Lions: Calvin Johnson needs some help

Nate Burleson, left, and other receivers not Calvin Johnson, right, haven't been much help deep. Mike Carter/US Presswire

Based on national discussion of the Detroit Lions during their 2-3 start, and the hand-wringing about their downfield passing game, you might be surprised to learn a few things.

First, the presumably punchless Lions are averaging 319.8 passing yards per game, the second-highest total in the NFL.

Second, receiver Calvin Johnson ranks fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (558), ninth in receptions (35) and first in receptions of 20 or more yards (12). At that pace, Johnson would smash the career-high totals he compiled last season in receptions (96), yards (1,681) and 20+-yard receptions (32).

So if the Lions are piling up yards this season, mostly on passes to their top weapon, what exactly has been the problem? I think it's fair to look at what has, and hasn't, happened around Johnson this season as a primary culprit.

Johnson has caught 60 percent of quarterback Matthew Stafford's throws that traveled 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. The problem, as the chart shows, is there has been considerable falloff beyond Johnson. Stafford has completed only 12 of 39 such throws to the rest of his receivers. Six have been dropped, including four by receiver Titus Young.

Tight end Tony Scheffler caught a 57-yard pass in Sunday's comeback victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, but plays like that have been a rarity for the Lions this season. No. 2 receiver Nate Burleson is averaging 8.6 yards per reception. Young has only 11 catches for 123 yards, and 46 of them came on a tipped Hail Mary pass in Week 3.

If we take away Scheffler's 57-yard pass and Young's Hail Mary grab, the Lions' top three downfield complements to Johnson have averaged 8.5 yards on their other 45 receptions.

The biggest disappointment in the group has been Young, a second-round draft pick in 2011 who struggled through some maturity issues but had, by all accounts, an excellent training camp and preseason. He has been playing through a knee injury that has limited his practice time, but coach Jim Schwartz stopped short of blaming it for the downturn in his production. The injury, for example, didn't have much to do with Young dropping a long pass that would have gone for a touchdown Sunday against the Eagles.

"I think that he's working very hard to put it behind him," Schwartz said. "But, you know, we don't make any excuses for Sundays."

Some of this discussion is irrelevant against a Chicago Bears defense that uses its Cover 2 scheme to limit downfield passing as well as any team in the NFL. But suffice it to say, the Lions have been better at finding ways to get Johnson the ball this season than they have his presumably less-covered teammates. I would suggest it's a primary reason Johnson has only one touchdown this season, and it'll have to change if the Lions want to make a run at the playoffs.