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Detroit's Megatron making magic

Record-busting Lions receiver 'definitely better'

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DETROIT -- Calvin (Megatron) Johnson swatted away Chris Houston's hand and in an instant was barrelling full speed down the sideline. Ten yards later, he stopped on a dime, leaned back, and with Houston draped on his 6-5 frame, plucked a Matthew Stafford pass out of the air just as he fell to the ground.

Houston turned back toward the line of scrimmage in disbelief. Another amazing catch by the game's best receiver that he couldn't do a single thing about.

"Hey, y'all want to try to hold him?" Houston said to a group of cheering fans on the other side of a metal gate.

"It's hard," Houston said after practice. "I'm all over him and still he's so lengthy that when he threw the ball, he just stretched out. I'm like, 'Damn, you got extra arms or something?' Stretch Armstrong out here."

As impossible as it is seems, Johnson, 27 and coming off the most prolific receiving season in NFL history, could be even better this year.

He might not surpass his own record of 1,964 yards receiving, though becoming the league's first 2,000-yard receiver is his stated goal.

But he's in the best shape of his life, he's fully recovered from the assortment of minor injuries that nagged him last year, and according to teammates, he's added several nitpicking improvements to his game.

"He's definitely better," Houston said. "He focuses on things he might not have done so well last year, like with his body language. One thing I've seen, when he comes to the line, he's getting lower and not so high. Usually when he gets tired, he kind of stands up high and gives you more of his body for press. But now he's trying to stay low in everything he does, so it makes it harder to read his breaks."

Almost unanimously, Johnson is considered the best receiver in the game, a fact he manages to admit in a humble, self-effacing way.

Prodded about the off-season workouts he does with Cincinnati's A.J. Green and Denver's Demaryius Thomas in his native Georgia, Johnson allows that "those guys are trying to come get me, trying to be the top in the league, as they should."

"You always want to be the best," he said.

Seven years into what might be a hall of fame career, Johnson said he's still learning his craft.

He beats himself up over dropped passes, like the drop he had Saturday in a seven-on-seven drill a few minutes after that head-turning catch against Houston. He's lauded regularly by coach Jim Schwartz as one of the team's hardest workers and most dedicated players.

"Every year, it's just a never-ending process," Johnson said. "Route-running, concentrating on the ball, blocking -- those things. Hustling to the ball when somebody else catches the ball."

For most of his historic 2012 season, Johnson carried an offence that sometimes struggled to reach the end zone.

He caught a career-high 122 passes -- 26 more than his previous high a year earlier -- and had eight straight 100-yard games late in the season, seven of them in Lions losses.

But last year took a toll on him as he watched his receiving room crumble around him. Nate Burleson broke his leg in October, Ryan Broyles tore his ACL in December, and Titus Young burned every bridge he had in the organization in between.

Burleson and Broyles are healthy now and full participants in training camp, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew and running back Reggie Bush both appear poised for big seasons, too. All four could top 50 catches this year, which means Johnson's numbers could decline even if he's better overall.

"Where I got to last year, it's a difficult feat, and then a lot of that was because we had a lot of guys hurt, so I had to take on the bulk of the offence," Johnson said. "Matt was very confident in me. He was feeding me last year because, like I said, we had two guys down in Nate and Broyles that were big helps to our offence.

"We've got even more help this year, so hopefully it doesn't have to come to that and we have multiple guys with 1,000-yard seasons."

Johnson said he'd rather divvy up the receiving load this year than make another run at 2,000 yards, especially if it helps the Lions win more games.

"There's a stereotype of diva wide receivers, and Calvin breaks a lot of stereotypes," Schwartz said. "We're really, really proud to have him on our team and he's obviously a difference-maker on the field, and it doesn't take one training- camp practice to see that."

-- Detroit Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2013 B13

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