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.
Johnson was quoted as saying that the Lions will likely try to move him around to create more favorable matchups. That could put him in the slot or in a bunch formation to try and pick defenders and free him up for the split second Lions QB Matthew Stafford needs to get the ball in his hands. This will require the Packers secondary to be on guard and aware of where #81 is at all times. After last week’s breakout game, Johnson will come into Sunday with plenty of confidence.
Fortunately, if not Williams the Packers have been able to count on rookies Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian to fill in effectively. They, along with safeties Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings will all likely be called on to help Williams in coverage against Johnson.
Randall Cobb vs. Lions Special Teams Coverage
While it would be wise for any kicker to boot the ball out of the end zone when Cobb is the returner, Lions place kicker Jason Hanson’s touchback percentage this season is just 37.5% which is 25th in the league. Cobb has clearly shown that he can do special things with the football and the Packers want the ball in his hands. If he gets a chance to return one on Sunday, he needs to take advantage.
Detroit’s special teams have been anything but special so far this season. They’re giving up an average of 25 yards on kickoff returns. Cobb averages about 27 yards per attempt. The Lions have surrendered a ghastly 748 kickoff return yards this season. In week four, Detroit gave up a punt return and a kickoff return for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.
Many are starting to wonder if the Packers should scale back Cobb’s return duties to focus more on his role as a receiver. He remains Green Bay’s best chance to break a long return and I don’t see the Pack changing that anytime soon. The field position advantage is going to become critical as the season moves on.
On the faster turf surface, Green Bay’s return unit needs to fight hard on their blocking assignments as it will only take a small opening for Cobb to break through and set up quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense.
The Packers special teams have been a strong point so far this season and no better time for them to peak than against their division foes late in the season. Hopefully that starts with Sunday’s game against the Lions.
Packers Offensive Line vs. Detroit Defensive Line
Let’s get the 500-pound gorilla out of the way and mention it one more time, shall we? We all recall last Thanksgiving game in Detroit when the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh gave the Packers and their fans something to be thankful for: his removal/ejection from the game shortly after halftime. This was the result of his infamous stomp on backup guard Evan Dietrich-Smith’s arm after a play that was long over with. You know, the one he said was “unintentional”.
Fortunately for the Lions and Packers fans, ED-S as he’s called, will be in the Green Bay lineup at left guard and will get his long-awaited reunion with Suh. The Packers were forced to insert ED-S into the lineup against the Arizona Cardinals when starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with a serious hip inury. With Bulaga on season-ending injured reserve, ED-S will surely be Green Bay’s starting left guard the remainder of the way.
During that game in Detroit last season, Suh had just one tackle in the one half he did play. Green Bay will need to neutralize him once again as Suh has shown a propensity for his harsh treatment of opposing quarterbacks. In the Lions’ Monday night game against the Bears a few weeks back, Suh got his arm wrapped around Chicago QB Jay Cutler’s helmet and violently took him to the ground. Cutler left the game for one play before returning.
The Lions defensive line is a strength of their defense while Green Bay’s offensive line has had its struggles. With the recent shuffling after Bulaga’s injury, TJ Lang and ED-S will be tested early and often. Lang moved from his usual left guard position to right tackle where he’ll have the task of containing Lions defensive end Cliff Avril. Avril has 4.5 sacks this season and leads the team.
With Packers center Jeff Saturday struggling to hold the line this season, look for the Lions to stunt inside and take advantage of this apparent weakness. If Saturday struggles and Green Bay is forced to keep extra protection in the backfield, this will limit their ability to put four and five receivers in and spread out the Lions secondary. This, in turn, will put more of the burden on Rodgers and the passing attack to sustain drives and keep the chains moving.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers vs. Lions secondary
Detroit ranks 9th in overall defense and 7th against the pass. Green Bay ranks 12th in passing offense with 250 yards/game and is very much a pass-first offense.
It would seem like a solid matchup and challenge for Rodgers. But Detroit, much like the Packers, is also dealing with the injury bug. Three of the Lions safeties have either not practices or been limited, including their top playmaker Louis Delmas. Detroit’s top cornerback Chris Houston is nursing an ankle injury and has also been limited in practice so far this week.
The Lions, much like any team, can ill-afford to be 100% against a quarterback like Rodgers. Packers fans and the team alike have been waiting for Rodgers to have a breakout day through the air. Time after time the Packers have faced favorable matchups and conditions only to see modest gains. Through that, however, is an important takeaway: Rodgers is taking care of the football and the Packers are winning.
Detroit has eight interceptions on the year and no single defender has more than one. As long as the Packer receivers don’t develop butterfingers or let one bounce off, they should avoid the costly turnover in this area.
I stated in the NFC North piece that Rodgers will likely have to continue the trend of sustaining drives and taking what the defense gives him. This will ring especially true if the Detroit pass rush establishes early success. With Lions QB Matthew Stafford putting up oodles of passing yards this season, keeping him on the sideline wouldn’t be a horrible thing.
Division opponents always seem to have more success against good quarterbacks due to the familiarity factor. Rodgers is doing his best to disprove that theory as he is 7-1 against the Lions over the past three seasons. I expect him to bump his win total to eight after this weekend’s game.
Lions QB Matthew Stafford vs. Packers secondary
While the Packers haven’t struggled too badly against Stafford in the past, this week presents a unique challenge. Because Green Bay will be without top pass rusher Clay Matthews, the Packers secondary will be called upon to hold their coverage a bit longer if the pass rush can’t get there.
Against any decent quarterback, that’s likely to make it tough to get off the field sooner than later. Stafford is having a roller coaster season in that he isn’t throwing for touchdowns as regularly as he has in the past. He has 11 on the year while having tossed eight interceptions. Only once has Stafford thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game.
Despite the up’s and down’s, Stafford remains the key to the Lions offensive attack. While is quarterback rating of 85.4 seems low, one must consider that he has attempted 388 passes thus far in 2012. Regardless of what Detroit’s game plan is going in, their success begins and ends with Stafford. Sound familiar? As with any Packers/Lions matchup, this one has the potential to turn into a shootout with two pass-heavy offenses and good quarterbacks at the helm.
It’s no secret the Packers defensive backs will need to key on top Lions target Calvin Johnson. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is also a threat over the middle. Safety Charles Woodson has had some of his best games against the Lions and has been key in Green Bay’s success in these games. Wood is out for this one and the rest of the Packer secondary will need to be very assignment-sure on Sunday.
Taking the Stafford/Johnson connection out of rhythm has proven to go a long way in stopping the Detroit offense. It’s easier said than done but hopefully defensive coordinator Dom Capers is watching film on the Packer attack against Bears wideout Bandon Marshall in week 2. In that game, Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett virtually made Marshall a non-factor.
Any success in that area will likely mean Stafford gambles a time or two and throws one up for grabs. Hopefully a guy in a while and green jersey comes down with the ball. If Green Bay is able to get multiple interceptions in this game, there is an extremely high likelihood they can secure a win.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: