FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Calvin Johnson is looming for the New York Jets’ still-shaky secondary.
The Detroit Lions wide receiver is a tall task, in more ways than one, and Rex Ryan knows it.
“I’m a football historian, but I don’t think I’ve seen (anyone like him),” the Jets coach said. “I’ve gone against him a couple times, but no. Brandon Marshall is as close as it gets, I think, but he’s even a little bigger and little faster.”
Johnson is 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds with a rare combination of size, speed and game-changing athletic ability. With his dominant receiving skills, he can toy with helpless defenders - towering over many of them.
“They’re a threat,” defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said of tall receivers. “Who can get up that high? Just because I could dunk a basketball didn’t mean I could get up that high. It’s about the challenge in the red zone, the fade route, the seam route and him just throwing the ball up and you can’t physically get up there.”
Johnson didn’t practice for two straight days with an ankle injury, leaving his status uncertain for the Lions’ game against the Jets on Sunday. But the Jets are fully expecting to see Johnson on the field, and lots of him.
Thurman can relate firsthand to what the Jets’ defense is preparing for. He faced a guy during his playing days who was Megatron long before Johnson: Harold Carmichael, a 6-8, 225-pounder who caught 590 passes and 79 touchdowns in 14 NFL seasons, including 13 with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“It’s very difficult to defend,” Thurman said. “Have you ever played basketball and you’ve been down under the basket and the guy’s taller than you and he just posts you and they lob the ball up there and you’re sitting there, you’re kind of jumping and swinging at the ball?
“That’s kind of how it is if you are a defender.”
Thurman was listed at 5-11 during his eight seasons as a playmaking cornerback and safety with the Dallas Cowboys from 1978-85. He permanently etched himself on the list of villains in Eagles fans’ minds when he plowed into Carmichael during a game in 1980. Thurman knocked Carmichael from the game with an aggressive - but legal - hit that ended his then-record 127-game streak of catching at least one pass.
Sure, that’s one way to neutralize a big-time pass-catching threat. But the Jets are planning to have to defend him for four quarters, and they might need to get creative.
“We’ll just run base defense,” Ryan said with a big grin. “That’s our story. We’re just going to play him in man, straight-up man. We actually did that a couple years ago.”
Yep, and it worked. Then again, it was Darrelle Revis who helped limit Johnson to one catch for 13 yards back in 2010.
“It was duly noted,” Ryan said, “that he was pretty good.”
There’s no Revis this time, of course. Top cornerback Dee Milliner appears likely to miss his second straight game with a quadriceps injury. That means converted safety Antonio Allen and Darrin Walls will see a lot of Johnson on Sunday.
Allen, whom Thurman confirmed will stick at cornerback the rest of the season, has dealt with tall tight ends such as New England’s Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham as a safety in man-to-man coverage in previous seasons.
“He’s much faster than probably any of those guys I’ve been against,” Allen said. “He’s probably the best receiver in the league, hands down. I’ve got to do the best job I can to stop him from catching the ball and just limit him to the things they want.”
Johnson has 19 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns through three games, and might be looking forward to this matchup, sore ankle and all. He needs one game of 200 or more yards receiving to break a tie with Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for the most in NFL history with six - and he’s going up against a defense that allowed the Packers’ Jordy Nelson 209 yards receiving in Week 2.
Johnson said there was “no doubt” he gets excited seeing the good games other receivers have had against the Jets. He’s also expecting, from New York’s tendency to blitz, the rare opportunity to predominantly face man-to-man coverage on Sunday.
Ryan laughed when he was told of Johnson’s comments.
“I’m crazy,” the coach said, “but I’m not that crazy.”
Thurman acknowledged that defensive backs can play press coverage against Johnson, but it’s not easy.
“You have to pick your spots,” he said. “I think you can jam him at times and re-route him. But you can’t do it consistently. You have to change up how you face this guy.”
So, there’s a good chance Ryan and Thurman are still drawing up plans at this very moment, trying to shut down Megatron.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Thurman said, “so the challenge of it is huge.”
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