Englewood (AP) — Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has watched Calvin Johnson's ascension to elite wide receiver status from afar.
On Sunday, he will get a firsthand look at the explosive Lions receiver for the first time since a 2007 matchup when Johnson was a raw but talented rookie.
"Back then he was a young pup," Bailey said. "He wasn't polished yet, but he's figured that thing out real fast. He has no issues now. He's using everything he has — size, strength, all his speed. You see all the different parts of his game coming out."
Through the first seven games for Detroit (5-2), Johnson is the NFL leader with 10 touchdown catches while ranking third in the league in receptions (41) and fourth in yards receiving (689). The tall, classically built receiver has posed constant matchup problems for defensive backs and he has broken through coverage to register four games with multiple touchdown catches as one of the league's best scoring threats.
"They throw the ball up to him in the red area. They throw the ball up to him on deep balls, and he's come down with most of them," Broncos coach John Fox said. "He's a tremendous talent with a big, physical body that is a tough matchup."
More often than not, it figures to be Bailey drawing the coverage assignment on Johnson for the Broncos.
A 10-time Pro Bowl defender who has showed no signs of slowing down, Bailey is coming off a solid performance last week in which he kept star Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall out of the end zone and limited him to six inconsequential catches for 61 yards.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," said Johnson, who's formed quite a combination with quarterback Matthew Stafford. "I have to be on top of my details out there."
Stafford hurt his ankle last week but has practiced the last couple of weeks, although backup Shaun Hill has been taking snaps with the first team.
"We'll get the job done," Johnson said.
Bailey said he was on Johnson for only two or three plays when the teams played in 2007. He'll face him singled up on occasion Sunday and the Broncos also will throw in double teams and move defenders around in a bid to contain the wide receiver dubbed "Megatron" for his penchant for big plays.
"I think one guy could be successful, but it does take a team effort to defend him all day," Bailey said. "You can't just match up on him and think it's going to work all day, if he has a good quarterback throwing the ball. There's sometimes when he goes up, nobody can get to that height that he reaches. He's about as tall, strong and unique as they come."
Bailey said he can draw little from his previous encounter with Johnson, a 44-7 loss by the Broncos at Detroit in 2007. Johnson struggled back then against bump-and-run coverage, Bailey recalled. But the transformation since then has been dramatic and Bailey said he sees a complete receiver when he views tape of Johnson nowadays, noting one play in particular against Dallas three weeks ago when the receiver outfought and outjumped three defenders in the end zone to make a critical scoring catch.
"That shows you how special he is," Bailey said. "That was one special play out of many. It just lets you know that you've got to be on top of your game with this guy. You've got to get lucky sometimes too, because he is going to make some plays."
The key for Bailey and the Broncos will be to keep them to a minimum.
"Out of 60-70 (plays), he's going to get one or two," Bailey said. "Do I want him to? No. Do I believe he can? No. But it's going to happen. It always does and I know history repeats itself. It's been happening all these years like that. It's not going to change. My mentality is I don't want to let it happen, so you're going to get everything I've got every single play."
NOTES: RB Willis McGahee missed a second consecutive practice because of a broken finger and probably won't be available for the Lions game on Sunday. ... DB Brian Dawkins was excused from Thursday's practice because of illness. DE Elvis Dumervil (ankle) was again held out of practice Thursday and DL Marcus Thomas (knee) took part in the workout on a limited basis. ... Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas said he learned quite a bit about running patterns from watching Johnson when both were at Georgia Tech. The two remain in touch and even had a phone conversation this week.
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