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Silverman: To Slow Down Johnson, Shut Down Lions’ Slot Receivers

Calvin Johnson catches a pass against Charles Tillman. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Calvin Johnson catches a pass against Charles Tillman. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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By Steve Silverman-

(CBS) The Lions found out last year what happened when they were unable to present a balanced offense.

The lack of a running game put the bulk of the responsibilities on Matthew Stafford’s shoulders and it was a big part of the reason the Lions went 4-12 last year.

That was one of the reasons they acquired Reggie Bush from the Dolphins in the offseason. His speed, quickness, elusiveness and agility makes him a dangerous player whom opposing defenses must account for on every player.

The Lions determined that Bush, despite a history of injuries, would give their offense balance and make it much more difficult to defend than it was in 2012. (Bush could not play at Washington last week due to a knee injury, but he will be in the lineup against the Bears.)

The numbers bear this out. The Lions have the fourth-ranked offense through the first three weeks of the season. They have the second-ranked passing attack at 336.0 yards per game and the 25th-ranked rushing attack.

Such is balance in the NFL these days. NFL teams throw the ball more than 60 percent of the time and the Lions do it more than that – 64 percent of the time.

The threat of a running game has opened things up for the passing games and diversity in the passing game has given Stafford a number of receiving options.

That changed earlier in the week when Nate Burleson broke his arm in two places while reaching for a pizza box in his moving car.

Whether you believe his story or not, Burleson is out for about six weeks following surgery to repair his arm. Burleson, not All-World Calvin Johnson, is the Lions leading receiver with 19 receptions for 239 yards and head coach Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan must figure out how the Lions can keep their passing attack viable without Burleson.

Johnson is the Lions best receiver and he has caught 17 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. But without a viable complementary receiver, the Lions attack loses much of its bite.

Here’s how the Lions are likely to go after the Bears on Sunday: They are going to give Bush and rookie Theo Riddick a chance to operate out of Burleson’s slot receiver position.

Bush and Riddick are both running backs. There is no doubt that Bush is an excellent receiver and he is even better after the catch. But if you take Bush out of the backfield, the threat of the running game is diminished.

That brings us to Riddick. The sixth-round draft choice from Notre Dame operated out of the slot quite a bit during his career at Notre Dame. He knows how to run basic patterns, how to get open and how to run after the catch.

But it’s one thing to do it at Notre Dame or in practice with the Lions, it’s quite another to do it against the Bears. Riddick has one reception in three games.

Schwartz and Linehan are likely to go with the Riddick option because the anxiety factor with the rookie may not be as great as the lack-of-dependability factor with wide receiver Ryan Broyles.

Broyles has the credentials to step into the slot receiver position, but he has had ACL surgery twice in the past three years. He could not handle the workload of playing 50 snaps or more.

Look for the combination of Bush and Riddick to split the slot duties against the Bears. Mel Tucker should know that the best way to handle Bush is to hammer him hard early in the game. He is not at his best after early punishment.

On the other hand, when Bush makes a big play early in the game, he can tear an opponent apart. He had a 77-yard catch and run for a touchdown in Week One against the Vikings.

Riddick will be treated to some forceful redirections as well.

Slow down the Lions’ slot receivers and the Bears will have a much better chance of keeping Johnson in check.

That’s the formula for beating the Lions on their homefield and a 4-0 start.

steve silverman small Silverman: To Slow Down Johnson, Shut Down Lions’ Slot Receivers

Steve Silverman

Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.