Calvin Johnson is indisputably the best receiver in the NFL today. No other player at the position possesses such dominating physical tools. Having Johnson on the field is the equivalent of a basketball team putting a great center in the middle. A player that overpowering demands extra attention from the defense on every play, which frees up all his teammates. Johnson either makes the play himself, even with defenders draped all over him, or sucks in the defense and leaves other things wide open. As long as Detroit can fill in with solid skill players around Johnson, and feature a QB with a good enough arm to throw it up deep down the field, the Lions will have a good offense. He is today what Randy Moss was ten years ago, the ultimate game-changer.
So we know Johnson is top dog in the NFL right now when it comes to the wide receiver position, but who then is number 2? A lot of people would say A.J. Green. Some would argue it’s still Larry Fitzgerald. Maybe Victor Cruz. Julio Jones. There are lots of names you can throw in there. And the Vikings’ own Percy Harvin is definitely on that list.
Just look at Harvin’s production since the second half of last season. Percy was having a rather nondescript 2011 up until Week 11 against Oakland when he posted 73 yards on 6 catches with a TD. After that Harvin exploded. His high-water mark came against Denver when he sliced and diced the Broncos’ defense for 156 yards and 2 TDs on 8 catches. That was the week everything came together. The Broncos seemingly had no answer for Harvin who kept burning them with crossing routes and short catches turned into huge gains. Bill Musgrave discovered, during that game and the whole second half run, the perfect formula for maximizing Harvin’s impact. Line him up all over. Use him out of the backfield. On screens. From the slot. Outside. Doesn’t matter, just get him the dang ball.
That approach carried over into the 2012 season, and so far it is paying off big. Harvin currently leads the NFL with 27 catches, most of the short variety, and is the leader in YAC with 153 yards (out of a total of 277). Christian Ponder has had a nice year and he owes much of his success to his top receiving target. Harvin’s ability to turn almost any reception into a good gain takes pressure off Ponder to push the ball down the field. I daresay the Vikings’ safe, short-pass-heavy approach would not work without a player like Harvin transforming those passes into big plays. Ponder is 5th in passer rating right now and much of that is down to Harvin’s playmaking .
The only thing missing from Harvin’s game this year has been the touchdowns. After three games Harvin has yet to hit pay dirt as a receiver, running back or kick returner. But Harvin’s impact is being felt in the red zone nonetheless. Teams have been committing extra defenders to Harvin, leaving other things wide open. This has especially benefited Kyle Rudolph who has caught 3 TDs already, good enough for 2nd in the NFL.
On the surface, Percy Harvin and Calvin Johnson could not be more different as players. Johnson is the ultimate downfield threat, the big, fast, tall receiver who can out-run, out-fight or out-jump defenders, whatever it takes to make the reception. Harvin on the other hand does almost all his work catching balls either behind the line of scrimmage or in that underneath area. His thing is making the first tackler miss and turning a short reception into a long gain. This puts a completely different type of pressure on the defense than what Johnson brings to bear. Johnson presents a huge challenge in coverage, forcing teams to adjust their entire defense and commit extra bodies to try and deny him the ball. With Harvin, it’s not so much about denying him the ball, because the Vikings always put him in a position where it’s virtually impossible to do so, it’s about getting him down once he has the ball.
Here’s where Harvin’s unique set of skills really shows up. Lots of slot receivers are quick and elusive, and Harvin certainly is too, but few are as strong. Harvin doesn’t just evade defenders, he breaks tackles with pure strength, and tries to bowl over defenders. This approach makes for some tense moments when Harvin plows into guys and you think he’s not going to get up. But Harvin is tough too and always plays on no matter how banged up his body becomes thanks to his wrecking-ball approach.
Those skills have always been there for Harvin, but it’s only been since the middle of last season that Bill Musgrave has really been using them to their best advantage. The Vikings by now have almost entirely scrapped the idea of getting Harvin downfield, even though he certainly has the speed to be used down the field, and have turned him into a multi-positional ultimate weapon. They throw him smoke screens. They run him on short crossing routes and slants. They use him on end-arounds. They line him up in the backfield as a scatback. The first job for any defense now is finding Percy on the field. Then it’s up to them to try and bring him down once he has the ball. This approach is so unique and effective that the Packers have begun trying to emulate it using Randall Cobb. But Cobb is no Harvin.
Though Percy and Megatron are very different players, they do have one big thing in common: right now they are both basically unstoppable. No one can cover Johnson downfield, and no defense can take away Harvin. Bill Musgrave has mastered the art of getting Harvin the ball in positions where he can do the most damage. Even if you are a sound tackling team, you’re going to have a hard time bringing Percy down before he’s gotten his five yards. And if you don’t get him down, that five yard carry will become twenty. It’s like having a great running back on the field, but he’s lined up as a receiver.
Couple Harvin with a genuinely great traditional running back in Adrian Peterson, and you have the makings of a nightmare situation for defensive coordinators The Vikings are still learning how to use both those weapons together, but once they get it all figured out, and find a deep receiver to complement them – maybe Jerome Simpson can be the guy – this will be an offense to be reckoned with. We’ll get to see that offense, with Simpson on the field for the first time, this Sunday against Detroit. If Percy and Megatron both bring it like they have been, it should be a hell of a show.