Packers-Lions: 5 things to watch

Packers-Lions: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (11-4) vs. the Detroit Lions (11-4).

The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage:  FOX – WITI (Channel 6) in Milwaukee, WMSN (Channel 47) in Madison and WLUK (Channel 11) in Green Bay.

The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the broadcast booth and Erin Andrews reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 99-54-1 (including 6-5 in the postseason) in his ninth season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. Detroit’s Jim Caldwell is 11-4 in his first season as the Lions coach after going 28-24 (including 2-2 in the postseason) in three seasons as coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

The series:  The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 94-67-7 and are 56-24-4 at home, including having won 23 straight (including playoffs) on Wisconsin soil. The Lions won the meeting in Detroit earlier this season, 19-7 on Sept. 21.

The rankings:  The Packers’ sixth-ranked offense is No. 11 in rushing and No. 7 in passing. Their 12th-ranked defense is No. 22 against the run and No. 10 against the pass. The Lions 18th-ranked offense is No. 27 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. Their second-ranked defense is No. 1 against the run and No. 13 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 7.5 points.

The injury report: Packers – Out: CB Davon House (shoulder). Probable: G T.J. Lang (ankle), QB Aaron Rodgers (calf), G Josh Sitton (toe), OLB Clay Matthews (biceps), LB Mike Neal (abdomen). Lions – Out: DT Nick Fairley (knee). Probable:  WR Calvin Johnson (ankle), CB Mohammed Seisay (hamstring). RB Joique Bell (Achilles’).

The stakes:  The winner claims the NFC North division title, a first-round playoff bye and a home game in the NFC Divisional Playoff round. The loser will be a wild-card entrant into the playoffs and have to play on the road next weekend in the NFC Wild Card round.

 

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Turning it around:  Midway through the season, the Packers were dead last in the 32-team NFL in run defense, hemorrhaging yards at an alarming rate. After allowing New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram to rush for 172 yards on 24 carries during their Oct. 26 loss to the Saints, the Packers were worst in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (153.5) and third-worst in yards per rush allowed (4.8). McCarthy was so exasperated that he said the Packers needed to “tackle the damn ballcarrier” when asked why the run defense was so bad.

Fast forward two months, and now, the unit has turned things around. Although ranking 22nd in the NFL isn’t exactly an accomplishment, opponents are now averaging 120.5 yards per game on the ground against the Packers, and in their last seven games, the defense has given up 82.9 yards per game.

“I don’t know if you ever think it’s right where we want it to be but I think we’ve made improvement – obvious improvement – in that area,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We’ve got to continue to do that. If not, then your opponent controls the tempo of the game. If you can stop the run, then you can control the tempo of the game.”

Capers’ defenses in Green Bay have historically gotten better against the run as the seasons have worn on – including in his first year, when the 2009 Packers led the NFL in run defense but were horrendous early, including in a Week 2 home loss to Cincinnati in which Cedric Benson ran for 141 yards on 29 carries.

“I remember the second game out here against the Cincinnati Bengals, we couldn’t get them stopped in the run. I was really concerned about that,” Capers said. “But the second half of the season, nobody could run the ball against us. Run defense is like putting on a glove. Everything has to fit. And everybody’s got a gap, you’ve got to control your responsibility, and you’ve got to get pursuit coming there. You’ve got to win your 1-on-1 battles, you can’t let them get moving downhill, and you’ve got to tackle. I think we’ve tackled better. We didn’t tackle very well early in the season and we played some pretty good run offenses early in the season, where we weren’t quite as cohesive as we are now.”

Asked where the defense has improved the most against the run, veteran outside linebacker Julius Peppers pointed to the improved tackling, saying, “At times, we had guys wrapped up in the backfield for losses and allowed them to escape and turn some negative plays into positive plays so tackling is definitely one of the things that can help your run D out and individually tackling and we’ve also got to have guys gang-tackling, guys swarming to the ball, betting more guys to the ball.”

But it’s more than that. Moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews inside in the nickel defense has helped, as has the improved play of safety Morgan Burnett, who missed that Saints game with a calf injury. Letroy Guion, pressed into a starting role after B.J. Raji’s preseason biceps injury, has settled in, too.

But maybe it’s something less complicated, too.

“I just think that guys have gotten into a good groove of just doing their job,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “I think that everything has been the same. We’re moving guys around, we’re doing the same type of scheme stuff, same type of concepts. Just playing better.”

