Calvin Johnson's return benefits Matthew Stafford more than anyone

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions never want to be without Calvin Johnson. Not for a play, a quarter, a game or, as they were during the first half of the 2014 season, three straight weeks.

There is an interesting byproduct here, though, especially considering quarterback Matthew Stafford was still working out the final pieces of Joe Lombardi's offense as he also had to play for the first time in his career without his top target for a good chunk of time.

With Johnson hobbled, it forced Stafford to rely on his secondary parts, including his now-1A receiver Golden Tate, to try and move the Detroit offense in any significant fashion. The Lions have struggled offensively, ranking No. 20 in yards per game, No. 15 in QBR and ninth in passing yards per game without his top target and myriad other players injured.

Now those players have returned, allowing Stafford to continue his rapport with Tate, Theo Riddick, Joique Bell and the rest while incorporating the receiver he has become so accustomed to having.

He said he is more comfortable with his receivers now than at any other point in his six-year NFL career. This could mean better decisions for Stafford, too, instead of trying to always find a way for Johnson to have the ball.

"Absolutely," Stafford said. "The more experience and the better everybody else plays, the less you feel like you have to get 81 the ball, but it's still conducive to playing good offense to get the best receiver on the planet the ball as much as you can.

"So we'll continue to try and do that as well."

Playing without Johnson and others forced Stafford to grow. In the first half of the season, the Lions missed these players for at least one game: Johnson, running backs Riddick, Bell and Reggie Bush; tight ends Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle.

It left Stafford and Lombardi playing mix-and-match by the week depending who was definitely available, who might be available and who was definitely out of the lineup.

It made Stafford develop more patience with everything -- from offensive development to other players to his own game.

"Yeah, playing quarterback, it was an interesting time," Stafford said. "We had a lot of guys filling in spots. Meeting guys during the week and then starting and playing 40, 50 snaps. It was a challenge, not only for me, but for those guys coming in, our coaching staff building game plans and I'm proud of the way we handled it, the way we played.

"Were there plays out there that we missed? Absolutely, we wish we had back, no question. But to come out there and fight and get to 6-2 with as many guys down as we had, it was a positive sign."

The Lions are hoping that positive sign turns into a more permanent uptick for an offense that is struggling. When Johnson returns, it forces teams to plan differently for the Lions than with Johnson out.

They can no longer focus either on stopping Bush, Bell and Riddick or double-teaming Tate as often as possible. Johnson's return should allow for one or more of those options to have single coverage or get completely lost in space.

If Stafford's newfound patience and confidence in those non-Johnson players holds up, it could mean bigger plays more often for a Detroit offense in need of them.

"He has an effect on the entire unit defensively in terms of your plans," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's whether or not you feel comfortable leaving him in a one-on-one situation, whether you feel comfortable not rolling the coverage to him or not assigning an underneath cover guy.

"All of those things play a part because you can only deploy 11 guys a certain way and the minute you assign one or two to his area, that sometimes dictates what you do. I think he does make you think about a number of things that you may plan to do."

And this is exactly what the Lions have been hoping for all along this season. Let Stafford trust everyone. Make coordinators think and possibly overthink things. Then try to take advantage.