Lions at Packers: Keys to the Game
The bye week is over and the Green Bay Packers have been preparing to get back on a winning track after their week three debacle in Cincinnati.
The good news for the Packers is that they are getting back many of those who were dealing with injury. Clay Matthews, Jermichael Finley, Morgan Burnett, John Kuhn, Eddie Lacy and Jarrett Bush all returned to practice this week and have a good chance to play this Sunday. Cornerback Casey Hayward did participate in some drills, but he has already been ruled out this week. Backup offensive lineman Greg Van Roten suffered a foot sprain in Monday’s practice and he likely will not suit up this weekend either.
Green Bay needs all hands on deck now and after starting the season 1-2. While they always have a good chance of playing a divisional opponent tough, these games are some of the most grueling on the schedule due to each team’s familiarity with each other.
While Detroit has lost 22 straight games at Lambeau Field, they are growing increasingly weary of hearing about “the streak”. The Lions come in with a revamped offense and attitude. Running back Reggie Bush has been phenomenal for Detroit so far this season and if he can stay healthy (he has already missed a game due to a knee injury), he will prove very valuable. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is benefitting from having another solid weapon to detract some of the attention from his All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Speaking of Johnson, he was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report, with a knee issue but popular opinion is that he will play this week.
Let’s look at the keys that will likely factor heavily into the outcome in Sunday’s contest at Lambeau Field.
Reeeeggie, Reeeeggie, Reeeeggie
This was once a battle cry that rang from the stands at Lambeau Field during the 1990′s and in hopes that former Packer Reggie White would destroy the opposing quarterback and impose his will on their team. The Packers could benefit from channeling a bit of their inner-Reggie White this week and hopefully that same chant is ringing from the meeting room of every defensive position group this week. This Reggie, however, is Reggie Bush.
Bush’s stats aren’t what I would call “gaudy” at this point in the season, but it is more of what his presence in the Lions offense is doing for the team. Bush has caught 11 balls out of the backfield and is credited with picking up 13 of Detroit’s first downs so far. Coming into the league, Bush was already known to be a pass-catching threat out of the backfield and the Lions are using his abilities there to the fullest.
Green Bay has struggled with this type of back in the past. Short passes and screens have gashed the Packers for big chunks of yardage and Detroit will look to get the ball in Bush’s hands for just that purpose on Sunday. I also cite Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte as another “air back” who has had just as much success against the Packers via the pass as he has on the ground. With an already-heavy emphasis on containing Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, Green Bay will need to rely on their middle linebackers or their nickel back to try and limit Bush’s production.
Given the struggles in pass defense from middle linebackers AJ Hawk and Brad Jones, I expect to see Green Bay in their nickel quite a bit. That means a lot of Davon House and Micah Hyde on the field. While both possess the physical tools, it is asking a lot of a young corner to cover a Johnson or a Bush all day long. If either can force Bush back to the middle, where support from the front seven should be there to help, the Packers may be able to limit the big plays and yardage that he has been getting so far this season.
The bottom line is that Bush is going to get his yards. Besides being a perimeter thread, Bush is leading the NFL in yards between the tackles as well. I have predicted a huge day for him based on what I have seen so far from the Green Bay defense this season. But if the Packers can force Detroit to become one-dimensional and rely on Bush for most of their offensive output, I like the Packers’ chances of staying ahead of the Lions on the scoreboard. Green Bay would also benefit from long offensive drives that keep the ball out of Bush’s hands. It’s one of the oldest childhood games but in football, keep-away is the best way to stop a high-octane offense.
Aaron Rodgers Activating Chip on Shoulder
Rodgers is coming off of what many describe as one of his worst performances, against the Bengals. To criticize Rodgers is to activate that chip that he carries on his shoulder when he is questioned by the outside world. Green Bay has been quite successful coming off of the bye week under McCarthy and with Rodgers. While nothing comes easy against a divisional opponent, expect Rodgers to come out with a lot of confidence on Sunday. Perhaps, if victorious on Sunday, we may hear Rodgers once again saying “shhhhhhhhh” to the nay-sayers.
