The Green Bay Packers, who had a 100-yard rusher once in the proverbial blue moon, have had one in back-to-back games. That's not by accident, not after drafting Eddie Lacy in the second round and Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round, and then spending more time on training camp on the run game. The blockers are more physical, too, with Evan Dietrich-Smith over Jeff Saturday at center and Don Barclay over Marshall Newhouse at right tackle.
"The head coach even said we're going to do better running the football," offensive line coach James Campen said on Thursday. "These guys have taken his words to heart, as all of us have, and we're producing and getting better at it. We're not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination but we're trending up and moving in the right direction."
The Packers are on pace to rush for 2,048 yards and are ninth in the league in rushing. They haven't rushed for 2,000 yards since Ahman Green's historic 2003 season and they haven't been in the top 10 since 2004. They're averaging 5.3 yards per carry, a huge improvement over 3.9 in 2012, 3.9 in 2011 and 3.8 in 2010.
The need to improve from those woeful averages is obvious. Then again, the Packers won a Super Bowl in 2010, won 15 games in 2011 and won 11 games in 2012 without a running game.
"It makes it easier to do other things," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "The more versatile you are, it makes it harder for teams to defend you. When you do pass, it buys you a little bit more time. You can utilize play-action passes and they have to honor the run before they can rush the passer and they can't just tee off and get hits on the quarterback."
As long as Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, who knows if defenses ever will respect the Packers' run game enough to put an extra defender in or near the box. But at least the Packers have the ability to make defenses pay if they're going to sit back in coverage.
"I don't know that you can be a one-dimensional team against Green Bay," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said during a conference call. "Maybe there's some teams in the league that you can pack the line of scrimmage and say, ‘Hey, we dare you to throw it.' I don't know how good of a philosophy that is against Green Bay. There's some teams that you can get everybody way off and sort of a prevent, umbrella defense, and say, ‘We dare you to run it.' I don't think that's Green Bay, either. You do have to play them honest."
Like the Packers, the Lions added talent to their backfield with the free-agent signing of Reggie Bush. Bush has changed the dynamic for the Lions. This season, they're throwing the ball 59.8 percent of the time, according to teamrankings.com. Last season, with Matthew Stafford setting a league record for passing attempts, the Lions led the league by passing 66.3 percent of the time. Some of the balance is due to the scoreboard — the Lions are 3-1 this season compared to 4-12 last season — but some of it is due to taking advantage of defenses preoccupied with the prolific combination of Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson.
"I don't want to say pick your poison but I don't know if there's a better cliché than that," Schwartz said.
"Getting Reggie in that role was a big complement for our other pieces on offense, Calvin Johnson, in particular. Teams always play Calvin a little different way than they play other wide receivers, which opens up either the run game or opens up some passing-game stuff. I think that you've seen that when you watch us play. It's one thing when they cheat the defense to Calvin and you're running the ball for 4, 5 yards, but Reggie's churned out first downs. That can be frustrating for a defense when you keep moving the chains."
Bush is averaging a robust 5.3 yards per carry, including 7.7 against Chicago last week.
"They're doing a lot of the same things, they've just got a guy that's probably an equivalent threat inside at running back as they've had in Calvin Johnson outside," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "They're running the ball the best they've run the ball, let me say that. I think they feel good about the mix that they have."
As Tramon Williams put it: "They definitely have a lot of weapons around (Stafford). Nowadays, you have more than just Calvin to worry about."
2. SHIELDS VS. JOHNSON
What happened to the Packers' plan to play Sam Shields at right cornerback and Williams at left cornerback? That was the plan heading into the season and what the Packers did for the first two-plus games. The plan changed against Cincinnati, when Sam Shields wound up on Bengals star A.J. Green for most of the game.
"It's a credit to him because he asked for it during the game," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "He asked to do it. I said, ‘You feel good about it?' He said, ‘Yes.' I said, ‘Go ahead and match him.' It really wasn't our part doing it. When we moved Tramon inside (to nickel), he asked to match him and we went with it. The kid has shown the ability, since he got back from being hurt last year. If you look at the way he's played in these games, going through the playoffs last year to these first couple games, he's been as good as anybody. Our second game, he was player of the game. This last game, he played really well. The first game, he had some issues. Other than that, I think he's been very, very positive."
