June 26, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Haden faces another big test


Brian Dulik

The Gazette

BEREA — Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is truly in a league of his own.

“Megatron” led the NFL with 122 receptions and an all-time record 1,964 yards last season, continuing his sprint to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Obviously, Calvin Johnson is a difference maker and he’s the best in the business at what he does,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said Friday following practice.

“We have to do our best and work to try and contain him. It’s hard to stop him, but we have to at least contain him — and it’s going to take a team effort to do that.”

Johnson is expected to play in Cleveland for the first time in his seven-year career on Sunday afternoon, when the Lions battle the red-hot Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. Both teams own 3-2 records.

Though Johnson has been hobbled by a sore right knee for two weeks — and didn’t play at Green Bay in Week 5 — he participated in Detroit’s final two practices leading into this game.

“We’re expecting him to play,” Chudzinski said flatly. “It doesn’t change anything as far as our approach, whether he does or doesn’t, but we are expecting him to play.”

Provided Johnson suits up (and hooks up with Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford), his one-on-one matchup with Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden will be the focal point on the field.

Haden is playing at the Pro Bowl level that Chudzinski envisioned for him over the summer, while Johnson has the highest receiving yards per game average in league history at 84.9.

“Just look at the dude, he’s huge (6-foot-5 and 236 pounds), big, strong and fast,” Haden said. “There’s nothing really else that you have to say about him, he’s so good. I would say he’s the only guy in the league that’s better than A.J. (Green of Cincinnati).”

Those aren’t just empty words from the 5-11, 190-pounder.

Before the Browns played the Bengals two weeks ago, Haden also rated Johnson and Green as the NFL’s best and second-best receivers, respectively. He shut down the Cincinnati standout in a 17-6 victory and would like nothing more than to repeat that feat against Detroit.

“Our team and Browns fans might not want him out there — and I might not want him out there, either — but it’s always good to go against the best,” Haden said, chuckling.

“Great players make you want to step up, so I’m just going to keep it on low, knowing I’ve got Calvin. I’ll make sure I study and make sure I come out there and play my best.”

Because the Browns and Lions reside in different conferences, Johnson has only been part of one game in their series. He torched then-Cleveland cornerbacks Eric Wright and Mike Adams for 161 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in Detroit’s 38-37 home win on Nov. 22, 2009.

Not coincidentally, the Browns used their first-round draft pick on Haden just five months later. The Florida All-American has rewarded them by averaging 1.13 passes defensed as a pro, which ranks second to Darrelle Revis (1.23) since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 1994.

Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton, however, believes Haden still has room to improve and plans on helping him reach his full potential.

“Joe is one of the players that we challenged to be better, and he’s still a work in progress,” Horton said. “I don’t want him to think he’s arrived by any stretch of the imagination. Good players are always challenged to be better and don’t accept that they’re there yet.

“At his position, he faces a new test every week, and Calvin Johnson is a pretty big one. But at the same time, we feel pretty good about having Joe against anyone. He is playing very well for us right now.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.