DETROIT (CBSNewYork/AP) — Friday marks the start of the NFL preseason, and even though it’s not the most meaningful game, Calvin Johnson, the league’s top receiver, will be a marked man.
It’s hard to say how much the Detroit star will play in Friday night’s exhibition game against the New York Jets, but when he’s lined up at wide receiver, fans should enjoy at least a brief glimpse of a pulsating one-on-one matchup between Johnson and defensive back Antonio Cromartie.
“Let’s see, you’ve got Megatron vs. the Megacorner,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “That’ll be a great matchup to watch. Who knows how many plays it’ll be for? You’ve got a freak at wideout and a freak at corner, so that’s going to be fun to watch.”
Johnson was one of a few bright spots for the Lions last season, when they lost their final eight games to finish 4-12. He broke Jerry Rice’s single-season record with 1,964 yards receiving, despite defenses that could gear up against him because of injuries to other Detroit receivers.
While Cromartie might have something to prove Friday — he became his team’s undisputed No. 1 cornerback when the Jets traded Darrelle Revis in April — Johnson is approaching this game with his usual low-key attitude.
“It’s another game,” Johnson said, anticipating limited duty for Detroit’s top players. “Put something together, try to put some points on the board.”
Johnson is one of the game’s quieter stars, content to let his performance speak for itself — but his leadership is felt in Detroit’s locker room.
“Every year I say the same thing, and a lot of people don’t believe me, but I have to sit them down and explain to them just how good he is and how much better he’s gotten,” Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. “He works as if he doesn’t have a dollar to his name, and he’s trying to make the team. Not to get all emotional, but it’s inspirational.”
Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford are still the biggest names on a Detroit offense that added running back Reggie Bush during the offseason. Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, when the Jets took Mark Sanchez at No. 5.
“They’re very young, strong quarterbacks,” Burleson said. “I think Matt, he’s not just trying to separate himself from Sanchez, I think Matt’s trying to separate himself from the top 10. He wants to be considered a top-tier quarterback — top five, top three.”
Stafford shouldn’t expect to play much Friday, of course. Teams are always leery of risking injuries in games that don’t count. Detroit has avoided any major health issues in camp so far, although that doesn’t necessarily give the Lions any major advantage looking ahead to the season.
“I remember I was in Cleveland,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “Our biggest rival was Pittsburgh, and we were expected to battle for the division. Rod Woodson tore his ACL in the first game of the year and it was like, ‘OK, that’s going to be the one that does it.’ They still went to the Super Bowl. He actually came back and played in that Super Bowl game.”
Exhibition games are sometimes viewed as a necessary nuisance, but it’s worth remembering that the Lions went unbeaten in the preseason a couple years ago — and they ended up going 10-6 and making the playoffs.
Burleson should be particularly eager to step back on the field after a leg injury shortened his 2012 season.
“I want to create some type of momentum for myself, so that first (regular-season) game, I’m feeling unstoppable,” Burleson said. “You can’t just flip on a switch for the regular season. So for me, I’m flipping on the switch now.”
He’s not the only one with that approach. Cromartie will probably have a little more at stake, too, considering who is on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“Oh, definitely,” Cromartie said. “It’s the preseason, but that’s the mentality you don’t want to have. You want to treat it as a regular-season game.”
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