It's a remarkable rise. Remember, Shields played wide receiver at Miami until his senior season, when he was moved to cornerback. He played well as the third corner in 2010 in helping the Packers win the Super Bowl but regressed in 2011. In 2012, Shields essentially was given an ultimatum: Either tighten up your play and play more physically or take a seat on the sideline. Though he missed six games with an ankle injury, he responded with his best season, allowing a sixth-ranked 47.7 percent completions, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
"I think he's ready for it," Whitt said. "He's progressed from being a receiver to becoming a receiver who played DB to actually becoming a corner to, now, ‘I'm a corner that can go match.' Now, is he going to take the next step and ‘I'm a corner that can do whatever's asked?' That's where the progression is."
Shields fared well against Green, with just four completions (in seven targets) for 46 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Green is a great receiver but Johnson is all-time great.
"Now, this guy that we're going to play this week, everybody better respect Calvin Johnson," Whitt said. "Everybody better understand that this man's skill-set is rare and nobody in the league – I don't care who they are – wants to go out here and play him by themselves all game. When you're assigned to him, you have to understand what he can do and how your help is helping you out."
While Charles Woodson and Williams have been the prime defenders against Johnson over the last few years, Shields has seen his share of him over the past couple seasons. He'll see a lot of him on Sunday, though it will be Williams getting the call when Johnson goes to the slot.
"Just not be overaggressive," Shields said. "He's a big guy and he's aggressive too and I'm a little guy and I can't be overly aggressive because he can swipe me through and get around me. ... One little push and he can get separation on you. He's going to catch the ball – that's reality – but we've got to catch him and get him down on the ground."
Shields had the one interception against Cincinnati and has one in each of the last two against Detroit.
"He's playing good," Stafford said during a conference call. "Obviously, he's got great long speed. He's a longer guy. He's not the tallest guy in the world but he's got long limbs. He's a guy who's playing really good football for them right now."
Shields reacts after his interception vs. Cincinnati. John Grieshop/Getty Images
3. THIRD-DOWN CHALLENGE
Yes, it's early in the season. But these numbers are startling: The Lions' defense is allowing opposing offenses to convert on just 21.3 percent of their third-down opportunities. That's 10-of-47, including 1-of-13 against Chicago last week.
They're also third in third-down passer rating (44.4) and third with a combined 22 takeaways (11) and three-and-out possessions (11).
"It is a small sample size, but they've played four games, so you've got to give them credit for that," Rodgers said. "I think they've got a good combination. They've got a real good pass rush, they've got a good scheme on defense and they're making plays in the secondary. Chicago had a rough day on third down, and their one was late in the game. That's what you want to do as a defense: Get them off the field and keep them out of the end zone."
The Lions haven't reinvented the wheel. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is relying on his defensive front four to apply the pressure and the seven defenders in coverage to hold up long enough for the rush to get home. Two holdovers, cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas, are joined by two newcomers, cornerback Rashean Mathis and safety Glover Quin, to provide their best secondary in years. Mathis is a bit long in the tooth at 33 but he's got 30 career interceptions.
"They're a good defense," Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "They have a good front four, they get a good pass rush. They get teams in longer-yardage situations. Longer-yardage situations against a team that rushes the passer well, it makes it a little more difficult because you can't hold onto it because they can get to you."
Here's an odd statistical comparison: Even while Green Bay's offense is averaging a top-ranked 7.26 yards per first down play, it's converting only an 18th-ranked 36.4 percent of the time on third down. And even while Detroit's defense is allowing a 29th-ranked 6.59 yards per first-down play, it's been suffocating on third down.
That suggests it's been all-or-nothing, with first-down plays leading to second-down conversions.
"They do a good job of getting teams in second-and-long, third-and-long, and it's hard to convert those types of down and distances," guard T.J. Lang said. "Part of our game plan and targets every week is making sure we're not getting into those third-and-longs. We want to stay in those favorable down and distances. That means no negative-yardage plays, try to avoid sacks. Third down, we haven't done a good job this year of maintaining our drives, so third down is going to be a big component this week."
