FLOWERY BRANCH — Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions are trying to salvage something from the mess their season has become.
The Lions had appeared ready to contend in the rugged NFC North this year after ending a 12-season playoff drought last season. But a rash of injuries, some behavioral issues and eight one-score losses have left them at 4-10 and playing out the string.
Johnson, the former Georgia Tech All-American from Tyrone, and the Lions can generate some respect if they can take down the Falcons (12-2) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Ford Field.
“It’s been real tough, especially for the players” said Johnson, who is 181 yards away from Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record of 1,848 yards. “Not counting what the media predicted for us, we have our own high expectations. We’ve let ourselves down and the whole organization with our record.”
Lions coach Jim Schwartz noted the team has lost the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers in Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles. The secondary has also been hit hard by injuries.
On Wednesday, the team placed defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was having a breakthrough season, on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury.
“It’s been tough,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a lot of unfortunate breaks as far as injuries. … We’ve had to plug guys in there that have been on the practice squad or who haven’t been here at all.”
The injuries and the inability to find a replacement for injured running back Jahvid Best (concussion) has led to a two-man offense. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, the former Georgia All-American, is constantly looking to throw to Johnson and teams haven’t been able to stop them.
“We’ve still been able to get our work in,” Johnson said. “That’s not going to stop us from doing what we do.”
The Falcons defeated the Lions 23-16 last season. Despite constant double-team coverage, Johnson had five catches for 115 yards and one touchdown.
“Calvin is an amazing athlete,” Falcons safety Chris Hope said. “He’s probably the one person that can do everything. He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s tall. He creates mismatches in pretty much every form.”
Even with the constant attention, Johnson, who is 6 foot 5 and 236-pounds, gets open. Because of his size, man-to-man coverage by smaller cornerbacks is not an advisable option.
Johnson is determined to pierce the Falcons’ scheme.
“There are some holes that we’ll have to be able to find and take advantage of,” Johnson said. “We never know if they are going to play us the same. We don’t know if there is going to be more zone or more man. We’re going to have to see when the ball is snapped on (Saturday).”
The Lions, who are in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, have dropped eight games by eight points or less. They turned in a stinker last week, losing 38-10 to Arizona, which had been on a nine-game losing streak. Detroit’s last victory was a 31-14 win over Jacksonville on Nov. 4.
By contrast, the Falcons, who need to win to secure the home-field advantage for the playoffs, have won seven games by eight points or less.
“The margins are narrow,” Schwartz said. “That is certainly the NFL. There are very few teams that go out and win in blowouts every single week. It’s just the nature of the NFL. It takes some fortune to be able to put it together.”
Rice set the yardage mark in 1995. Johnson, who tied an NFL record with seven straight 100-yard games last week, is looking forward to breaking the record.
“Man, that would be fantastic,” Johnson said. “All of the things that we’ve been through, to be able to accomplish something of that nature would be a pretty good way to end the year.”
As far as Schwartz is concerned, it couldn’t happen to a finer player.
“Nothing that guy does ceases to amazes me,” Schwartz said. “He’s the same guy you see on Sundays as you see in the offseason program and in the training camp. He’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever been around.
“As good of a player that he is on the field, he’s a better teammate and a better person. He’s just a really humble guy that does his job very well and is very competitive.”