27

November

Packers Periscope: Thanksgiving Edition vs. Lions

The Past: Last time these two teams met was punctuated by All Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson, namely because he was absent from the game; the Lions did a fantastic job covering, deflecting and obfuscating Johnson’s knee injury up to the point that it was pretty evident that the Packers defense thew out their defensive plan right before kick off because many defensive players looked little confused as to what their new roles would be.

But the Lions offense was also left scrambling with quarterback Matthew Stafford doing his best impersonation of Aaron Rodgers, spreading out the ball to 8 different receivers for 262 yards and 1 touchdown, going 25 out of 40 but lacked the big play potential, something that’s almost unheard of since the Stafford-Johnson connection came into being.  Also without Johnson spreading out the defense, Reggie Bush found little room to run, only getting 44 yards on 13 attempts.

The Packers on the other hand were consistent but not flashy; Rodgers passed for 274 yards and one beautiful 83 yard bomb to James Jones while Eddie Lacy just missed out on his first 100 yard game of his career with 99 yards on 23 attempts.  On defense, the Packers managed to record 5 sacks, including 2 from Nick Perry, however Clay Matthews’ 1 sack also resulted in a Bennett fracture to his hand, which he still has to wear a cast for.

Overall, this game wasn’t the typical aerial bombing that has typically characterized Packers-Lions games recently, the Packers hadn’t really found their new balanced identity while the Lions were naturally adjusting to life without Calvin Johnson and it was the much maligned Mason Crosby whostole show, going 5 for 5 with a long completion of 52 yards.  In a game where only two touchdowns were scored by both teams, Crosby’s field goals were the difference.

The Present: The Lions are still perhaps the most inconsistent team in the NFL; they have the talent to easily win the NFC North but can’t get out of their own way when it comes to success.  Last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have taken over the Lions as the most mismanaged franchise in the NFL (owner siphoning funds for his “other” football team, the MRSA debacle, the mismanagement of Josh Freeman, “going for it” on knee downs etc.) the Lions gave up the opportunity to essentially win the NFC North crown and instead turned the ball over 5 times, including 4 interceptions by Matthew Stafford.  Guess who gave up the other turnover?  None other than former Packers return man Jeremy Ross who luckily didn’t cost his team any points when he fumbled the ball out of bounds.

4

October

Packers Periscope: Eyeing the Enemy (Lions)

The bye has come and gone already, which means the Green Bay Packers have to gear up for a brutal 13-game stretch to close out the regular season.

The Packers needed the off week to regroup from the team’s deflating 34-30 loss in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals as well as to get key players healthy.

Eddie Lacy, Clay Matthews, James Starks and Jermichael Finley missed either the entire game or a decent amount of it with an injury.  Matthews is saying he is ready to go and both Lacy and Finley have been cleared to play coming off of concussions.  Starks has already been ruled out.

They’re coming back at the perfect time for the Packers as game one of this marathon finish is Green Bay’s first NFC North opponent of the year, the Detroit Lions.   Last week, the Lions defeated the previously undefeated Chicago Bears 40-32 at Ford Field to move to 3-1 which gives them the tiebreaker (for now) over Chicago for first place in the NFC North.

The last time we met

The Packers defeated the Lions for the 22nd consecutive time at Lambeau Field last December, winning the game 27-20.   The game was tied going into the fourth quarter but the Packers were able to pull away putting the team one win away from an eventual NFC North title.

Aaron Rodgers threw for only 170 yards and his sole touchdown of the game was on the ground (and his career long of 27 yards), but Green Bay got some (literally) big help from its defense after defensive end Mike Daniels scooped up a Matthew Stafford fumble and then ran more than half the length of the field giving the Packers an early 14-0 lead that Detroit never recovered from.

Calvin Johnson chewed up the Green Bay defense for 110 yards but was kept out of the end zone and Matthew Stafford threw for 264 yards. It was a classic “bend but don’t break” game for the Packers defense as they forced the fumble from Stafford as well as an interception.

This week in Detroit

The Packers obviously know Detroit well, but this a much different and arguably much better Lions team than the one Green Bay swept last season.

17

July

NFC North Pre Season: What’s The Story?

Around the NFC North

Each NFC North team has a storyline heading into training camp later this month

NFL training camps begin in just under two weeks and no doubt, the story lines will pick up as position battles take shape and budding stars emerge.  But what about the story lines up until now?  Let’s take a look around the NFC North and the biggest question each team is facing as they prepare for the 2013 season.

Can Matthew Stafford live up to his new contract extension?

