Forget the exotic coverage schemes. Throw out the double teams. Oh, and the triple teams too.
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor figures there’s only one way to keep up with Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
“You have to take him mano y mano,” Taylor said.
Even if there is no one in the NFL, let alone the planet, is quite like the 6-foot-5, 235-pound player Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls “one of the best football players, period, regardless of position, in the game of professional football.”
One that seems to get open no matter how many bodies thrown his way. It’s why the Steelers (3-6) insist they’re not going to abandon their usual gameplan when they face Johnson and the NFC North leading Lions (6-3) on Sunday.
“We won’t try anything that hasn’t been tried, and he’s still about 100 yards per game and a touchdown per game,” Tomlin said. “We’ll do the best we can.”
Pittsburgh’s best starts — and in most cases — ends with Taylor. The 11-year veteran has made a career (though still not a Pro Bowl) out of finding ways to slow down the best guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Name an elite receiver over the last decade and Taylor has probably lined up across from him more than once. Still, even Taylor allows Johnson provides a unique challenge. Sorry, there aren’t guys Johnson’s size who can out-jump, out-run and out-think everyone laying around on NFL practice squads, no offense to Steelers rookie Justin Brown, who is wearing the No. 81 orange jersey on the scout team this week.
“I’m up for it, and I’m glad the coaching staff feels that way about me,” Taylor said. “They like my skills and allow me to compete each week against a guy like Megatron. I’m a villain kind of guy. I like being a bad guy, so I’m going to stay on the bad-guy side.”
It’s a role he’s used grown used to over the last five years. Every time Pittsburgh ends up facing one of the league’s elite playmakers, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is asked what his unit could possibly do. Every time LeBeau’s answer is the same: Taylor.
“He can match up with these big guys that can really run because he can really run,” LeBeau said. “He’s been the guy that we’ve put on their guy ... He’s a great competitor and I think he’d be disappointed if we didn’t put him on (Johnson).”
The closest thing the Steelers see on a regular basis to Johnson is Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, who has developed a mini-rivalry with Taylor through two-plus seasons. Taylor has limited Green to seven receptions for a pedestrian 49 yards in the last two meetings.
Still, Johnson, who sat out Lions practice on Thursday because of an ailing knee, is different. Asked to compare Green and Johnson, Tomlin was emphatic.
“There is no comparison,” Tomlin said. “This guy is probably 235 pounds. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s a big dog.”
The easiest way for the Steelers to limit Johnson’s touches is LeBeau put it “to get the quarterback on the ground.”
That hasn’t happened this year. Detroit’s Andrew Stafford has been sacked just 10 times despite averaging 41 pass attempts a game. Of course, it helps having a receiver who gives you a massive margin for error.
Stafford is completing nearly 62 percent of his passes, the second-best mark in his five-year career. Part of it is experience. Part of it is an improved offensive line. Part of it is the acquisition of Reggie Bush, who becomes a fifth receiver when he moves out of the backfield. And part of it is the luxury of having the confidence that if you throw it somewhere in the vicinity of Johnson, the odds are forever in his favor.
Johnson might be the best receiver Taylor has ever faced. But he won’t be the first.
“I remember him lining up week-in and week-out against Chad Johnson and some of those No. 1 wide receivers,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. “If there’s somebody that can do it, it’s going to be him.”