At age 30, Calvin Johnson is a different receiver than he was at start of career

Calvin Johnson AP Photo/Rick Osentoski

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson moved into his fourth decade of life Tuesday and in the NFL, hitting the 30-year-old barometer is a big one.

Typically, it means you’ve had a strong level of success in the league. It also typically means your body has been through a lot -- and Johnson is no exception. The aches and pains are there more now in his ninth NFL season with 663 catches, 10,604 yards, 75 touchdowns and so many hits throughout the years.

He’s missed five games due to injury over the last two years and also had procedures done to help him heal between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. To combat that, he has tried to do more body maintenance. He’s prepared himself more and taken better care of his body.

Because he knows, too, that he is a different receiver now than he was than when he entered the league. He’s learned more and put more punishment on his body. He's picked up more routes, played in multiple offenses and tried to pick up as much as he can.

“Just try to add more things to my game each year,” Johnson said. “Trying to be smarter, work smarter and just take care of my body more and more.

“I’m getting better at that.”

Johnson has looked healthier so far this season than he has at this point in either of the past two years after dealing with ankle, knee and finger injuries.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Johnson is “still the same guy” as he was before, when he was deemed the league’s top receiver. Quarterback Matthew Stafford believes he’s “still the same old Calvin.” The amazing catch part of that showed up Sunday against Denver, when he grabbed what looked to be a sure interception for Denver by using his instincts and body skills.

“He still does some unbelievable stuff out on the field,” Stafford said. “So I’m happy to have him and just wished him a Happy Birthday and that’s about it. He looks a day older, I guess.”

Johnson still has otherworldly gifts, but the Lions are using him differently now.

The Lions, be it a function of the offense, an injury to quarterback Matthew Stafford, pass protection or the play calling, have not thrown downfield to Johnson much at all this year. He’s averaging his fewest air yards per target of his career (8.33) and is on pace for the second-lowest yards-after-catch average of his career (3.40).

He has always been a big-play threat, though, a downfield target for Stafford who has the ability to change the game and alter the way defenses would face the Lions because of that threat. It’s a threat that has not shown up this season, and when Johnson was asked if he was being used to his strengths, he said he’s doing what he’s been coached to do.

“I’m just going out there and doing exactly what I’m coached and doing exactly what I’m supposed to do and just trying to help this team win,” Johnson said. “I’m going to stick within what’s in the game plan and do what I’ve got to do.”

The game plan for Johnson this week is unclear, especially as he faces Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman and the second-best pass defense in the NFL. But as Johnson begins life at 30, he’ll have one of the toughest matchups in the league to start.