Welcome to another edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the Detroit Lions (2-10). Given that the Packers barely won the last matchup, I’m hoping the Packers won’t skimp on the preparations for this game. Even if they should win this, it’s not a gimme.
Coming into this game, the Lions are… dealing with yet another close loss, this time 24-20 to the Chicago Bears. 3rd string QB Drew Stanton played well, completing 67% of his passes for 178 yards and a 46-yd touchdown to Calvin Johnson, with Jahvid Best adding 65 yards on the ground (45 in one play). Stanton also caught flak from teammates and fans for his rushing touchdown “Dougie” celebration (which still went better than this man’s interpretation).
I mean, I'd love to tell you about how the playoff-bound Bears stomped a Motor City mudhole into the on-the-clock Lions, but that'd be a reach even for a guy with surgically-implanted orange and blue glasses on (like me).
The fact is that the Bears escaped.
They didn't beat the Lions, they escaped.
And before any Bears homers out there start protesting anything, riddle me this, Batman:
How the Cleveland are my beloved Bears going to beat the New England Patriots next weekend when they gave up four (!!) sacks to the sad sacks from Michigan?
Sweet, sweet, anxiety.
As with the two games that came before it (against Dallas and New England), the Lions were beating the Bears at halftime, only to lose the game --- they’ve been outscored 73-19 in the second half of those three games. The Lions’ rash of self-inflicted wounds was never clearer than on a failed fourth down conversion late in the fourth quarter. Stanton would have converted on an option run, but Schwartz called time-out before the snap. Now that the Bears had seen the play, the Lions checked to a pass, which was batted down. The Bears then scored the winning touchdown. Brutal.
This team has gotten the short end of the stick on a number of occasions this year, especially against the Bears. Week 1 was the touchdown-that-wasn’t, and now there’s the penalty-that-wasn’t against Ndamukong Suh for shoving Jay Cutler to the turf (a move this blogger supported), for which Suh was fined $15K. Suh’s been remarkably calm about the play, but you have to expect that he’ll take out his frustration against Josh Sitton and Scott Wells on Sunday.
The fans at home are… urging patience (including one Michael Schottey, guest on this week’s CheeseheadRadio)…at least some of them are. Two radio hosts on 97.1 in Detroit burned the Lions after Sunday’s game (11min, well worth your time):
The more you make excuses for this team, the more you let them off the hook. The Bears played an awful football game yesterday – uninspired, sloppy, awful football. And you know what’s funny? They still beat you. The Bears can’t run the football. Oop! They played you, yes they can.
You’re not close. You’re terrible.
I particularly love the way one caller highlighted the team’s development:
This is a better team than it was before. They were a miserable, miserable high school team. Now they’re just a bad NFL football team, and that’s a fact. And that’s improved. It might not be enough improvement --- it ain’t enough improvement --- but it is an improved team from the past couple years.
Something to chew on… Schwartz has long stated that the cornerstone for any franchise is a good quarterback, and he believes that he’s found that centerpiece in Matthew Stafford. Only downside? He can’t stay healthy.
Both Shaun Hill, who’s out with his second injury of the season, and Drew Stanton, who the Packers face on Sunday, have had more playing time in 2010 than Stafford. In four games against the Packers, Stafford will only have played in one, his four-pick outing last Thanksgiving. After Stanton’s better-than-expected performance against the Bears, discussions have begun about whether the Lions should extend his contract. With your superstar-in-training injured half the season, it pays to have a competent backup. If he performs well on Sunday, it’s possible the Lions will sign him to a longer deal.
When looking at the Packers on film… the Lions are bracing for a challenge from what sounds like the league’s best team:
Matthews is likely to win NFL defensive player of the year honors and possibly the NFL MVP. The Lions just faced Chicago's defense, which ranks second in points allowed, and now they face the Packers' defense, which ranks first.
Things got a little brighter after Mike McCarthy’s Wednesday press conference, where he announced that LT Chad Clifton injured both knees and suffered a concussion, and that reigning DPOY CB Charles Woodson sprained his ankle.