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— 4. Stafford has completed 1,214 passes for 14,069 yards in the first 49 starts of his career, most by any quarterback in NFL history through 50 games. He broke Kurt Warner's 50-game record for yardage last week (Warner had 13,864) and blew away Marc Bulger's record for completions (1,115).
(Rodgers, by the way, had 13,311 passing yards in his first 50 starts.)
Stafford threw for 4,967 yards last season, falling just short of becoming the only quarterback in NFL history with back-to-back 5,000-yard seasons. He's doing more with less due to the aforementioned running game: Last year, he set a record with 727 passing attempts. This year, he's on pace for 624 passing attempts and 5,048 yards.
— 5. When Johnson went over 8,000 career receiving yards in Week 3 at Washington, he became just the fifth receiver in NFL history to do that in less than 100 games. Johnson achieved that feat in 95 games. Among receivers who have played at least 90 career games, Johnson holds the NFL record with 84.9 receiving yards per game. He's also averaged 100.6 receiving yards per game over his last 50 games. Only Lance Alworth, Jerry Rice and Charley Hennigan have accomplished that. Since entering the league in 2007, Johnson is first in receiving yards (8,148), receiving touchdowns (58) and 25-yard gains (77).
"He's rare," Whitt said. "One thing I know is I got here in '08 but took over the group in '09, he's developed into a route runner, which he wasn't early on in his career. He can really run the spin dig. Early on in his career, he was a slant and fade guy and a five-and-in guy. Now, he can run the route tree. He can drop his weight. He's great after the catch, which he's always been, but him moving inside and doing the things that they're doing in the offense has made him just so much more difficult, and that's why he had the type of season he had last year. He's going to have those type seasons because he's a rare guy and he's developing his skills."
— 6. Bush has 383 receptions since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2006. That's the most among NFL running backs. Steven Jackson is next with 351, followed by Darren Sproles with 327, Ray Rice with 322 and Frank Gore with 305. This season, Bush is fourth among league running backs with 179 receiving yards. No. 3 on the list is his teammate, Joique Bell, with 207 receiving yards. With Bush and Bell's combined rushing and receiving yardage, Detroit's backfield has a league-high 777 total yards.
"I think they've established a running game," Clay Matthews said. "(Bell is) a downhill runner and finishes plays and that's what we find more impressive about him. But also you throw on top of that with Reggie and his ability to find the gap and create mismatches when you put him downhill on linebackers and safeties. They've been doing a great job of that. Screens, as well, they do a great job of that, and you see that's how they get a bunch of their big plays."
— 7. Suh is tied for the NFL lead among defensive tackles with a combined five tackles for losses (two sacks, three TFLs on running plays), and his combined 40.5 TFLs (22 sacks, 18.5 TFLs on running plays) since entering the league in 2010 also is tops in the league.
"I like to watch a lot of film and watch what other guards are doing that is successful against a guy like that and try to practice small things like that," said Lang, who will see plenty of Suh on Sunday. "You can't really get out of your fundamentals. You have to stay within your technique, within your fundamentals and just trust what you're doing out there. Watching a guy like that, he doesn't take a lot of plays off. He comes play after play. You're going to have to make sure you're playing with low pad level, using your hands the proper way. It's just small tendencies you try to pick up from watching other teams play."
— 8. This is the start of a critical stretch for the Packers and the end of a critical stretch for the Lions.
Green Bay, with the game against Detroit on Sunday, at Minnesota on Oct. 27 and home vs. Chicago on Nov. 4, play three division games in a span of five weeks. The Packers are 18-3 in their last 21 division games, including 6-0 in 2011 and 5-1 in 2012. They've won nine in a row at home against their NFC North rivals.
"This is a fun game. The division games obviously have an extra intensity to them," Rodgers said. "It's a team you play twice a year, a team that's playing really well coming off a big win at home against Chicago. These are the kind of games, at the end of the season, you look back and, if you're able to come out on top on these division games, you're sitting pretty for the division and for a playoff spot."
Detroit is 3-1 and in first place due to home wins over Minnesota (34-24) in Week 1 and Chicago (40-32) in Week 4. The Lions went 0-6 against the North last year en route to a 4-12 finish.
