Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields was perhaps more ready than ever.
Too bad he never got his chance.
In a rare and impactful move on Sunday - just an hour-and-a-half before kickoff - the Detroit Lions deactivated star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who would miss his first game since the 2010 season and only the fifth game of seven-year career.
The personnel loss seemed to severely limit the Lions’ previously potent offense and, as a result, the Packers’ defense took advantage in a 22-9 victory at Lambeau Field.
“I think anytime a player like Calvin Johnson goes out of the game - I think it would be no different than someone like Clay Matthews - and you’re surprised, definitely you have to adjust your thinking,” said Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy. “But football’s still football.”
Johnson came into the game battling a knee injury. After not practicing Wednesday and Thursday, he was a limited participant on Friday and was listed as questionable for the game.
But the Packers prepared and talked like they thought Johnson would play. For Shields, the opportunity to cover Johnson one-on-one in what would have been his first long look against the 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver will have to wait.
“Things happen,” said the fourth-year cornerback. “You just got to keep moving on and play the same. I went in like I was going to play him.”
Historically, the Packers have matched veteran cornerback Tramon Williams on Johnson or have rolled coverage toward Johnson with a deep safety. But with Casey Hayward out due to injury this season, Williams has been defending receivers more in the slot. And following a strong performance vs. the Bengals’ No. 1 receiver, A.J. Green, the last time out, Shields was set to match Johnson whenever he lined up on the outside, with Williams getting the job when Johnson was in the slot.
With Johnson on the sideline, Shields and fellow cornerback Davon House instead went back to an old philosophy against the Lions’ backup receivers.
“We just played right and left. We stayed to our sides,” said Shields. “There wasn’t really no change. It was just House covering one side and I covered the other.”
The final game totals showed how much the Lions missed Johnson (and fellow starter Nate Burleson, for that matter, who is out with a broken forearm). Detroit’s receivers combined to catch nine passes out of 18 targeted passes for 93 yards.
With just 286 total yards, they were almost 119 yards below their season average. After averaging 30.5 points through the first four games (fourth in the NFL), they found the end zone only once – with 2:06 left in the game. And after giving up just three sacks all season, the Lions’ surrendered five to the Packers – all coming from linebackers.
“Matt (Stafford) had to hold onto the ball to try to get guys open. They did a good job of rushing him and covering,” said Lions’ head coach Jim Schwartz. “I give them credit. It affected the game. We gave up too much pressure and took too many lost yardage plays.”
In addition to the five sacks, the Packers added two other tackles for losses. With essentially no deep threat on the outside for the Lions, the Packers contained playmaker Reggie Bush out of the backfield. Bush had just 69 total yards on 17 touches (13 carries, four catches). He entered the game averaging 144.3 yards per game from scrimmage. Bush’s longest play was just 20 yards, coming on a reverse just after the Packers took a 16-3 lead on an 83-yard James Jones touchdown reception.
“How we game plan is for schemes, not one particular player,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk. “So, we knew they’d maybe try to get Reggie going a little bit more with (Johnson out). I think three of the first nine plays were screens. They had a bunch of screens coming in so we had to be prepared for that and make sure that we didn’t let him get out of the gate on any of those.”
The Packers’ defense put forth a game effort dealing with injuries, too. While they welcomed back the return of safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) for the first time this season, four linebackers had to leave the game. Inside linebackers Brad Jones (hamstring) and Rob Francois (torn Achilles) did not return. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews went to the locker room during the game with a broken thumb and Nick Perry left the game briefly in the fourth quarter before returning for his second sack of the game.
But after the game, Megatron’s absence dominated much of the talk in the Packers’ locker room.
“From the defensive coordinator, I don’t know what that does to him, but just being able to know that the big shot opportunity down the field isn’t going to be there, I think that you can kind of send people at the quarterback,” said Packers outside linebacker/defensive lineman Mike Neal. “You don’t have to double him so you’ve got more people in coverage and I think it just paid off for us.”
“We didn’t even think nothing about it,” added Burnett of learning that Johnson would not play. “We call it the 48-hour rule. Only thing that matters to us is what’s in this locker room and the Green Bay Packers and our main goal was to go 1-0 in the division and we were able to accomplish that today.”