|Will Calvin Johnson get any help from a depleted Lions WR corps this Sunday in Green Bay? (US Presswire)|
When the Lions take the field on Sunday in Green Bay, their WR depth chart will look something like this:
- Calvin Johnson -- 2011 All-Pro, NFL's leading receiver this season.
- Mike Thomas -- Three catches, one touchdown since being traded to the Lions in Week 9.
- Brian Robiskie -- Active twice, no catches.
- Kassim Osgood -- Special Teams' contributor, no catches this season
- Kris Durham -- Practice squad player elevated to active roster this week.
- Lance Long -- Signed to active roster Tuesday, had been running a fitness center since training camp.
The list makes you think of that old Sesame Street tune: “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong.”
Since Johnson's skill and achievements dwarf those of his fellow receivers, it stands to reason that the man whose 1,428 receiving yards put him just 420 yards short of Jerry Rice's single-season record would become the focal point of the offense, right?
Not so fast.
If you ask Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz and OC Scott Linehan about the talent level of their receiver corps, they'll admit that the loss of Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and Titus Young (at least officially) to injury has changed some aspects of the passing game. That said, they also wholeheartedly believe the Lions' offense can be as effective without the trio of injured stars in the lineup.
“We expect to operate at full capacity on offense,” Schwartz said “All those [new receivers] have credentials; all those guys can make plays. We have (a) quarterback that can get them the ball. We expect all those guys to play and play well. … I expect this game we'll even do better [from a receiving standpoint] than we were last game.”
Linehan's certainty that his offense can shuffle the depth chart, add new pieces and still move the ball against the Packers' mirrors that of his boss.
“They're all guys that are in the NFL for a reason,” he said. “[Durham, Thomas, and Robiskie] have been drafted, and been with other teams. They all have unique skill sets. [Thomas has] speed and we're going to play him some in some different positions.
"Robiskie's been a guy that's a very good route runner, a student of the game, excellent hands. And then Durham, we had very good grades on him coming out of college and he ended up going to Seattle, and then, when he was available, brought him in knowing that he was going to give us a receiver with size.
"To be able have a receiver 6-5' on the outside that can build speed down the field, I think gives us another dimension that we haven't had.”
C'mon, that's just spin, you're saying after reading Schwartz' and Linehan's words. There's no way that this group of receivers can compete with the Packers with at Lambeau Field, where the Lions haven't won since the first George Bush was in the White House.
Again, not so fast.
Before Lions' fans prematurely write off their team's chances on the Frozen Tundra, remember that while Green Bay may be in the thick of the NFC North race, they're far from the dominant team that opponents are used to seeing. Here's why:
Green Bay's pass defense isn't anything to write home about: If you look at the statistical comparison between the two teams, you'll find that their respective pass defenses are right next to each other in the NFL rankings. The Pack allow an average of 233.8 passing yards per game, just two-tenths of a yard better than the 240 passing yards the Lions allow on average. Those numbers may lead to a shootout, but the Lions should be able to compete.
The Lions don't live by WRs alone: Don't forget that Detroit's second and third-most targeted receivers against the Colts in Week 13 were TEs Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. If they need to, the Lions can use either Thomas or Scheffler in the slot, and still use the four-receiver looks that Linehan dials up when he wants to run a high-octane offense.
The new-look receiver corps will be new to the Packers, too: NFL teams rely intensely on scouting reports and film of receivers for game preparations. That film doesn't exist this week. The Packers can scheme all they want against the tendencies they've seen from QB Matthew Stafford, but they haven't seen what Durham, Robiskie, and Thomas will look like in their new roles. Until Packers' defenders get a read on what the Lions are doing Sunday, Detroit should have a small advantage.
Johnson is still Johnson: He is riding a four-game touchdown streak, and had a career high 13 catches against a Colts' defense that played what was the equivalent of a box-and-one defense against him -- except Johnson was in the “box,” and the “one” covered everyone else. He's the great equalizer, plain and simple.
If you're still looking for a reason that the Lions could pull off the upset Sunday night, consider this: Johnson is comfortable with the group of receivers he'll share the huddle with. While the losses of Broyles and Burleson haven't been easy to take, they're almost mitigated by the removal of Young's cancerous attitude. That leaves the door open for new faces to shine, and Johnson seems at ease with the effort he's seen from his teammates.
“My confidence is very high,” he said. “We've seen what [Robiskie, Thomas, and Durham] can do in practice. If that stuff translates to the field Sunday, we could have some very special things out of those guys.”
Follow Lions reporter John Kreger on Twitter at @CBSLions and @JohnKreger