Through the first 8 games of the 2011 season, Lions WR Calvin Johnson – aka Megatron – was on pace for one of the best fantasy football seasons since Randy Moss’ historic 2007 campaign with the New England Patriots. However since game 9, Johnson has only scored once and has failed to produce a 100 yard receiving game. So what gives? In this article I’ll try and break down some of the drivers behind Johnson’s decreased production.
To do that I’ll be looking at gamelog statistics that were compiled by www.pro-football-reference.com. I upload this data in to a Microsoft SQL Server database and once the gamelog data has been uploaded, I then apply my league’s fantasy scoring format (it’s a PPR), which is as follows:
Receiving Yards: 1 point per 10 yards
Receiving TDs: 6 points per TD
Receptions: 1 point per 5 receptions (0.2 points per reception)
My league also penalizes for fumbles, but I wasn’t able to easily locate this data and so I didn’t include it in the analysis. Let’s take a look at how the various Lions skill position players performed through week 8:
Calvin Johnson – 19.5 fppg, 5.9 rec/gm, 3.3 fpprec
Nate Burleson – 4.5 fppg, 3.3 rec/gm, 1.4 fpprec
Titus Young – 6.2 fppg, 3.2 rec/gm, 2.0 fpprec
Pettigrew & Scheffler – 10.9 fppg, 6.3 rec/gm, 1.8 fpprec
Best & Morris – 6.2 fppg, 4.4 rec/gm, 1.4 fpprec
fppg = avg fantasy points per game
rec/gm = avg receptions per game
fpprec: fantasy receiving points per reception
As a reference point, a quality starting WR should average roughly 2 fpprec and a quality starting RB should average around 1+ fpprec.
Through the first 8 games of the 2011 season, the primary Lions skill position players as a group were averaging 45.7 fppg, 22.1 rec/gm and 2.1 fpprec.
Now let’s take a look at the production of the Lions primary skill position players since week 9 (total of 5 games through week 14):
Calvin Johnson – 8.5 fppg, 5.0 rec/gm, 1.7 fpprec
Nate Burleson – 8.4 fppg, 5.6 rec/gm, 1.5 fpprec
Titus Young – 8.0 fppg, 3.2 rec/gm, 2.5 fpprec
Pettigrew & Scheffler – 11.7 fppg, 6.0 rec/gm, 2.0 fpprec
Williams, Smith & Morris – 10.8 fppg, 7.8 rec/gm, 1.4 fpprec
Over the past 5 games the primary Lions skill position players have been averaging 47.5 fppg, 27.6 rec/gm and 1.7 fpprec.
The most telling statistic is the precipitous drop-off in Calvin Johnson’s production (19.5 fppg to a mere 8.5 fppg). Since the Lions skill positions players as a group are actually producing at a higher clip over the last 5 weeks vs. the first 8 weeks – 47.5 fppg vs. 45.7 fppg – this begs the question, where has Johnson’s production gone?
Let’s look at the Lion TEs first. Over the past 5 games Pettigrew and Scheffler are averaging the same number of receptions per game as over the first 8 games. The tandem is averaging roughly 1 extra fantasy point per game over the last 5 weeks (11.7 fppg vs. 10.9 fpp). Interestingly it’s Tony Scheffler who’s been driving this uptick in production. So any notion that Brandon Pettigrew picking up the slack for Calvin Johnson doesn’t appear to be supported by the numbers at this point.
Next let’s look at the Lion RBs. Over the past 5 games Lions RBs are averaging 3.5 more receptions and 4.6 more fantasy points per game than over the first 8 games of the season. It’s interesting to note that despite not having Jahvid Best – a dangerous receiver out of the backfield – in the lineup since week 6, the Lions RBs as a whole have roughly the same efficiency as receivers (1.4 fpprec). It appears that the Lions offensive gameplan has shifted the focus more towards the RBs, which in turn takes some of the focus away from Calvin Johnson.
That all seems fine and dandy except for the fact that Megatron is only averaging 1 less reception per game over the past 5 weeks vs. the first 8 weeks. Lions WRs as a whole are actually catching more balls now (13.8 receptions per game) than the first half of the season (11.5 receptions per game). So who’s getting those extra looks? The answer is Nate Burleson. Burleson has seen his production jump from 3.3 receptions per game to 5.6 receptions per game. Believe it or not, Burleson has been averaging more receptions than Calvin Johnson over the past 5 weeks! This probably isn’t a great recipe for offensive success. The primary issue is that Burleson isn’t very efficient as a fantasy receiver. While he’s averaging 8.4 fppg over the past 5 weeks, his efficiency rate – which is 1.5 fpprec – stinks for a starting WR2.
One obvious driver for the increased looks that Burleson has been seeing is that defenses have been rolling their coverages big time towards Calvin Johnson. When this happens it seems like Stafford has more of a tendency to look Burleson’s way (at least based on the numbers). Since Burleson hasn’t made opposing defenses pay for these additional looks, secondaries have no reason to stop rollling their coverage Johnson’s way. Given the copycat nature of the NFL, it appears that this is the gameplan that opposing secondaries have adopted when facing the Lions. And since the Lions are 2-3 since week 9 (versus a 6-2 start), one would expect to see more of the same over the next 3 games.
The funny thing about Burleson is that he’s put up decent efficiency numbers prior to this season. If Burleson somehow managed to find a way to revert back to last season’s efficiency number of 2 fpprec – which is decent but not great – he’d be averaging 11.2 fantasy points per game. This would put Burleson on par with Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Dez Bryant (based on 2011 season averages). Do you think Calvin Johnson would draw so much attention if he had one of those guys lining up on the opposite side of the field? Somehow I doubt it.
One also has to wonder how much the absence of Jahvid Best has had an indirect effect on Megatron’s production. Despite the other Lions RBs getting more looks and producing at roughly the same clip, the collective reputation of Williams, Smith and Morris as receivers probably doesn’t command the same respect from defenses as a Jahvid Best would. This change in defensive philosophy might be translating in to coverages that are built specifically to stop Calvin Johnson, without much regard to the Lion RBs.
Some have speculated that an uptick in production by Titus Young may alleviate some of the pressure off of Johnson. But if you look at Young’s numbers, he’s averaging roughly the same number of receptions per game, albeit at a higher efficiency (2.5 fpprec vs. 2.0 fpprec). But I have a tough time convincing myself that the Lions have enough confidence to put the ball in Young’s hands more than they already do, especially considering the wall that most rookies hit towards the end of their first season in the NFL.
So what should we expect during the two most important weeks of the fantasy football season? While having Calvin Johnson on your roster was probably one of the reasons you made it this far, I have a hard time believing that he’ll put up another monster game when it’s needed most. Obviously you can’t bench Megatron if you have him on your roster, but I would temper my expectations to somewhere around 10 fantasy points per game over the next two weeks. Hard to imagine from a guy who looked like he was an unstoppable force during the first 8 games of the season.