DETROIT – It was the game plan from the start, the first thing the Detroit Lions knew they needed to do Sunday against Arizona. Sure, the Cardinals have Larry Fitzgerald and a bunch of talented receivers, but David Johnson was the player they focused on first.
And focused on most.
Unlike so many teams in the NFL, the Lions were successful in keeping Johnson contained and from hurting them at all. His 23 rushing yards were the fewest of his career when he had 10 or more carries. The 2.09 yards per rush is the fourth-lowest average of his career.
While his 68 receiving yards were the sixth-highest total of his career, more than a third of it came on one play – a 24-yard catch that ended up with Johnson injured. He played only one play after the catch – a rush he fumbled on. He then left the game and did not return.
But how did the Lions do it? How did they manage to do something so many other teams have failed to do – contain Johnson?
“Just every guy doing their job, per man. Everybody taking their gap,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “Our corners, I compliment them. They tackled very well on the edges and forced David Johnson a lot back inside.
“Usually he’s making a lot of cutback runs, getting on defense’s edges, and [Sunday] we kind of contained that.”
That, Spence said, was the emphasis of Detroit’s defensive game plan throughout the week. Limit Johnson as much as possible. Keep him in the middle of the field instead of bouncing outside on runs. And make sure to make contact with him.
This was evident in reviewing all 20 plays where Johnson either rushed the ball, caught it or was targeted. Ezekiel Ansah, Anthony Zettel and Jeremiah Valoaga all set a contain edge on various Johnson rushes, keeping him from bouncing outside.
On play No. 13 for Johnson, he clearly contemplated it against Valoaga, but he was in position to tackle him for a loss, so Johnson kept running forward and got only a 3-yard gain.
Detroit also did a good job of rushing across the line – in particularly Zettel early in the game – to keep him from having any chance of going anywhere but up the middle, where Spence, Haloti Ngata and A'Shawn Robinson were waiting and winning one-on-one matchups.
Arizona seemed to adjust throughout the game, trying to scheme to get Johnson outside of the tackles, including with a draw that had an offensive lineman as a blocker right in front of him. But even when that happened, the Lions closed quickly. Arizona also tried a toss at one point and a variety of screens. Rare was the chance for Johnson to have an opening – in part because of the instincts of rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis and the tackling of cornerbacks Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden.
“I just felt we had a great game plan,” Lawson said. “We had a great assignment. We played assignment football and everybody stayed in their gap.
“They are going to make corners come up and tackle and I felt we did a great job containing him, don’t let him get outside. That’s what we were able to do.”
Johnson started having more success as the game wore on – especially as Arizona started using him more as a receiver. The Lions overran Carson Palmer on one screen, leaving Johnson open for a gain. The 24-yard gain had Ansah in coverage, and Johnson outran him on a well-placed ball by Palmer.
Even on his final play – play No. 20, where he got injured fumbling – he broke contain after a missed tackle in the backfield but was chased down by Robinson, who forced the fumble Davis recovered.
“I could just tell you that any time you hold a team to 45 yards rushing, it’s a collective effort,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think because our guys ran to the ball well. I think because they took care of their gaps. They played aggressively, and I think those are the things that made a difference.
“And regardless of who we play, I think if you perform your duties properly within the context of the defense, that good things happen.”