When The Packers Have The Ball:
Much has been made, and rightly so, about the bludgeoning of the Packers' offensive line in Detroit the last time these two teams met. It wasn't pretty.
The Packers know this better than anyone and will no doubt be prepared to counter some of the physicality of the Lions front with an extra body or two in the backfield.
Look for McCarthy to motion or set tight ends Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree in the offensive backfield, especially early on in the game, when the crowd is in full throat and the Lions defensive line is able to get off on the snap of the ball almost simultaneously due the Packers needing to go on a silent count. The extra bulk in the backfield is an effective way that push up the middle can be negated. This will also give Josh Sitton, who has struggled some this year with a knee injury, some help in trying to contain defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Then, it's up to guys like Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finely to get open against an improved but still suspect Lions secondary.
Finley in particular presents a matchup nightmare for the Lions who simply don't have a single defensive player who can run with Finley in coverage. Last week, when the Packers split Finley out wide, the Buccaneers put their best cover corner, Aquib Talib, out on him several times. The Lions don't have anyone of that caliber in their secondary. And the Lions' linebackers, while much improved over the dreck they trotted out at the position last year, don't have anyone who can counter Finley's athleticism. Look for a big game from number 88.
Another way McCarthy will try and slow down the Lions' pass rush is by moving the pocket and getting Aaron Rodgers on the move. This will make it much tougher for the Lions front four to just tee off on the passer and force them to find the quarterback rather than just pin their ears back and fly up field.
As the game goes on, look for McCarthy to go more and more to his four and five wide receiver sets. Ryan Grant, who will see his role increased with the injury to James Starks, will most likely be given a token number of carries to keep the offense on schedule and to set up boot-action for Rodgers, but for the most part, the running game won't feature heavily.
This game will come down to moving Rodgers around early, letting the receivers get open and grabbing an early lead.
Matt Stafford is coming off a game where he put the Lions way behind with his interceptions - and then brought them all the way back in dramatic fashion with a torrent of touchdown passes in the second half , all against a pretty bad Panthers team.
Any gameplan against the Lions, however, begins with wide receiver Calvin Johnson - no matter who the quarterback is. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has matched up cornerback Charles Woodson with Johnson quite a bit over the course of the last two years, mostly because Woodson is able to get physical with the receiver on the line of scrimmage and because of his quick ability at pattern recognition.
However, this year, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tramon Williams matched up on Megatron with safety help over the top as much as possible, leaving Woodson and Sam Shields to deal with the likes of Nate Burelson and rookie Titus Young. Young, in particular, is a real talent and is growing into his role on the Lions offense.
Of course, matching up guys in man coverage isn't exactly how Capers (or any NFL defensive coordinator) operates. He'll throw a lot of different looks at Stafford and Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. One of the things Capers needs to guard against is the late crossing routes that the team saw a lot from the Buccaneers last week. Indeed, last year in Lambeau, Linehan took advantage of Capers' zone-blitzes last year with late crossers and tight end screens that left guys wide open in various voids in the coverage that let Lions receivers catch the ball well under the sticks but with plenty of free space to run through due to Johnson running coverage off deep. One way to combat this would be to try some feints with Desmond Bishop where he takes a step or two toward the A gap, making the offensive line and Stafford think he's coming on a blitz, and then drops into a zone where Linehan likes to run his shallow crossing routes.
Overall, the defense just needs to be assignment sure. The Packers had numerous fundamental breakdowns last week that, if corrected, would have made for a much more comfortable win over the Bucs. I would look for Capers to ease off on the 60-70 percent clip he's been calling pressure and for him to try and let outside backers Clay Matthews and Erik Walden win off the edge against Lions tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus, who are both extremely shaky in pass protection. I also expect to see an increased number of snaps from defensive tackle Mike Neal, as Capers will most likely use his 2-4-5 nickel extensively against Linehan's liberal use of the shotgun formation.
Enough Already, Who Wins?
Long time readers of this site, my followers on Twitter, my family and friends, hell, even the folks I work with - all know this is the one game I have been worried about since the NFL released its 2011 schedule back in April. But the closer we get to the game, the more confident I get that McCarthy and his excellent coaching staff will be the difference due to the adjustments they will make off of the several issues they faced against this team in 2010.
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