After making a playoff appearance in 2011, the Lions took a huge step backwards in 2012, finishing 4-12 and in last place in the NFC North.  Muted by the team’s dismal record last year was a record-setting performance by wide receiver Calvin Johnson.  Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s record for total receiving yards in a season.  Johnson will, of course, be back in 2013 and will be a key piece to Detroit’s success.

The team also returns head coach Jim Schwartz despite the team’s regression last season, but the biggest story out of Detroit during the offseason and preseason is the recent contract extension the team gave to quarterback Matthew Stafford.  The deal is for the next five seasons and worth $76.5 million.  That makes Stafford one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.

It’s no secret that the quarterback position is most important to a team’s ability to succeed, and especially in today’s NFL.  The Green Bay Packers clearly agree and rewarded quarterback Aaron Rodgers with his own extension this off season.  But more questions will surround Stafford and on the heels of his new deal because there are more questions about the Lions as a team.  How will they respond to last season?  Are their core players ready to take another step forward?  Or will it be another year of the same old Lions?

The quick answer is that as Stafford goes, so go the Lions.  The debate over whether he deserves the kind of money the Lions gave him is another argument altogether, but the Lions have at least taken a stand and are going “all in” on the face of their franchise.  Now, all eyes and expectations will be squarely on Stafford.  He has been able to respond to pressure in the past but the microscope just got a bit bigger.

9

December

Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers Key Matchups

 

Aaron Rodgers and Ndomukong Suh

The Packers are hoping Suh won’t get this close to Rodgers on Sunday

We’re back to the Detroit Lions already?  It seems like just three weeks ago I was breaking down the key matchups between these same Lions and the Green Bay Packers.  That’s because I was.  Due to the fate of the 2012 scheduling, the Green Bay Packers ended up with five divisional games in their final seven and didn’t see either the Lions nor the Vikings for the first time until week 11.  That means there will be a short time in between each matchup.  In the case of this rivalry, it was a mere 21 days.

With not many changes in the game’s key matchups, I’m going to drill down on the top three and spend more time on them.

Packers Offensive Line vs. Lions Defensive Line

No, not an earth shattering proclamation and yes, it’s a repeat from the first matchup.  But alas, it’s still a key in this game.  Since the last matchup, the Packers are dealing with yet more injuries on the line.  Starting guard/tackle T.J. Lang did not participate in practice on Wednesday and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy did not seem too optimistic with his progress early on this week.  I don’t expect Lang to play on Sunday which clears the path for rookie undrafted free agent Don Barclay to make his first NFL start at right tackle.

Barclay will be matched up against Lions left defensive end Cliff Avril.  Avril has had another solid year for the Lions and has 8.5 sacks on the season.  His quick initial burst will immediately test Barclay’s footwork and I expect the Packers offensive game plan to slide some help to that right side.  In a one-on-one matchup, I would expect Barclay to struggle.  For the football junkies out there, keep an eye on this matchup throughout the game as there will surely be a few mano-a-mano opportunities.  This will tell us a lot about what the Packers have in Barclay.

One source that may provide that much-needed assistance to the right side is newly acquired veteran running back Ryan Grant.  Grant was signed after it was determined the James Starks would miss quite some time with a knee injury.  While not the fleetest of foot, Grant is solid in his pass protection and should provide a boost there.  He knows the offense and should be able to step in and contribute right away.

7

December

Around the NFC North in Week 14

Around the NFC North

Around the NFC North in week 14

For the first time this season, there are two divisional matchups in the NFC North.  The Chicago Bears travel to Minnesota to round out their season series against the Vikings.  Both of those teams are coming off of tough losses last week and cannot afford another in this game.

The Detroit Lions come to Lambeau Field where they haven’t logged a victory in over 20 years to take on the Green Bay Packers in the Sunday night football matchup.  Detroit suffered a gut-wrenching and last-second defeat at the hands of Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.  The Packers were the only victorious team in the North this past week.  The win helped them reclaim sole possession of first place in the divsion.

Here’s a sneak peak at each matchup and some storylines heading into the games.

Chicago Bears (8-4) at Minnesota Vikings (6-6)

The Bears are starting to feel the effects of their hard-fought season.  They learned that they will be without long-time veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher for at least the next three weeks due to a hamstring injury.  While Urlacher has been hampered by some bumps and bruises this season, there is no question the Bears defense is better with him on the field.