Taking it on the run:  Speaking of run defense, not only are the Lions on pace to be the sixth-best defense against the run in NFL history (63.8 yards per game), but teams have all but given up on trying to even run against them. Since the New York Jets ran it 27 times for 132 yards on Sept. 28, teams like Minnesota (18 attempts), Miami (19), Chicago (eight) and Tampa Bay (14) have simply given up. (Chicago did run it 22 times last Sunday.) In their first meeting on Sept. 21, the Packers ran the ball 22 times for a measly 76 yards.

“You do [have to stick with the run against the Lions], but not many people have,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed out. “They haven’t had a team rush I don’t think for 30 attempts all season on them. People have been trying to throw it on them, people are averaging close to 40 attempts passing the ball per game and in the mid-20s running it. It’s tough to move the ball on this team, because they’re so stout up front. You just know it’s going to be a game where you have to be very efficient throwing the ball, and you have to look for those opportunities for extended plays in the run game and the pass game.”

As good as the Lions run defense is, though, the Packers run game is vastly improved. Over the last five games, running back Eddie Lacy has carried 91 times for 492 yards and four touchdowns – an average of 98.4 yards per game and 5.41 yards per carry. What’s the difference?

“I mean, the play-caller is giving him the damn ball, right? Is that what I’m supposed to say?” McCarthy replied. “I just think Eddie’s been playing very well for a long time, for two months or so. I think sometimes you get caught up in statistics – you people get caught up in statistics. The fact [is], Eddie has the ball in his hands, whether it’s running it or catching it, he’s been extremely productive. The run-blocking unit I think is in sync. Much better today than it was four, five weeks ago.”

Later in the week, though, McCarthy abandoned his “stats are for losers” mantra and acknowledged that the quality of play in the run game has improved significantly.

“I think run-blocking units improve. You’re always looking for individuals to improve, but the timing, the fit of the blocks, the course of the back, the anticipation, all those things are important to continue to try and build over time,” he admitted. “We’re in sync. We’re playing much better than we did early in the year.”

Lacy, for one, wasn’t interested in overanalysis when asked what’s changed.

“We’ve been on the road here running the ball, and week after week, we’ve just been picking up momentum, so just hope to take it into this week as well,” Lacy said. “I mean, I don’t know [what’s changed]. I have no idea. It just clicked, and you don’t question it. You just continue to roll with it.”

Center of attention:  It has to rank as one of the stupidest things Dominic Raiola has done – and that’s saying something. The Lions veteran center has had his moments where he’s lost his cool before, but stomping on the ankle of Chicago Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson – and earning himself a one-game suspension for doing so – not only was foolish, but it hurt his team in its biggest game of the season. When the suspension was upheld on Friday, it meant that Raiola, who hasn’t missed a game since 2008 – 2008! – would miss Sunday’s battle for the NFC North title.

“You know it’s one of those situations where it’s a guy that’s done a tremendous job for us and certainly one of our leaders,” Caldwell said during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters at midweek, when asked how much the loss of Raiola hurts his team. “We’ve had to play with other guys throughout our season that haven’t been with us. We didn’t have Calvin [Johnson] for a number of weeks. We didn’t have Reggie Bush for a number of weeks. We didn’t have Riley Reiff for a number of weeks. There have been several guys. [Stephen] Tulloch, we haven’t had Tulloch for a long time, but the guys have been able to step in and do their job and not lament about what could be and all those kind of things. We try to stay away from that. We address the issues that we have and we try to get those ironed out and we move ahead, but that’s just the way it is.”

The way it is is that rookie Travis Swanson will start in Raiola’s stead. Drafted in the third round to be Raiola’s heir apparent – this is Raiola’s 14th NFL season – he’s seen action at guard this season, and the Packers’ own rookie center, Corey Linsley, has shown that a young player can step in and play well at such a critical spot.

“It’s not like [Swanson] hasn’t played,” McCarthy said. “I think the challenge for a rookie center or really any position where you’re of high responsibility and decision-making, you’re part of the initial communication so you have a little more responsibility for your teammates. I think it’s a challenge early in the year when things aren’t as established but I think the fact that it’s happened this late, is probably the better of the two options.”

Asked if Raiola’s absence changes his game plan at all, McCarthy replied, “I think it’s important for us to line up and do the things we’re doing very well. I feel very good, very confident about what our defense has done since the bye week. I feel like we’re continuing to grow. It’s important for our guys to be playing fast, free-minded and really focused on the schemes, techniques and fundamentals that we’ve been working on.”