Even if both players are on the field on Sunday, they’re unlikely to be 100%. Given how well Woodson has played in Detroit over his career (top-10 among all-time Lions killers), you could probably hear WR Calvin Johnson’s sigh of relief for miles. On the other side of the field, Clifton – if he plays – will get a small break from facing DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, who’s headed to the IR with a bulging disc, although backup DE Turk McBride will still be a handful. Yes, Cliffy stoned KVB in W4, but that was at Lambeau.
If Woodson’s out, Sam Shields will be pressed into action against #2 Nate Burleson, and we may end up seeing CB Jarrett Bush. If Clifton’s out…do they move Bulaga over? Do they start Lang at LT? Lots of questions, there. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
We've had some situations come up that we haven't done a good job of dealing with. It is not taking away from where this team is going to be and the things that we're going to do. We're going to do great things.
Frankly, I believe the guy (even if some wonder what drugs he’s on). During the matchup in Lambeau in Week 4, everyone seemed struck by how prepared Lions OC Scott Linehan was for whatever Packers DC Dom Capers threw at him. For most of the game, it seemed that Linehan knew precisely what was coming, and had perfectly designed a play to foil whatever stunt, blitz, or coverage package that had been called for the Packers defense. It was alarming, to say the least.
So, despite what BJ Raji says (“you are what your record says you are”), I’m not going to sleep on the Lions.
Ah, yes, “if only Matthew Stafford were healthy.” Well, Schwartz, he’s not (although, even Pete Dougherty plays the “what if” game). You’re stuck with Drew Stanton, a good – but not great – backup. If he can get the ball to Megatron, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and RB Jahvid Best, they can make plays for him. Calvin Johnson makes at least one incredible catch each week. Without adequate depth at receiver, Pettigrew and Best have gotten more attention as pass-catchers, which actually works well in Linehan’s offense – each has 50 receptions already.
The Lions offensive line is rated last in run blocking (per FO), but is surprisingly effective in pass protection (#4) --- probably why Best is effective as a pass-catcher. In the last matchup, the Lions brought TE Will Heller in to help RT Gosder Cherilus block CM3, and it’s likely that Detroit will target Matthews heavily, especially with Cullen Jenkins out. If the Packers get pressure, it’s likely to come from BJ Raji against RG Stephen Peterman, who’s nursing a foot injury.
Even if the Packers don’t rack up gaudy sack totals on Sunday, there may be silver linings to be had in holding penalties – the Lions have the third-most yards nullified by offensive penalties. In fact, when you also include the penalties, the Lions are by far the “worst self-saboteur” in the league, per FO. Whether that of any use is debatable -- saying “fewer penalties = better production” is a too obvious, even for me.
FO's Ned Macey sums up the 2010 Lions:
As for Detroit, these games are all blending together. Plucky play but not enough talent with a few too many dumb mistakes.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert highlights a trend that speaks more toward playcalling than execution:
The Lions have been within five points of their opponents in the fourth quarter of all 10 losses this season. That statistic opens them up to the kind of micro-questioning they haven't always been subject to in recent years. Here's one example. I've covered four Lions games this season. In two of them, they have punted while trailing by one score late in the fourth quarter, trusting their defense to get the ball back for one final drive. In both cases, their opponents ran out the rest of the game.
On defense, I’m extremely impressed with rookie DT Ndamukong Suh’s transition to the pro game. He’s a smart guy, a big hitter, and I think he’s soaking in every bit of advice he’s getting from veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch and coach Schwartz. We knew, coming out of college, that he’d be a bruiser. 12 games and 8 sacks in, he’s in the top-10 among defensive linemen for sacks, tackles, and passes broken up. He’s regularly catching double-teams, and he’ll be an impact player for a long time.
