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ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford are clicking so well that a lot of things simply go unsaid.
“We do have ways to communicate out there, real subtle things,” Johnson says. “I’m not going to tell you how.”
And even if he did, teams would still have trouble against Detroit’s dynamic duo.
The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Johnson has emerged as one of the top receivers in the NFL, a highlight reel of a player with the speed of a sprinter, the hops of a high-jumper and soft hands.
“They call him ‘Megatron’ for a reason,” Minnesota cornerback Chris Cook said.
And now Johnson has Stafford consistently throwing him the ball too. The Lions quarterback, injured so much in the past, is back with a strong arm and a ton of confidence, threading passes into tiny windows for Johnson to snare or heaving them far downfield for his big receiver to go up and get.
Johnson is the first NFL player to catch two touchdown passes in each of the first three games of a season, and Stafford has thrown for three other scores as the Lions (3-0) head into Sunday’s game at Dallas (2-1).
“Those two guys are really a couple marquee players,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “They were drafted high for a reason because they’re awfully good, they’re awfully talented. They’re getting better and better. You can really see those guys develop as players and maybe more importantly as a combination.”
Johnson been nagged by injuries, including one to his left ankle that held him out of Wednesday’s practice, since Matt Millen drafted him No. 2 overall in 2007. He has still been very productive — 33 TD catches in his first four years — but it wasn’t until last season that he became a Pro Bowl player.
Stafford has been limited to playing just 16 games since being taken No. 1 overall in 2009 because of banged-up shoulders and an injured right knee. He had shown flashes of brilliance, but questions about his ability to stay healthy stunted expectations.
They’re both rolling now, creating a buzz about the Motor City’s favorite team that has people raving about the Lions from coast to coast. Detroit is 3-0 for the first time since 1980 in part because Johnson and Stafford have been sensational.
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Stafford took a shotgun snap, backpedaled away from a blitzing linebacker and lofted a pass off his back foot that sailed almost 50 yards in the air and into Johnson’s fingertips with a Willie Mays-like, over-the-shoulder snag with a helpless cornerback falling at his feet.
“He does a great job of making me look really good,” Stafford said. “He’s a great receiver and we’re getting on the same page now to the point now where no matter what kind of looks they give us we have something that we feel like we can do to combat that.”
The Kansas City Chiefs, like Minnesota and Tampa Bay, struggled to stop Stafford throwing to Johnson even when everyone knew the ball was headed to him. After Johnson dropped a pass that hit him between the 8 and the 1 on his jersey, Stafford went right back to him to convert a fourth down from the 1 on a slant with a silent audible.
“I kind of changed the play on him a little bit,” Stafford recalled. “And he knew exactly what I was thinking and got to the right spot.”
Johnson was also in the right place, along the left sideline, when Stafford heaved the decisive pass to him in OT against the Vikings that helped Detroit win a fourth straight road game for the first time since 1969-70.
The duo, though, isn’t doing it alone.
Opponents also have to account for crafty veteran Nate Burleson, quick rookie Titus Young, shifty running back Jahvid Best, and one of the best tandems of tight ends in the league, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.
“It’s not necessarily all Calvin,” Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. “Stafford is doing a good job of finding guys open.”
While some might think the Lions would be open to engaging Johnson in contract negotiations before he potentially becomes a free agent after next season, he said it isn’t happening. And, the laid-back, soft-spoken Johnson isn’t worried about trying to get an extension beyond the six-year deal he signed worth up to $64 million as a rookie.
“Whenever it happens, it happens,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “I’m not really pushing for it or anything right now because I’m still under contract.”
Stafford is too — with three-plus years left on a six-year contract worth up to $78 million. After their relationship on the field was stunted by injuries, nothing is stopping them now.
“We’re just hitting things on the head right now,” Johnson said.