Need a lift:  While Packers wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb continue to be one of the NFL’s top 1-2 punches are wide receiver, the Packers No. 3 and No. 4 spots have been punchless of late – and that’s especially disconcerting considering that rookie third receiver Davante Adams had such an impressive coming-out-party game against New England a month ago.

Since he caught six passes for 121 yards against the Patriots, Adams’ most noticeable moments have come when he’s dropped the ball. He was charged with at least one drop against Buffalo – when the Packers had nine as a team, according to the coaches’ grading system – and wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett had him down for two drops against Tampa Bay last Sunday.

Since the New England game, Adams has caught one pass for 6 yards against Atlanta, one pass for 6 yards against Buffalo and two passes for 17 yards against Tampa Bay – for a not-so-grand total of four receptions for 29 yards in those three games.

“We have to be more consistent. Bottom line,” Bennett said when asked about Adams. “We have to be more consistent.”

The second of Adams’ two drops against the Bucs was a tough one – he was drilled by Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson on the play – but Bennett said his guys are expected to tuck the ball away more quickly in situations where they know they’re going to get hit.

“Make the play. Make. The. Play,” Bennett said. “Is it a tough situation? Yeah. But it goes back to excuses. We don’t make any excuses. The standards are set, and they’re set for a reason. … We know the hit is coming.”

Meanwhile Boykin, who started the season as the No. 3 but lost the job to Adams, had a drop against the Bills turn into an interception and enters the game with only three receptions for 23 yards on the season – after catching 49 passes last year.

“Maybe [his season] wasn’t quite to our standards. [But] clearly, we have a lot of football left,” Bennett said. “‘Boyk’ in his day-to-day preparation has been where he needs to be. Then it comes down to making the most of your opportunities. He had more snaps last week, we’ll see how things go this week.”

Getting their kicks:  While their special teams units have had their issues this season – especially with blocked punts and placekicks – the Packers kickoff return game hasn’t had any glaring mistakes.

That’s because it’s been non-existent.

Kickoff returner DuJuan Harris enters Sunday’s game having taken back 22 kickoffs for an average of 20.7 yards – his longest return being a 41-yarder. More than half the kickoffs that the Packers have received (38, or 56.7 percent) have been touchbacks, and the Packers’ average starting position has been the 21-yard line, ranking them 23 rd in the 32-team league in that category.

“We’ve take a conservative approach in terms of bringing the ball out because we want to start on the 20,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum explained.

Now’s the time, though, that the Packers might want to get more aggressive in their approach – in hopes of generating the kind of big, momentum-turning play on which some playoff games (or de facto playoff games, in this case) hinge.

“I think the kick return game, this is the time of year where it needs to accelerate, and I’m looking for that to happen Sunday,” McCarthy said. “This is the kind of weather you want to be playing your best football in the return game with the elements.

“I don’t think we had many opportunities early. But I think we have a chance to improve here down the stretch. And when you play in the winter months up here, this is when the return game has to factor.”

Thanks in part to their home games being in domed Ford Field, an eye-popping 72.9 percent of the Lions’ kickoffs – 51 of 70 – have been touchbacks. But on those 19 that have been returned, Lions opponents have averaged 28.6 yards per return.

“There’s an opportunity to have an explosive gain every time you return a ball, even if it’s a little deep. So as we move forward, I think the weather conditions will mean we have more opportunity to return the ball,” Slocum said. “I look for us to have some plays. We need to do that.

“Every game is its own game, and it’s about the conditions that day and the players making plays and being productive. We need some production out of our kickoff return game.”

THE PREDICTION

Early in the week, the Packers put out the call for their faithful fans to pump up the volume with their hokey “Get Loud Lambeau” campaign. (Hey, it’s better than the G-Force.) Players and coaches wore t-shirts, the team’s social media accounts pushed the theme and fans got the message: Your team needs you this Sunday. But let’s get real here. The Packers are a perfect 7-0 at home this season, with an NFL MVP candidate at the controls (even playing on a bum left calf) and an offense that’s scored the second-most points in the league. Everyone knows the stakes. This is the kind of game that a legit Super Bowl contender wins in its stadium. If the Packers lose, they deserve the difficult playoff road they’d get for being a wild card. McCarthy loves to talk about how all the team’s goals “are in front of” them each week. Well, here’s their chance. Packers 34, Lions 20. (Season record: 10-5.)

– Jason Wilde

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