Monday night’s meeting between the Ravens and Lions looks like a primetime-worthy matchup on the surface - two 7-6 teams fighting for playoff berths with Baltimore bringing the league’s ninth-ranked defense to take on Detroit’s second-ranked offense.
But this one can be boiled down a little further. Even though the Lions have weapons galore offensively, there’s one unlike almost any player the Ravens have seen this season.
Last week, Baltimore had a look at the NFL’s best rusher and this week, it takes aim at the league’s most talented receiver: Calvin Johnson, who’s earned his Megatron moniker.
Johnson stands out in a crowd, literally, as the 28-year-old is 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds to be a difficult assignment for anyone. He ranks second in the NFL with 1,351 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches, and is tied for second with 20 receptions of at least 20 yards. Johnson is also tied for eighth in the league with 75 catches and five for at least 40 yards.
Ravens rookie safety Matt Elam’s inadvertent “too old” jab registered with Johnson earlier this week, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Lions receiver has anything extra driving him on Monday.
Even without that mild stir, the Ravens knew they had their hands full when facing Johnson and the league’s third-ranked passing attack.
“Megatron - anytime somebody has a nickname like that ... The kid is real. The kid is real,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “He is probably arguably the best receiver in the game. It’s going to take all 11 guys, especially tending to him. The pass rush is going to be key; running the ball is going to be key. They do a lot of things with him, he ends up in a lot of places.
“But it’s also fun (when) you get to play against a guy like that. I think we’re definitely looking forward to the challenge, and not only that, but it’s going to be a big stage, and this guy has a tendency of having big games on big stages. We’ll get to see how we fare.”
With cornerback Jimmy Smith performing at such a high level, he’ll likely be the main defensive back handling man coverage of Johnson.
The former Ravens first-round pick wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Absolutely. Primetime television in front of the nation?” Smith said, grinning. “We don’t move around a lot because we’ve got a lot of confidence in our corners. Whatever the game plan we bring is on Monday night, that’s how we’re going to bring it. If they ask us to move and do things, we’re always going to be willing to do that. ...
“He has the name Megatron for a reason. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s one of those guys you wish you had on your team - but obviously, we don’t. ... I actually got to face him last year in the preseason. (I’m) a little bit familiar - not too much - but a little bit with what he likes to do and how he runs. It wasn’t a full, real game. I’m sure he has some more to bring. But yes, it’s going to be a huge challenge for all of us.”
Aside from size, strength and talent, having a quarterback as good as Matthew Stafford has helped Johnson be consistently productive.
Stafford ranks fourth in the NFL with 3,976 passing yards and is tied for fourth with 27 touchdown throws, compared to 14 interceptions.
“The guy is (great),” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “The other thing about him is I think he feels very confident in his targets. I think you’ve got to be 6-5 or bigger to even play for the Lions. So you take out (Kris Durham), who is 6-5, down on the goal line and they put in (Joseph Fauria), who is 6-7. There’s a big difference.
“They’re big. And I think he feels real confident that he can throw it up to them. The other thing about him is that he is very accurate when he does do that. I’ve seen him off his back foot going backwards throw the ball 30 yards down the field zipping a sidearm. The guy has a real strong arm. He’s got strong hands, he’s got a great touch and a ton of confidence in the guys catching the ball.”
Add in tailback Reggie Bush, who has 1,302 yards from scrimmage including 854 rushing (11th in the league), and the Lions have enough to keep the Ravens off the pass a little bit.
While the Detroit offense-Baltimore defense matchup will be the one to watch, the other side of the ball isn’t much of a mismatch.
The Lions answer Baltimore’s 29th-ranked offense with the 17th-ranked defense. Detroit has a reputation of being a physical defense with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh owning the rep of one of the league’s dirtiest players.
Those qualities have served the gritty unit well, as it ranks sixth against the run (99.3 yards allowed per game) and is better than anyone else on third downs, letting opponents convert just 30.2 percent of the time.
The Ravens know what they’re up against.
“Their reputation, they definitely live up to it. I don’t know if you want to call it physical or dirty. Whatever the refs see, that’s what they see. But needless to say, I’m not going to spark any fire,” tailback Ray Rice said. “No. 1 is those two guys there in the middle, Ndamukong Suh and (Nick) Fairley. They are great football players. We know we have our hands full with those guys. That’s the one thing that, as a running back, you have to point out. I always respect guys and give it to them.
“I’ve faced a lot of great nose guards this year, and those guys - they can make a difference in the game. We have to get those guys blocked. So tremendous respect to those guys for what they’ve built. Ndamukong Suh, we all know what he’s been through over his career, but, needless to say, the guy plays hard. The one thing I guarantee that coaching staff is saying over there is, ‘Let’s not take this aggressive nature away from our guy.’ So he is going to play hard on Monday, and that’s what we’re looking forward to getting. We’re looking forward to getting the best Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on Monday night.
“If they’re aggressive, they’re going to be aggressive. You can’t take that away from a guy. But now, you’ll see now they’re playing smart aggressive. They are not being penalized as much for the unsportsmanlike conducts. I watched on Thanksgiving when they played Green Bay - Ndamukong Suh gets a sack in the end zone and helps the guy up. That shows that he is becoming a very mature guy. The old him probably would have stepped over him and done some things, taunting him a little bit. For him to make a big play like that and not let his emotions get the best of him and actually brace the guy going down and help him up shows that he is becoming mature.”
Benefiting the Ravens is that they’re perhaps as healthy as they’ve been all year, especially when it comes to their corps of receivers. The Lions have been vulnerable against the pass, permitting 255.8 yards per game through the air (25th in the league), and there’s a chance Detroit could be especially thin at corner on Monday.
So it certainly doesn’t hurt the Ravens that tight end Dennis Pitta is back with Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones both healthy behind wideout Torrey Smith.
“Obviously, you lose Dennis at the very beginning of training camp, and it’s not something that you really account for,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We adjusted and we worked through it, and anytime you have somebody like that go down, it’s going to affect you in some way, and I think we’re now starting to get everybody healthy. It’s definitely at the corps that we kind of pictured, and now we’ve just got to make it work.”