011.

"He plays his size," Cotchery said of Johnson. "It's rare. Even growing up playing basketball, you had a lot of big guys, but they really didn't play as big as they were. He's a big guy as a receiver and he plays his size. You throw the ball up, he's going to get it. You press him, he's going to beat the press. He's going to go across the middle. He's just a freak of nature."

He's Megatron.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac

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