Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, right, successfully defends a pass intended for Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the end zone during the second quarter of Thursday's game at Ford Field in Detroit. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
DETROIT — A month ago, maybe even a couple of weeks ago, Tramon Williams couldn’t have done it.
With his right shoulder still ailing from getting crunched during a violent collision in the season opener, asking him to cover Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson play in and play out would not have worked.
“I don’t think they would have tried or asked me to do it at that point,” Williams said. “But I’m feeling better now, obviously.”
That was evident on Thanksgiving, more than two months after the Green Bay Packers’ best cover cornerback got his shoulder smashed between two players, when Williams finally felt healthy enough to take on such an assignment. So defensive coordinator Dom Capers matched Williams on the 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver dubbed “Megatron” and what happened from there played as big a role in the Packers’ 27-15 victory as anything else that happened Thursday afternoon at Ford Field.
Though Johnson caught a late, meaningless touchdown — his league-leading 12th of the season — the NFC’s most explosive receiver was a non-factor. He caught just four passes for 49 yards, including the 3-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left that was the fault of safety Morgan Burnett, who should have been Williams’ inside help.
Against Williams, Johnson caught only one pass for 5 yards, and on the play after that cornerback Charles Woodson picked off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford for one of three Packers’ interceptions.
“We don’t expect anything else out of Tramon,” Woodson said. “Tramon has just turned into a tremendous player for us, and he did a great job.”
Johnson’s other two catches — for 23 yards against Jarrett Bush on a post-corner route for his only catch of the first half and for 18 yards against Burnett — came when he lined up in the slot, which was the only place where Williams didn’t cover him. If Johnson was the outside receiver on either side, which he was often, then Williams shadowed him.
Though Williams missed only one game (Week 2 at Carolina) because of the shoulder, he wasn’t as effective as he was last season, when he developed into one of the top corners in the NFC. The persistent pain made it difficult for him to play the kind of press-man coverage he did last season. It wasn’t until well after the Oct. 30 bye that he began to feel — and play — like himself again.
“It was more mental than physical,” Williams said. “The physical aspect hurt, but mentally you were just trying to get through the game without reinjuring it. I was able to get through that period. Now I’m just thankful that my shoulder is back to where it initially was, and I’m able to play like I want.”
With Johnson rendered a non-factor, the Lions couldn’t generate much more than a variety of dump-off passes that got them across midfield a bunch but into the red zone only twice.
The Packers’ defense set up the only points of the first half when linebacker Clay Matthews intercepted a ball that defensive lineman Ryan Pickett deflected. Three plays later, Aaron Rodgers threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings.
The Lions still managed 409 yards, but they had a dearth of big plays. Their longest completion was the 23-yarder to Johnson, and their longest run was a 22-yard scramble by Stafford.
“When we don’t give up the big play, it’s hard for teams to drive the ball all the way down the field and score,” Pickett said. “We’ve got too many playmakers on the back end. We made a team drive the ball all the way down and didn’t give up the big play, it played in our favor.”
Williams could’ve had two interceptions, one of which he probably would have returned for a touchdown. On the game’s opening series, he almost picked off a pass that was high and into coverage. Then late in the second quarter, with the Lions beginning a drive at their own 21-yard line, Williams jumped a short pass intended for Johnson. Had he held on, he probably would have scored.
His biggest play came later in that drive, when the Lions took a shot at the end zone on third-and-2 from the Packers’ 29. Stafford launched one of those jump balls that Johnson has feasted on this season, but Williams played it perfectly. With good position behind Johnson, Williams slowed down enough to get in the receiver’s way without interfering, and then broke up the pass in the end zone to save a touchdown. Detroit kicker Jason Hanson then missed a 47-yard field goal on the next play.
That was the only deep shot the Lions tried for Johnson all game. Williams went into the game expecting them to try it more.
“You would think so, but they didn’t do it much,” Williams said. “They tried some different things, and we kept ’em off balance.
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