Suh’s play benefits the guys around him – DE Cliff Avril got three sacks on Cutler (see one, two, and three), to go with three QB hits and three tackles for loss. This has been ex-Packer DT Corey Williams’ best season. As a unit, the defensive line sits just behind Green Bay at #6 in terms of pass rush (per FO). Considering that the Lions get most of their pressure from their front four, that’s a pretty strong indicator. Add the fact that the Lions got pressure Sunday without Vanden Bosch, and it’s clear the Packers line will earn their pay keeping Rodgers clean.
They aren’t as stout against the run (#23), and the introduction of even a quasi-legitimate ground game from James Starks may keep Suh and Avril from teeing off on Rodgers. Yet, even against the run, the Lions are better than their overall ranking. They’re extremely effective at keeping teams from gaining the have-to rushing first downs (3rd) and 22% of rushes result in a loss of yardage (4th).
It may be wishful thinking – Starks has only played one game against a team that had no film on him and expected 50 passes – but if our guys can get past the front four, however, the Lions can be run over. Apart from ex-Badger MLB DeAndre Levy, the Lions linebackers aren’t good (per McGinn):
OLBs Julian Peterson (6-3, 245) and Landon Johnson (6-2, 232) have no future in Detroit beyond the next four games. Today, [Peterson] offers zilch rushing and hurts the defense because he's fooled so often.
With starting RCB Alphonso Smith on IR, the Packers offense can look at the Lions secondary and breathe a little easier. Behind Smith, who had a pass defense and a pick against the Packers in W4, is Brandon McDonald, a two-year starter in Cleveland before being cut by the Browns and Cardinals this year. In fact, LCB Chris Houston is the last CB standing from the Lions W1 roster. The Lions safety tandem of Louis Delmas and rookie Amari Spievey (spuh-VAY, apparently) has worked out well – those two hit HARD – but without time to gel as a unit, the Lions secondary will have holes.
Nothing new for the Packers this week in special teams. Once again, they face a team with far superior return and coverage units. This week, it’s rookie speedster Stefan Logan (see highlights here). This kid can break tackles and flat-out fly. He leads the league on kickoff returns, and is a “paltry” 4th on punt returns. God help Shawn Slocum. (Sadly, K Jason Hanson, profiled in the W4 preview, is out for the year. The Lions will start ex-Packer Dave Rayner.)
If you want to read more, always check out McGinn’s scouting report and Dougherty’s game preview. I’ll also point you to Pride of Detroit and The Lions in Winter, the first two blogs I always go to for smart takes on that team to the east. Ty (of Lions in Winter) is a writer after my own heart – numbers-oriented with a flair for poetry. When news broke of KVB’s season-ending injury, Ty pulled out the following prose in a post entitled, “MUSIC WITH WHAT WE HAVE LEFT”:
I named this post after a beautiful--but apocryphal--story about violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman finishing a concert after breaking a string. Perlman, so the story goes, snapped a string very early in the performance—and forged ahead, using alternate fingerings, different voicings, even detuning strings (!) on the fly to complete the piece without missing a beat. Perlman, who was stricken with polio as a youth and so walks with crutches, then quieted the enthralled audience and (allegedly) said, “You know, sometimes it’s the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
Moreover, it’ll be a stern test of just how far the defense has come under Schwartz and Cunningham: can they keep this group motivated and productive without the man they desperately courted in the offseason? Knowing KVB would be the catalyst for great improvement on the defensive line, will the reaction keep going now that the catalyst is spent? Can Guntherball keep playing the offense like a fiddle, calling just the right blitz at just the right time, now that a string has snapped? We’ll get to see just how much music he can still make with what he has left.
At the end of the day, the Packers shouldn’t have to bank on the Lions to lose this game for them. This is an opportunity for the Packers to be surgical – cut apart that secondary, get Jennings on McDonald or, if possible, one of those mediocre linebackers. On defense, contain Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, and make Drew Stanton beat you with Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson.
This is a must-win, and the Packers should approach it with that level of intensity. If they do, it should be another good day for Aaron Rodgers & Co.
If they don’t, they don’t deserve to make the playoffs, period.
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