Packers-Lions: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (5-5-1) vs. the Detroit Lions (6-5).
The time: 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
The place: Ford Field, Detroit.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Erin Andrews and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 85-47-1 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Detroit’s Jim Schwartz is 28-48 (including 0-1 in the postseason) in his fifth full season as coach of the Lions and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 94-65-7, but the Lions hold a 41-39-3 edge in games played in Detroit. The Packers have won five straight games in the series and beat the Lions, 24-20, in the teams’ meeting in Detroit last year. On Oct. 6, the Packers won, 22-9.
The rankings: The Packers’ second-ranked offense is No. 6 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 20th-ranked defense is No. 19 against the run and No. 20 against the pass. The Lions’ sixth-ranked offense is No. 2 in rushing and No. 3 in passing. Their 22nd-ranked defense is No. 4 against the run and No. 28 against the pass.
The line: The Lions are favored by 6 1/2 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone), RB Johnathan Franklin (concussion/neck), ILB Jamari Lattimore (quadriceps), DE C.J. Wilson (ankle).
Questionable: TE Brandon Bostick (concussion). Probable: LG Josh Sitton (back), DE Johnny Jolly (groin), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), RT Marshall Newhouse (shoulder), CB Sam Shields (hamstring), RT Don Barclay (knee), OLB Nick Perry (foot).
Lions – Doubtful: CB Chris Houston (foot). Probable: S Louis Delmas (knee), S Glover Quin (ankle), DE Israel Idonije (knee), WR Calvin Johnson (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
No-huddle up: The admission came after the fact, after it had jump-started – along with the insertion of Matt Flynn into the ballgame – an offense that seemed to be going nowhere. Remember how the no-huddle offense was so effective last week in erasing the Minnesota Vikings’ 23-7 lead? Yeah, well, Flynn’s preparation wasn’t exactly extensive.
“I thought the no-huddle was a great change,” McCarthy said earlier this week. “But Matt Flynn wasn’t really prepared to run the no-huddle. It’s a credit to him to do that because we didn’t prepare going into the game for no-huddle.”
That’s right, Flynn, who said he only had four snaps with the No. 1 offense, ran the no-huddle offense without having practiced it since he left as an unrestricted free agent in March 2012. And while he wasn’t perfect, it didn’t look vastly different than the last time he ran it, against the Lions in the 2011 regular-season finale, when he threw for a then-record 480 yards and six touchdowns (both marks having since been matched by Rodgers) using primarily the no-huddle.
“Hey, he has a lot of history here. We were drawing off things he has done in the past,” McCarthy explained. “I’ve never called a game the way the game was called (against the Vikings), and we aren’t going to call it like that anymore. It’s a credit to the coaching staff, the quarterbacks, all those guys involved, trying to make things work. We needed a spark we needed to get going. And Matt gave us that. He did a heck of a job.”
Added guard T.J. Lang: “We haven't been able to get into our no-huddle a lot the last three weeks. When coach called for it, I think it was an urgency thing, we were down by a couple scores, it's starting to get late in the game and we knew we didn't have a whole lot of time to waste.”
The smart money is on the Packers utilizing the no-huddle again Thursday, not only because Flynn ran it effectively – and presumably got to work on it during the team’s two light practices on Tuesday and Wednesday – but because of what it does for the offense in general.
“We like it. It’s definitely a good change up,” center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “Teams are sitting there (when) we’re rolling in personnel (in and out), they get a chance to sub. You get the no-huddle out there, you kind of press their conditioning a little bit. So if you can get them out there in a play, then (run) seven, eight plays, stuff like that, it really starts stressing out their guys that are on the field for that time because maybe they’re not as used to it.”
It also seems to be when the Packers’ offense is most in sync. Certainly Rodgers’ presence in the past has been a major factor in that, but there just seems to be a greater comfort for the offensive players to be in the same personnel grouping and running plays in relatively rapid succession.
“I think it just puts us at an advantage. I think any team that runs no-huddle, you get the defense on their heels, you kind of get them tired, gets us in a rhythm,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Either way, I think the key thing is getting that first first down. I think if you look throughout the years, even this year, once we get that first first down, our possession usually turns out to be a positive, even if it’s just flipping the field position.”