The Lions are giving up 111 yards per game on the ground and Packers running backs Eddie Lacy, John Kuhn and Johnathan Franklin are all expected to play this week. Still, don’t expect Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy to try and pound away at the Detroit defense early on. In the past, the Packers have succeeded in getting an early lead on the Lions and deflating the balloon. Having to play from behind has not suited the Lions well, as is evidenced by McCarthy’s 13-1 record against Detroit as Packers head coach.
Green Bay has to be what they are: a pass-heavy offense who leans on their best player in that of Aaron Rodgers. Many question surfaced about why Rodgers wasn’t given a better opportunity on the fourth down play late in the Cincinnati game and to pick up one yard. With Detroit’s two starting cornerbacks ailing, Rodgers is going to see plenty of favorable matchups on his receivers. The most favorable matchup? Finley vs. whoever is covering him. Detroit’s secondary is average and with many weapons on the Green Bay side of the ball, someone is going to get open. I don’t foresee the Lions having an answer for Finley down the seam and prior to his injury in Cincinnati, this area seemed to be open. Given time, Rodgers should be set up to have a nice day throwing the ball and the Packers will have their opportunities to move it downfield.
This point goes in tandem with the previous and in fact, in order for Rodgers to do what is described above, he will need time. The Lions pass rush has been solid and is one of the hallmarks of this Detroit team. Returning vets Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are joined this season by first-round defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. Detroit’s style seems to be to rush the passer and play the run along the way. This is one of the reasons why the Lions are giving up over 100 yards rushing per game.
The Packers offensive line seems to have their hands full every week and this game is no exception. Right tackle Don Barclay and right guard T.J. Lang will team up on Suh and Ansah. Lang is familiar with Detroit, but his move from left to right guard means he will see more of Suh than in the past. Josh Sitton is now on the left side and will get a heavier dose of Fairley, who has emerged as one of the more vocal leaders for the Lions.
The Lions rely on getting pressure from their front four in order to spread their coverage out and limit passing options. Rodgers has struggled under the four man pressure this season, as we saw in the Bengals game. While he doesn’t like to take uncalculated risks with the football, Rodgers is going to have to get the ball out of his hands quickly in this game. The Packers offensive line has struggled, in spots, to protect Rodgers, but as has been the case in the past, Rodgers is still showing that tendency to hang onto the ball too long waiting for a receiver to free up. This week, that will result in his being sacked and the Packers losing more valuable yards.
This is also an area where having Kuhn back is helpful in pass protection. Lacy and Franklin will likely have their share of protection assignments and so far, they have fared OK in that area. Tight end Andrew Quarless has been lauded for his blocking acumen in the past so if there are early struggles, the Packers could turn to the max protect three backfield approach.
Turnovers and Tackling
In a chippy game as this one will likely become, turnovers become more valuable. Against a divisional opponent, teams have to be a notch better than they usually are to get the win. The familiarity plays a role and old tricks aren’t as fruitful. Throughout Green Bay’s series with the Lions, turnovers have often told the story of who wins and why.
With the Packers getting back safety Morgan Burnett, they should have a more solidified approach to their pass coverage. With Lions receiver Nate Burleson out with a broken arm, the Lions are turning to Ryan Broyles opposite Calvin Johnson. Last week, Broyles had zero catches although he was open on one target that could have gone for a long touchdown if the throw had been on target. Stafford spread the ball around and found six different receivers in the Lions win over the Bears.
With as often as the Lions tend to throw and if they are down early this week, will continue to, the Packers have to look to take the ball away. With the ball potentially going in any direction, any of the defensive backs are going to have their opportunities to make a play on the ball. There is a fine line between making a tackle and going all out for the pick, however. As good as a Bush or a Johnson are in picking up yards after the catch, the Packers defensive backs have to be smart and let those opportunities come to them this week.
Green Bay can’t afford to let the Lions ball carriers become slippery and break tackles. This seems to be an area the plagues the Packers every week. This week and against this particular Lions team, it will be the death of the winning streak at Lambeau and could put the Packers in a deep hole at 1-3.
Packers Ground Game
This isn’t really a key, as I see it, this week but with the renaissance of the Green Bay ground game, I wanted to address how this will fit into this week’s contest. I still think the early plan will be to air it out and put it on Rodgers to start fast. Any type of lead beyond one score and expect to see a steady dose of Lacy, Franklin and Kuhn. I don’t foresee a 100-yard day by any one back, but they could have another solid ground game depending on the early goings.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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