Chicago’s starting cornerback Tim Jennings was also injured in last week’s game vs. the Seattle Seahawks when he collided with another player and hurt his shoulder.  As of Tuesday, it was still not known how serious the injury was and more tests were expected later in the week to determine if there is any structural damage.  Any such news would mean Jennings will miss some time which would be a huge blow to the Bears’ secondary.  Jennings has been the team’s top defender this season and leads the team with eight interceptions.

The Vikings are also awaiting some news on the health of one of their star players, wide receiver Percy Harvin.  Harvin has missed the team’s last four games with an ankle injury and has battled health issues since coming into the league as a rookie in 2009.

Minnesota and Chicago are both in need of a win to make a strong run at the postseason.  The Bears and Packers have the same record at 8-4 but Green Bay holds the tie-breaker, having beaten Chicago head-to-head earlier this season.  The Vikings dropped to .500 and are trying to stay alive in the Wild Card race with an outside chance at a division win.

17

November

Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions Key Matchups

CB Tramon Williams and S Morgan Burnett fight for an interception against the Saints

Packers CB Tramons Williams and S Morgan Burnett will need to be on the same page this Sunday

The Green Bay Packers are back in action this week after their bye.  They head to Detroit to face the Lions for just the first time in 2012.  The Lions are coming off a loss to the Minnesota Vikings and have battled inconsistency all season.  They have yet to beat a division opponent and are 0-3 against the North so far.

In looking at a breakdown of the key matchups, it is much of the same old story.  Stop either team’s passing attack and you likely win this game.  Here are the areas to watch as Sunday’s game unfolds.

Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. Packers CB Tramon Williams

This is becoming an old rivalry.  Since taking over as a starting corner in 2009, Williams has been blanketing Johnson in each matchup.  Minus last season’s finale when the Packers sat many of their starters, Johnson hasn’t had any more than six receptions in a game in which Williams matched up on him.  He did have a two-touchdown game in 2010 and the Packers struggled to contain him in that contest.  They can’t afford to allow Johnson to take over on Sunday.

While Williams will surely have help over the top, I am featuring him in this section because he will play the most vital role in keeping Johnson from becoming a quick and easy target.  A receiver of Johnson’s stature has been a problem for the Packers in seasons past and when tackling was an issue.  Any success with the quick slant could spell problems in trying to keep Detroit in long down and distance.  Johnson is also a matchup nightmare at the goal line and with the jump ball.

Williams has re-emerged thus far in 2012 and is playing more like the corner we saw in 2010 when he broke out and became key defensive contributor.  With the success that he has had vs. Johnson over the years, I expect Tramon to come into Sunday’s game confident that he can continue that trend.

7

November

Around the NFC North in Week 10

Around the NFC North

Around the NFC North in week 10

Week 10 brings about two great matchups in the NFC North.  With the Green Bay Packers on a bye, the Chicago Bears host the Houston Texans while the Detroit Lions travel to Minnesota to finish out their season series against the Vikings.  Let’s look at some of the storylines surrounding the games.

Houston Texans (7-1) at Chicago Bears (7-1)

This is the marquis matchup for the NFL’s week 10 slate and is the Sunday Night game.  Each team comes in having lost just one game and playing well.  Chicago has won six straight and Houston has bounced back from their first loss of the season and won their last two in a row.  Each team’s last loss came at the hands of the Green Bay Packers.

Defense is the name of this game.  Houston ranks 3rd overall in yardage allowed (286/game) while Chicago ranks 6th (318/game).

The Bears are leading the league in takeaway’s with 28 and takeaway ratio at +16.  They’re turning those takeaway’s into points and have seven interception returns for scores this season by five different players.  Their defense has become nearly as potent, in terms of scoring, as their offense.

Chicago is tied with New England for fumbles caused with 11.  Just last week, Chicago forced five fumbles, two by CB Charles Tillman.  Tillman has been hot after the ball this season and has seven caused fumbles and has two of Chicago’s interception returns for touchdowns.  Some say he’s an early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

Houston has 24 sacks on the season, led by defensive end J.J. Watt who also leads the league with 10.5.  Like Chicago,Houston is making a good living on the defensive side of the ball.  They have nine interceptions and are just one behind Cleveland for the AFC lead in that category.  The Texans are giving up just over 82 yards/game and will look to stonewall Chicago’s ground game that is currently averaging 128.5 yards.

The key in this game will be the defense that can hold the line of scrimmage and stop the run.  Both of these teams mirror each other in many ways and this game is a possible preview of Super Bowl XLVII, at least at this point.  The winner takes another step towards solidifying themselves as a top contender in their conference and in the league overall.