McCarthy wouldn’t say if he intended to use the no-huddle, but it seems like a no-brainer to use it at least some of the time – even without Rodgers running it.
“Face it, man, you play different football with Aaron Rodgers than you do with the other quarterbacks,” McCarthy said. “They haven’t been here.”
But Flynn has, and that allows him to run the no-huddle when the coaches were uncomfortable letting Scott Tolzien, who arrived in September and was on the practice squad a month ago, do so.
“Guys have run it here quite a bit,” Flynn said. “You know, once we started making a few plays, I think everyone kind of relaxed a little bit, and kind of said 'Here we go.'”
Running for cover: That loud Splat! you heard was the Packers’ run defense plummeting to earth. After six games, the Packers ranked third in the NFL in run defense and were on pace to break the single-season record for fewest rushing yards allowed, eclipsing the 2009 team, which led the league for the first time in franchise history.
To quote Vince Lombardi, “What the hell’s goin’ on out there?”
“I really couldn’t tell you,” defensive end Mike Daniels replied. “I just know we know how to get it done. And that’s what we have to do.”
Since their peak, the Packers not only haven’t been able to stop the run, they haven’t even put up much resistance at all. They’ve fallen from third to 19th in the 32-team league and have ceded a stunning 514 yards over the past three games, including a season-high 232 yards to the Vikings last Sunday.
“I still feel like we can get this thing all pulled together. We haven’t played our complete game yet,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “But I see some areas that I think we’re improving in and doing more consistently. Obviously run defense was not very good from a leverage standpoint, run fits, gap control and we picked a tough time with those two (bad) series against a good running team. If those guys can get the run going on you, they’re going to continue to pound it in there until you get it stopped.”
And the Packers never did. In the Lions, the Packers face an offense that’s predicated on the passing game, but Reggie Bush (737 yards, 4.6-yard average) has been productive and Joique Bell (341 yards, five rushing TDs) has contributed. So while the Lions might not be a run-first outfit, stopping the run will still be vital. Having Jolly, who left the Nov. 17 game at the New York Giants and didn’t play last week, will help, but it’s more than just him.
“We’ve had a lot of missed tackles, and we had some missed assignments. We've just got to get rid of that,’ veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “We’re definitely better with Johnny out there with us. That definitely won’t hurt, getting him back. He brings a lot of energy. We’re glad to have him back.”
Containing Calvin: Calvin Johnson tried to be politically correct. To a certain extent, he succeeded. Asked during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field if the Oct. 6 game between the teams would have turned out differently had he played, Johnson immediately answered, “Yeah.” But he wasn’t expounding from there.
“I’m not going to call it (and) say that we would have won the game,” said Johnson, who missed the 22-9 loss with a knee injury that has bothered him all year. “But it definitely would have been a closer matchup.”
Now, the Packers will want to stay close to Johnson, who leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,198) and is tied for the NFL lead in TD receptions (11). Getting Shields, who Capers acknowledged will match up at times on Johnson, back from injury will help, but it’s not just about him.
“Sam (is) a guy who has the ability to challenge to get balls and he hasn’t given up a lot of completions. He brings another play-maker to the field and you can never have too many play-makers out there on the field,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “When you’re going against Calvin Johnson – he’s the best receiver in the league. He’s the most talented, he’s the most gifted. You need everybody involved and you have to play almost perfect just to have a chance with him. He’s that good.”
Even after missing the first meeting, Johnson has caught more passes (65) for more yards (1,062) and more touchdowns (11) than he has against any other opponent. He’s played 11 career games against the Packers. Whitt compared Johnson to LeBron James in that, you can plan your entire defense around stopping him and still not stop him.
“Early on in his career, he ran poor routes and he wasn’t as developed as he is now. Now, he’s in the slot, he’s outside. Early on, you knew where he was going to be and he only ran four routes. Now he runs the whole route tree and he runs it well,” Whitt said. “He’s really gifted, so it’s difficult. It’s hard to just match one guy on him because he’s going to be in the slot (and other places).
“(Shields) wants it. Sam has tried to show that he is an every-down corner. Now, he’s trying to make that next step to can he be in the conversation with some of those top corners that are out there? I believe the way he’s played - we haven’t played as well as I would hope that we would play on defense and in the secondary, but he has. You can’t take that away from him.”
