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.

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.

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.

29

May

NFC North: Jim Schwartz’s Seat Should Be Heating Up

Lions coach Jim Schwartz

Schwartz's antics should be raising some eyebrows in the Motor CIty

If you took a poll of 100 NFL fans and asked them which of the four head coaches in the NFC North was on the hottest seat entering the 2012 season, a majority very likely would choose Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith who survived a mediocre season which was followed by a major shakeup in the Bears’ front office.

In this case, the majority would be wrong. Or at least they should be.

As of late I would argue that Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has caught Smith and perhaps even passed him as the NFC North coach in the most hot water.

To many, this seems like a preposterous line of thought. Schwartz has been a key player in turning the Lions from an 0-16 laughing stock to a team that just qualified for the playoffs for the first time in forever. He has one of the league’s best quarterback/receiver tandems in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and has a formidable defense to boot. Firing Schwartz seems utterly insane.

If you only looked at the on field product, it would be. Throw in events off the field, and things become a little more sketchy. With Lions defensive end Nick Fairley recently being arrested for the second time in nearly two months on top of Ndamukong Suh’s temptation to get stomping mad plus Schwartz’s handshake skills and the happy story of the Lions’ turnaround quickly takes a detour down a dark path.

In the name of fairness to Schwartz, I am not laying the poor decisions made by Fairley and others at the feet of the head coach. The poor choices were made by the players and the players alone.

However, Schwartz’s growing reputation around the league as a class A jerk is surely minimizing the amount of sympathy points he is getting from his peers.

To think Schwartz is being given the short end of the stick is too nearsighted. Take a look at Marvin Lewis with the Cincinnati Bengals. That team became a punchline around the league thanks to what seemed like a Bengal being arrested every single day. The Bengals were more notable for off the field debauchery than they were for on the field success.

3

January

Packers Stock Report: Playoff Bye Week Edition – Matt Flynn A Strong Buy

Matt Flynn likely will be shaking his agent's hand after earning a significant raise following his performance on Sunday.

I agreed 100 percent with Mike McCarthy’s decision to rest Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, but I couldn’t help but think about how I would feel if I dropped an entire paycheck to bring my family to the game, only to learn that Rodgers was resting.

“Resting?” I would have said. “I’m paying how much for tickets, parking, food, beer, a jersey and other stuff so my family can come watch Aaron Rodgers and he’s taking the day off?!?!”

Those angry thoughts would not have lasted much longer after the game started, though. How many fans can say they saw something historic and record-breaking happen at Lambeau Field? The fans at Sunday’s game can.

The Packers are definitely rising heading into the playoffs and there will be more opportunities to make history before the season concludes.

Rising

Matt Flynn
Matt Flynn may be the biggest mover of the entire season. Flynn’s performance and his statistics from Sunday speak for themselves, so I’d like to use this space to address the silly notion that the success of Aaron Rodgers this season and Flynn on Sunday was solely due to the Packers “system.” Yes, McCarthy has one of the best systems in the NFL, but anyone who suggests Rodgers is a “system quarterback” should be locked in a padded room with Skip Bayless and forced to watch replays of the Broncos-Chiefs game from Sunday. Tom Oates from the Wisconsin State Journal sums up my thoughts perfectly with this Tweet. You could put Rodgers on any team, with any system, and he’d still be one of the best QBs in the NFL. The throws he makes and the plays he digs out of his you-know-where are amazing and would be just as amazing under any “system.” And lets not cheapen what Flynn did on Sunday by lazily chalking it up to the Packers “system.”

Jordy Nelson
Remember when the Packers offense looked lost without Greg Jennings? Neither do I. Nelson caught three TDs on Sunday and finished with 15 for the season, the highest total by a Packers WR since Sterling Sharpe caught 18 TDs in 1994. Nelson averaged 18.6 yards per catch, the highest average since James Lofton’s 22.0 in 1984. Those stats are nice, but the best part of Nelson’s game is the Jordy Stiff Arm. It came out again on Sunday and it looked nastier than ever.

