Indeed, quarterback Matthew Stafford has authored some impressive comebacks: The Lions rallied from 20-13 and 23-20 deficits to beat St. Louis 27-23 in the opener; came back from down 23-13 to beat Philadelphia 26-23 on Oct. 14; and overcame 17-7 and 24-21 deficits to beat Seattle 28-24 on Oct. 28. Capers made sure his guys heard plenty about those three games.
“We’ve tried to point it out all week that they understand, ‘You’d better be ready to play for four quarters. You’ve got to be at your best in the fourth quarter because that’s when they’ve been at their best,’” Capers said. “You’ve seen teams look like they had them beat, and then they lose to them on the last two or three plays of the game. But the way they’re built, that’s their offensive capabilities, because they’re built for being a really good 2-minute team.”
The Replacements: There is no good time to play without Matthews, but having to face the Lions without him is quite the blow. Given that Stafford throws the ball an average of 43 times per game – the Lions eschew the run even more than McCarthy and the Packers do – Matthews and his pass-rushing expertise (a team-high nine sacks) would be quite helpful.
“Now, I’m going to sit here and tell you that you replace Clay Matthews. That’s not the idea,” McCarthy said during the week. “If you look at our pressure, when it’s occurred, it has been a big improvement from the past. The ability to generate pass rush on first down alone has been something we’ve done a very good job of.
“With that, it’s a collective effort. We’re going to need that Sunday.”
While Matthews has 32 percent of the team’s 28 sacks, the rest of relatively equally distributed: C.J. Wilson has 2.5; Mike Daniels, Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, Nick Perry and D.J. Smith have two apiece, Charles Woodson has 1.5 and A.J. Hawk, Morgan Burnett, Erik Walden, Brad Jones and Dezman Moses each have one
Asked how you replace Matthews, Capers replied: “We’ve got to play very good team defense. I don’t know that you look specifically at just the rush or just the coverage, but we’ve got to be a good combination of rush and coverage. Like we’ve talked about around here when we’ve had a guy go down, other guys have had to step up, and every time, they’ve done it, (such as) the Erik Waldens of the world, Moses is going to get more of a chance, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy comes back, so we’ve got to have some of these guys step up and make up for the loss of anybody we don’t have out there.”
While Moses is in line to start in place of Matthews opposite Walden, expect both Frank Zombo, who was activated from the physically unable to perform list but was a game-day inactive on Nov. 4 against Arizona, and recently re-signed Vic So’oto, to see action as well. The oft-injured Zombo has been productive when healthy, and Capers is counting on that again – especially considering the Lions’ aforementioned fourth-quarter success.
“If (Zombo and So’oto) are both up on the 46, then they’ll factor in (on defense),” Capers said. “Again, probably the most strenuous thing is rushing the passer, and the way these guys throw the ball, it could be one of those 50 throws-a-game. If you’re rushing the passer 50 times, you’re going to have to have fresh guys in there. Because what you don’t want is, you don’t want guys to get worn down to the point where they aren’t at their best in the fourth quarter when we need to be the best against these guys.”
Fabulous on first-down: Capers’ rule of thumb for “winning” on first down is to yield 3 yards or fewer. And by his math, his guys have been Charlie Sheen-ing first down roughly 57 percent of the time. No wonder his defense has improved as a whole as well.
Last season, the Packers ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL in first-down defense, yielding a whopping 6.82 yards per first-down play. This season, the Packers rank 10th with at 5.25 yards allowed per first-down play, and that has helped the unit in roughly every other area.
“People talk a lot about third down but maybe the most important down is first down,” Capers said. “I say that because, if you’re calling the game, first down has a big influence on (the calls). If people are controlling first down and they always keep you at a down-and-distance disadvantage to where it’s always second-and-5 or second-and-4, you’re calling a different game than if it’s second-and-8 or -9.
“We’ve always emphasized, ‘Let’s win first down and get things to our advantage to where we can do all those things we like to do. We can’t do all those things if we’re always fighting an uphill battle.’ That’s where teams, if they can come in and run the ball and they can run it in there for 4, 5, 6 yards, that can make for a long day.”
As one might expect, the Packers’ improvement on first down coincides with better run defense. Since Week 4, Green Bay leads the league in run defense (79.7 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.5 yards allowed per carry).
“That’s the first thing every week: stop the run. That’s part of Dom’s coaching,” defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “He wants to stop the run first.”
Also helping the Packers is the fact that of their 28 sacks, 10 have been on first down. Add it all up, and you have a defense that ranks seventh in the NFL in third-down defense at a 34.9 percent conversion rate.
“If you can play good run defense on first and second down and you can get 23 sacks on first and second down, that’s a combination you’re looking for,” Capers said. “From a philosophy standpoint, that’s where it starts: stop the run, get them into predictable situations and then be able to pressure the passer.”
On the flip side, the Packers offense has been abysmal on first down. The unit is averaging only 4.86 yards per play on first down, which ranks 28th in the league. And the offense will be facing a Lions defense that is among the NFL’s best, allowing just 4.65 yards per first-down play, good for third in the NFL.
Against a formidable pass rush, the last thing the Packers want – especially given a Lions secondary that is riddled with injuries and could be ripe for the picking – would be to face third-and-longs against that front, putting Rodgers under constant duress.
“If they can get you in third-and-long, it’s to their advantage,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “You want to stay out of third-and-longs, and one way to do that is to do well on first down. We like to stay on schedule, so we want to eliminate negative-yardage plays or penalties or sacks or anything that’s going to make it difficult to get into a manageable third-down situation.”
YAC attack: Historically, the Packers have been among the league’s best in gaining yards after the catch, but they’re down considerably in that department this season, and it’s not just because of injuries to Jennings and Nelson.
According to STATS, the Packers ranked 10th in the league entering this week’s games in yards after the catch with 1,185 yards. The Oakland Raiders lead the league with 1,449, followed by New England at 1,299 and Denver at 1,284. In terms of YAC yards per reception, the Carolina Panthers are No. 1 at 6.9 yards per catch, followed by Tampa Bay (6.7), Cleveland (6.4) and Buffalo and Oakland (6.3). The Packers, at 5.4 YAC yards per reception, are a middling 15th.
“We can get better,” Nelson said. “We've made some plays, but we've left some opportunities out on the field. We can always improve. We'll just continue to work at it.”
The Packers have perennially been among the NFL’s best in YAC yardage. They finished 14th in YAC in 2008 in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ first year as the starter but were sixth in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third last year, when they had 2,410 YAC yards.
Having Nelson, who missed the Oct. 28 game against Jacksonville with a hamstring injury and left the Nov. 4 game against Arizona with an ankle injury in the first quarter, should help. He led the team in YAC yardage last year (429 yards). This year, 162 of his 532 receiving yards have come after the catch.