Despite a four-inch height difference, the two put their natural athleticism and ability on display in 2012 and 2013 when Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson matched up against Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Even though Johnson bested Peterson both times, Arizona won both games.
This year, however, the two might be a sideshow.
During the three games Johnson missed in Weeks 6-8, first-year Lions receiver Golden Tate stepped in to fill Megatron-sized shoes in the offense, averaging 116.3 yards per game and catching two touchdown passes. As another 100-yard threat, Tate gives Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford a viable option when Johnson draws double-teams.
And that means Arizona’s defense can’t just devise a game plan around Johnson anymore. It has to play honest Sunday, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.
“You can lean toward Calvin, but then that puts one-on-one matchups to Tate vs. someone else, and he’s playing extremely well,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “I think it helped Calvin to miss the games that he missed to allow Golden and Matthew to get on the schedule and the way that they are right now.”
Tate has gained more than 100 yards in five of his last six games, leading him to the top of the receiver stats. His 66 receptions are second in the NFL, his 454 yards after catch are tied for second, his 909 receiving yards are fourth and his 91 targets are fifth.
Last Sunday, he finished with 109 yards and Johnson had 113. It was the first time since 1999 that the Lions had two receivers catch at least seven passes with at least 100 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But if there’s a game for Tate’s run to end, it’s Sunday. In six career games against Arizona – all with Seattle – he has 15 catches for 178 yards and no touchdowns.
Tate’s blossoming will make it tough for the Cardinals to double-team Johnson as much Sunday, but Arizona is better equipped to handle both receivers with Antonio Cromartie defending the side of the field opposite Peterson. He has 21 tackles and three interceptions this year, on pace for his best season since 2008. Last week against St. Louis, Cromartie and Peterson were targeted a combined seven times and allowed just six receiving yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
“We’re very equipped,” Peterson said. “Both of us are definitely capable of getting the job done, but we have a very, very special game plan. Can’t wait to see what’s going to happen.”
If Arizona gives Johnson single coverage, they have a 6-foot-5 receiver on a 6-1 cornerback. If they double Johnson over the top, Tate is single-covered and can explode for another 100-yard game.
Bowles has proven this season he has the personnel to adjust the game plan to stop specific threats – See what they did against the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray. Sunday won’t be any different, except the Lions have more options in their passing game this season.
“They’ll be matchups in different situations,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “We never want them to know if we’re playing man or zone all the time. You never want to give a quarterback that opportunity. There’ll be people in and out. There’ll certain matchups that we like and we’ll have those on certain downs and distances.”