29

December

2011 NFL Season Week 17: Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions Preview–Stomping Out The Regular Season

Will he or won’t he?

That’s the question surrounding Packers coach Mike McCarthy this week as he decides whether or not to play his starters in the meaningless regular season finale at home against the Detroit Lions.

Then again, maybe it isn’t a truly meaningless game for the Packers.  They have the chance to finish 6-0 against the NFC North.  They can force the Detroit Lions into the number six seed and make them open the playoffs in either New Orleans or San Francisco.

Still, it is highly unlikely the first stringers see action for a full sixty minutes.  It’s a safe bet will see Matt Flynn replace Aaron Rodgers for the second half if not sooner.  Injured players that normally would tough it out on game day likely will end up sitting as the Packers try to get healthy for the playoffs.

The Detroit Lions meanwhile are hoping to avoid being the NFC’s sixth seed. The difference between the fifth and sixth seed means avoiding a trip to New Orleans or San Francisco and instead heading to New York or Dallas depending on the outcome of that game.

Throw in the fact that the Lions haven’t won at Lambeau since 1991 and this game is anything but meaningless to Jim Schwartz and company.

Key Lions players

DT Ndamukong Suh I am not going to rehash what happened when the Packers and Lions played on Thanksgiving.  All I can say is I hope the sequel to “Stomp!” does not make a special appearance at Lambeau this Sunday.

All eyes will be on Suh.  Can he stay clean? Will the Packers try to antagonize him?  What do his shoelaces look like? Suh’s meltdown triggered a self-destruction for Lions on Thanksgiving and their loss of composure made the game go from tight to a blowout in the Packers favor.

QB Matthew Stafford Congrats to Stafford for finally making it through an entire regular season.

The oft-injured quarterback stayed mostly healthy this year and has become the franchise quarterback the Lions hoped he would when he was drafted first overall in 2009.  He spearheads an offense that, while it can’t keep up with the Packers, they can still rack up the yards and against a leaky Packers defense they could steal the game should McCarthy rest his starters.

1

December

Around the NFC North: Bears Hanging in, Lions’ Attitude, Vikings Irrelevent

Caleb Hanie takes over for Jay Cutler in Chicago.

For a while, it looked like the NFC North might send the Packers, Bears and Lions to the playoffs. There’s a chance that still could happen, but it’s a longshot. With the Packers cruising, the Bears and Lions have some work to do if they want to grab a wild card slot.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings are holding down the bottom of the division while trying to get a new stadium.

It’s time for a trip around the NFC North.

Chicago Bears

Remaining schedule: Chiefs, at Broncos, Seahawks, at Packers, at Vikings.

Biggest issue: Making adjustments. Jay Cutler is out for at least the rest of the regular season, leaving Caleb Hanie to try and lead the Bears to the playoffs.

Analysis: The challenge the Bears face is actually twofold: Is Hanie capable of taking the Bears to the playoffs and is offensive coordinator Mike Martz capable of adjusting his gameplan to maximize Hanie’s strengths and mask his weaknesses?

Hanie was bad last Sunday against the Raiders, but Martz’s gameplan was worse. You know how Mike McCarthy refuses to adjust his gameplan when an offensive lineman goes down, even if the backup lineman is struggling? Martz is the same way, only he is refusing to adjust to a backup quarterback. There’s a big difference between a backup offensive lineman and a backup quarterback.

The Bears have Matt Forte, a great defense and dangerous special teams. They’re more than capable of making the playoffs if Martz does a better job adjusting his offense to the reality of having a backup quarterback instead of Cutler.

Prediction: 10-6. Even if Martz keeps his head buried in the sand, the soft schedule and the aforementioned defense, special teams and Forte result in another playoff berth for the Bears.

Detroit Lions

Remaining schedule: at Saints, Vikings, at Raiders, Chargers, at Packers.

Biggest issue: Attitude. It’s not often you want a football team to relax a little bit, but head coach Jim Schwartz and the Lions need to chill out.

Analysis: When the Lions were rolling early this season, their swagger and bravado appeared to represent a new era of toughness in Motown. No longer were the Lions the doormat of the NFL.