PHILADELPHIA -- It was funny but totally understandable.
A week ago, as he prepared for the Arizona Cardinals, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis declared Larry Fitzgerald “probably still the best receiver in the league.” A week later, Davis was asked about Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, this week’s challenge for the Eagles defense.
“Well, he's 6-foot-5 and his range, he's got a huge vertical,” Davis said. “So his radius, his catch radius, is second to none. There are similar players that are big bodied, go up and get the ball away from their body. They snatch it well out of the air. Fitzgerald is one of the top in the NFL, but Calvin is the best when you watch him game in and game out, what he does and what he can do at that size/speed ratio. He’s the best.”
You can’t blame Davis for being haunted by the video he’s studying in a given week, even if it means Brandon Marshall will likely be the best receiver in the league while the Eagles are preparing for the Bears in a few weeks.
There are pluses and minuses to facing Fitzgerald and Johnson in consecutive weeks. Preparing and dealing with Fitzgerald can help the Eagles defenders be ready for the challenge of dealing with Johnson. On the other hand, Davis’ scheme for dealing with big, talented wideouts is right there on Sunday’s game tape for the Lions staff to dissect.
“There will be some carryover,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “We installed some certain things for big, productive receivers like Fitz. There will obviously be some carryover this week. But it’s not all going to be the same.”
So how did Davis defend Fitzgerald? Let’s just say it took a village. If teams with a shutdown corner try to match him on Johnson all over the field, Davis took the opposite approach. Nine different Eagles had primary coverage on Fitzgerald during the course of the game. Along with the obvious guys -- defensive backs Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Nate Allen and Patrick Chung -- Davis had all four of his linebackers cover Fitzgerald at different times.
Barwin, especially, lined up across from Fitzgerald as a cornerback. Usually, he was in the slot, but on a couple plays Barwin was basically an outside corner. His job was to jam Fitzgerald, disrupt his route and his timing, then usually give him up to a defensive back.
Trent Cole did surprisingly well on the few times he dropped into coverage with Fitzgerald. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks ran with him on several plays down the middle before quarterback Carson Palmer found Fitzgerald for a first-down completion in the fourth quarter.
Williams slapped one ball away as Fitzgerald attempted to catch it. Fletcher and Allen did a good job limiting his yardage on quick outs. Boykin made the single biggest play, leaping to bat a pass away in the end zone just before the Cardinals’ final touchdown. Chung blanketed Fitzgerald in the end zone on the play in which Roc Carmichael drew a pass interference call at the 1-yard line.
Fitzgerald’s biggest play, of course, was his 43-yard touchdown catch on a third-and-20 play. Boykin had excellent coverage on the play, but he and Chung collided just as the ball arrived. They went down in a heap, allowing Fitzgerald to sprint the last 26 yards untouched.
Palmer threw the ball 41 times. He targeted Fitzgerald eight times, completing five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. That’s not exactly shutting a receiver down, but if the Eagles can limit Johnson to that kind of damage, they’ll have a very real chance of beating Detroit. Johnson is that good.
“The combination of his size and his speed and explosiveness, I don’t think there’s anybody else like that in this league,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “He can just go get the football.”
In other words, Johnson is the best there is. This week, at least.