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Turning Point, Week 14: Megatron rolls out and dominates Bucs

Calvin Johnson caught eight of nine targets for 158 yards and one touchdown Sunday in the Detroit Lions' 34-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was his second straight game of at least eight catches, 140 receiving yards and one touchdown. [Getty Images]
Calvin Johnson caught eight of nine targets for 158 yards and one touchdown Sunday in the Detroit Lions' 34-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was his second straight game of at least eight catches, 140 receiving yards and one touchdown. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 8, 2014

When the Detroit Lions weren't pouncing on Josh McCown like he was a wounded wildebeest, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were methodically gouging the Buccaneers defense.

Of the eight times the duo connected Sunday in the Lions' 34-17 dismantling of the Bucs (2-11), it did the most damage on a first-quarter touchdown strike and a third-quarter 53-yard finisher that set up what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.

When Johnson split the Buccaneers' two deep safeties — Bradley McDougald and Dashon Goldson — to catch the long pass, Tampa Bay was already teetering. Mike Evans' touchdown catch at the end of the second quarter brought the team to within 17-10, but for the seventh straight game it failed to score any points on its first possession of the second half and punted.

As soon as it got its hands on the football, the Lions offense challenged the Buccaneers' zone defense downfield. One way to beat a Cover 2 defense is to attack the middle of the field; on this play, Johnson just decided to outrun the whole thing.

When he came down with the football, he took the Buccaneers' chances of winning down with it, as their win probability fell from 21 percent to 13 percent, according to advancedfootballanalytics.com. Any hope for a comeback disintegrated in the very moment when the Lions went from their own 39-yard line to inside Tampa Bay's 10.

How was Johnson able to run past the defense? As they did against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving, the Lions patiently attacked the Buccaneers beforehand with shorter, sharp passes.

The Lions' first pass attempt of the game offered a glimpse into how they thought they could beat the Buccaneers. Here's a closer look at the play.

In a play nearly identical to one former Buccaneers cornerback Donnie Abraham and I broke down in Thursday's Scouting Report, the Lions come out in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers) and in the shotgun formation. The players to watch are Johnson, lined up to the far right, and Reggie Bush, lined up next to Stafford in the backfield. Linebacker Orie Lemon's movement will affect where Stafford wants to go with the ball. If he charges toward The Player Known More for Being Kim Kardashian's Ex-Boyfriend, he'll leave Johnson, who is running a hitch route, open.

Lemon doesn't abandon his zone, so Stafford is forced to look elsewhere, which he didn't have to do against the Bears because they often sent a linebacker from that side of the field in to blitz. Linebacker Danny Lansanah watches Stafford's eyes the whole way and breaks toward Johnson when Stafford begins throwing in his direction. Stafford holds onto the ball, however, and because Lansanah vacated his zone over the middle, Eric Ebron is open. Stafford eludes pressure and hits Ebron for a 5-yard gain.

On a 3rd-and-10 on their next possession, the Lions need to pick up a bigger chunk of yards, so instead of having Johnson run a hitch, they have him run a skinny post about 15 yards deep. The skinny post — which is a route that is run toward the goal posts just like a typical post but is broken off sooner — allows Johnson to sit in the zone behind the linebackers and just in front of the safeties. Stafford drops three steps and fires the ball to Johnson, who hauls it in for his first reception of the game.

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Five plays later, on 2nd-and-7, Stafford hits Johnson again on the skinny post. The Buccaneers look as though they're going to play two safeties deep, but after the snap they send one up to defend against the run and leave one deep.

This means that cornerback Johnthan Banks is one-on-one with Johnson on the outside and won't be getting any help. Johnson runs 8 yards downfield before cutting in toward the middle in front of Banks and safety Major Wright. It's a 15-yard pickup and another first down for the Lions.

The other key to this play is the fake handoff, which freezes the linebackers and opens a window for Stafford to throw through.

A 13-yard completion to Golden Tate and an incompletion sets up 2nd-and-goal for the Lions from the 6-yard line, where they again get Johnson one-on-one with Banks. If you watched the Bears and Lions on Thanksgiving, then you remember that Stafford successfully threw a fade pass to Johnson 6 yards out from the end zone.

Sure enough, the Lions try it again. It's a touchdown the moment Banks turns his hips to start running. When he does, he loses leverage and the ability to make meaningful contact.

Stafford begins throwing before Johnson even reaches the 4-yard line. If Banks initiates contact with Johnson before turning his hips, then he might be able to disrupt the timing of the pass, which — considering Johnson's size advantage (3 inches taller, 50 pounds heavier) — is Banks' best chance of preventing the touchdown.

And with that score, the Lions, who never trailed Sunday, were on their way to their first win in December since 2011 (a span of nine games), while the Bucs were on their way to their eighth loss in nine games.

Coming Thursday on tampabay.com: a scouting report of the 4-8-1 Carolina Panthers, who are coming off a stunning 41-10 shellacking of the Saints in New Orleans.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tbassfootball.

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