ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson is getting the same attention he's always seen. The difference is, the Detroit Lions don't seem to be taking as many chances going to their best offensive playmaker.
Teams have been double-teaming Johnson for years, bringing cornerbacks inside and safeties over the top. Yet with coaching staffs past, the Lions had no problems tossing the ball to the 6-foot-5 receiver in jump ball situations. It helped lead him to the single-season NFL receiving record in 2012.
Things have changed. Johnson turns 30 on Tuesday, and while the attention is similar -- his utilization has been altered, changing his game and in some ways eliminating the mismatch wide receiver from making as many game-changing plays.
After an opening week during which Johnson saw four targets, the Lions have used him heavily the past two weeks. But it has been on primarily short and intermediate routes instead of the downfield patterns he used to be targeted on.
"What I think is that one of the things that's important is that we get the ball to guys so they can do something with it, and we've been getting him the ball," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "It may not always be the ideal spot where we'd like to get it to him. That changes. Golden [Tate]'s also a guy where we try to get the ball to as well."
Tate has the slippery capabilities to be used on underneath routes. Johnson is a game-breaker on deep passes, but the Lions have eschewed that almost the entire season. While there is still time left for the Lions to open up with Johnson, he is on pace for by far the lowest air yards per target of his career.
Right now he is averaging 8.33 air yards per target, down 6.55 yards, on average, from last season. Johnson has never had a season in which he has averaged less than 13.45 air yards per target.
His yards per reception, unsurprisingly, are also way down. He's averaging 9.95 yards per catch after not averaging less than 14.55 yards per catch in any other season.
"Every game is different," Caldwell said when asked why the Lions don't take more downfield shots with Johnson. "There may be some games where you may ask why aren't we throwing shorter to him more often. So I just think you have to adjust the game plan according to what you know you're going to see and according to how they are playing to you as well."
There are multiple factors for why the Lions aren't using Johnson like they used to. The first comes with route development and play calling. This was a similar issue last season, when the Lions took shorter, surer receptions instead of taking chances deep. This limited potential turnovers and mistakes by quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Lions seemed likely to open things up more this season, and that might have happened if Stafford had time to throw and wasn't constantly under pressure to get rid of the ball quickly, which has been an offensive theme the first three weeks. Caldwell said that pressure, though, has not limited the Lions going deep to Johnson and that it is "more involved" than just throwing it up to Johnson, including Johnson's making decisions to find openings.
"There's been routes that have been called that are deep routes and those kinds of things," Caldwell said. "Sometimes it just doesn't happen."
Even before Stafford was hurt in the third quarter against San Diego, however, the Lions targeted no throws of 15 air yards or more Johnson's way.
Since then, the Lions have taken only three shots of 15-plus yards to Johnson, according to ESPN Stats & Information: two against Minnesota and one against Denver. In Johnson's career, he has never had fewer than 16 receptions of 15 air yards or more and no fewer than 44 targets in a season of that length. Last season, the Lions targeted Johnson 49 times on passes of 15 air yards or more.
Meanwhile, Stafford has also cut down on those deep shots, taking only 14 so far this season, an average of 4.67 per game. Last seaso, he averaged 7.43 per game, his lowest average since 2010, when he appeared in only three games.
So in understanding where the explosiveness of the Lions offense and Calvin Johnson has gone, the lack of deep attempts could be one place to look.