With Johnson back, Detroit's passing game still has room for improvement

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ALLEN PARK, Michigan — Calvin Johnson is back on the field, the season is more than half over and the Detroit Lions are still waiting for more production from their passing game.

"It's a lot of different variables that go into us not being as productive as we want to be," Johnson said. "Of course we want to be more explosive out there and make more plays. It's coming. Right now it's just taking some time."

The Lions are tied for first in the NFC North, and they have a very good chance to make the playoffs, but they've succeeded in unexpected fashion this season, with quarterback Matthew Stafford and the offense remaining quiet for extended stretches. Detroit's defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, but the team's inability to move the ball consistently is becoming a concern.

The Lions (7-3) were held without a touchdown in a 14-6 loss at Arizona last weekend. Next up is a trip to New England, and to upset the Patriots, Detroit will probably need big contributions from both sides of the ball.

"I think you know what team you're playing, you study your opponent. Every time we touch the ball, we're trying to put points up, there's no question," Stafford said. "We know they've been successful, especially at their place, on offense — playing really well and getting off to fast starts. So it's on us to match that and make sure that we play well."

Detroit fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter against the Cardinals, then shut out Arizona for the rest of the game. Stafford and the offense could manage only two field goals.

After averaging 4,885 yards passing per season from 2011-13, Stafford's production is down a bit this year. He has avoided crucial interceptions for the most part, and his completion percentage is in line with his previous numbers — but he's on pace for under 4,300 yards, which would be the lowest mark of his career over a full season.

Protection has been an issue. Stafford has already been sacked 31 times, more than in either of the last two seasons.

Johnson missed a month with an ankle injury, but receiver Golden Tate was terrific in his absence. Johnson returned two games ago, and both he and Tate went over 100 yards in a win over Miami, but last weekend, those two combined for only seven catches.

Tate was targeted only twice.

"Sometimes that happens in games," Stafford said. "It's on me to get him the ball, so I'll take credit for not getting it to him, I guess."

When Jim Caldwell was hired as Detroit's new coach after last season, expectations were high for Stafford, since Caldwell had worked with Peyton Manning in the past. But lately, Caldwell has had to defend offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi amid the offense's struggles.

"Let me address this first of all: It's not Lombardi's system, it's our system," Caldwell said Wednesday. "Do I still have faith in it? Absolutely, it just takes work. It's just not one of those things that it happens overnight."

The Patriots have scored at least 42 points in four of their last six games, so as well as Detroit's defense is playing, Stafford and his receivers will be on the spot this week.

"We have really talented players and it's on us to put it together," Stafford said. "We've had some good moments, some bad moments. Obviously, last week we didn't play as good as we are capable of playing, and we're looking forward to another chance on Sunday."

NOTES: Johnson didn't practice Wednesday, and neither did RB Joique Bell (ankle) and OL Larry Warford (knee). DE Jason Jones also missed practice, but the team said that was not injury related.


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