Taking a licking: Eddie Lacy laughed, because that’s what Eddie Lacy does. He laughs.
But it’s no joke. The Packers rookie running back has carried the ball a lot this year (197 times for 806 yards and six TDs), and on most of those carries, he’s taken a hard hit. But if people are worried about his number of carries – after never carrying more than 20 times in one game in college, he’s had 20-plus carries in seven of the last eight games since returning from a concussion – or the punishment he takes on those carries, he’s not among them.
“That’s Eddie. He runs with power. These guys have to get low and get down to get him down. You play him up high, you’re going to go for a ride,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said.
“If he showed up on the injury report every week with something, then I’d be concerned. He hasn’t. Maybe it’s youth, I don’t know. But big boy and I know he runs hard. I have no concern.”
Neither does Lacy, who says he does two things – initiates the contact himself, and contorts his body before getting hit to avoid taking a direct blow – that make the punishment he doles out and delivers less of a concern than it is for many others.
“In college I was taught if you hit them before he hits you, the impact won’t be as bad. Even though it looks bad, it’s not bad as if you’re just sitting there waiting to take the hit,” said Lacy, who ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing yards entering the week. “So that’s my mindset. To me, delivering the hit is not as bad as just taking it.”
Sack exchange: If you were surprised to learn this week that the Packers are tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 37, you’re not alone. Clay Matthews was surprised, too.
“Hell yeah, we are,” the four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker said, pretending he knew it all along.
How that is even possible with Matthews having missed four games with a broken thumb and the Packers maddeningly inconsistent with the pressure they generate is hard to fathom. While sacks are obviously not the ideal measurement of pressure – Pro Football Focus has them for 36 sacks, 27 QB hits and 123 QB hurries on the season, and theMMQB.com’s Greg Bedard ranks the Packers 21 st in his “Pressure Points” – it’s still a surprising number. The number got an assist from a season-high six sacks on Minnesota’s Christian Ponder last Sunday.
“You look at the guys we have in there, we’re doing a good job,” Matthews insisted. “Ultimately sacks, hurries and pressure, it’s all the same. We’re trying to make the quarterback as uncomfortable as possible, and I think with me getting closer to being a healthy as I can, Mike Daniels playing real well, Mike Neal playing well, Datone (Jones) coming on and hopefully with the addition of Nick Perry coming back, we’ve got some guys up there who can rush the passer.
“It’s about putting ourselves in that position to rush the passer by stopping the run. I feel good about, when we have the opportunity to tee off in a passing situation, we feel good about getting home.”
That might be easier said than done against Matthew Stafford, who’s only been sacked 14 times this season. But with Perry expected to play and Matthews using a small cast – he still isn’t far enough along to switch to a brace, he said – and the defensive linemen contributing, there might be home for even more production in this department. It’d also help if the Packers offense could put up some points and let the defense play with a lead for a change.
“First, getting everybody back healthy is going to help our defense out and our pass rush and our pressure, but you’ve also got to look at these past couple weeks – we’ve been playing from behind,” Matthews said. “It’s difficult because you know you have to play a little more honest. Especially this past week, (Minnesota) is a run-dominated team. We feared the run moreso than the past playing last week. But that doesn’t mean we’re playing less aggressively; it’s just your priorities. You’ve got to play the odds, and part of that is understanding where you’re at.
“If we can get a lead early, maybe we can turn that number up past six.”
It would appear Rodgers, with 10 days before the team’s next game, will make his triumphant return next week against Atlanta on Dec. 8. At least, the Packers hope it’s triumphant. But even if it is, it might be too late if they don’t manage a Thanksgiving miracle. There’s certainly a formula for the Packers to win at Ford Field without their fearless leader, especially given the way the Lions have found new and exciting ways to lose. But when you don’t have a quarterback who can erase your mistakes, you can’t make any. That’ll be the requirement in this one – take the ball away, don’t give it away, have the offensive and defensive playcallers on top of their games and have a role player step up with an unexpected performance. The guess here? That’s asking too much. Lions 31, Packers 27. (Season record: 8-2-1)
– Jason Wilde