"I hate to sound cliché but there's a reason they're clichés – it's because they're true and they've been used so many times," Schwartz said. "It's important because it's a division game. Last year, we did not win a division game. This year, we're 2-0 in the division. This would give us a chance to go 3-0. Any NFL team, their No. 1 goal is to win in the division. Win your division is the easiest way to the playoffs and all that stuff. This gives us an opportunity to get another win, get a division win, and also put a loss on one of our division opponents."
— 9. It will be strength against strength in the red zone. Green Bay's offense is tied for eighth in the league with touchdowns on 64.3 percent of its red-zone possessions (9-of-14). That's right in line with its top-ranked 61.7 percent since the start of 2008.
For the season, Rodgers' red-zone rating is a third-best 127.2. With seven touchdowns and no interceptions, his total since 2008 is a startling 115 touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a 57.5-to-1 ratio – Peyton Manning is a distant second with 104 touchdowns and four interceptions (26.0-to-1).
Detroit's defense has been outstanding, however, with a ninth-ranked touchdown percentage of just 38.5 percent.
— 10. Detroit is 10-1 when Stafford posts a single-game passer rating of at least 105. That lone loss came in the Lions' only loss this season. Stafford had a rating of 108.3 in the 25-21 loss at Arizona. Stafford, in case you were wondering, had a rating of 103.8 in the 45-41 loss at Green Bay in 2011.
— 11. The Lions are sixth in the league with an opponent passer rating of just 69.4. They're tied for the league lead with four more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes allowed (four).
— 12. In case you've been living in a cave in Botswana, you've probably heard that the Packers own a 21-game home winning streak against Detroit in regular-season play and 22 in a row, overall. That's the longest streak in NFL history, ahead of Detroit's 18-game skid at Washington from 1939 through 2007 and Pittsburgh's 16-game home winning streak vs. Cleveland from 1970 through 1985. Detroit snapped its streak against Washington two weeks ago.
"I think this one's a little bit more relevant than a couple weeks ago," Schwartz said. "It kept being brought up that we had never, ever won in Washington. In the history of the National Football League, the Lions had never won in Washington. We were asked a million questions about it. I don't know how really fair that is to Matt Stafford or Reggie Bush or Ndamukong Suh or Lou Delmas or anybody else that hadn't been part of that. But I think just about everybody on our team, other than our rookies, has been part of losing games at Lambeau.
"They know the reasons we've lost them, they know how close we've been and how we've been a play away. I think that stuff rings a lot truer and is a lot more relevant than some other streaks. We've broken a lot of streaks here. We had the longest losing streak in the National Football League; we broke that one. We had the longest road losing streak; we broke that one. We've had a lot of these things. I don't know that it means anything more to the team other than just winning a game, particularly a division game like this, but it does free guys up from having to take those questions and things like that."
— 13. Why have the Packers had such mastery? Quarterbacks, plain and simple.
— 14. McCarthy is 13-1 against the Lions, and the Packers have won 14 of the last 15 and 22 of the last 25 in the series. There have been several close games in recent seasons, though. Five of the last six have been decided by one score, including all three at home. At Lambeau Field in 2012, the Packers trailed 14-0 in the second quarter and the game was tied at 17 entering the fourth. Matt Flynn put the Packers ahead twice in a see-saw fourth quarter in the 2011 shootout at Lambeau. In 2010, the Packers led 28-14 on Charles Woodson's pick-six against Shaun Hill but needed John Kuhn to run out the clock with seven carries on the final series in a 28-26 verdict.
"Close doesn't count," Schwartz said. "We're not trying to play close games, even though we have. We've got to come up with that ‘another' play or avoid that one turnover. We were up 14-3 and moving and the ball slips out of the quarterback's hands and all of a sudden there's a different dimension to the game last year."
— 15. According to STATS, the Packers have lost twice this season when scoring at least 28 points. From 2010 through 2012, the Packers had lost just once when reaching that threshold: 37-34 loss at Minnesota in last year's regular-season finale.
"Every game we've played, I've felt that we've had something we can build off," Williams said. "We've played well for portions of the games, two quarters, two-and-a-half quarters, three quarters, and we'll go down. To get some of those (injured) guys back is definitely going to help but I feel that what I've seen already that time will tell before it all comes together."
— 16. We wrote plenty about the Packers' troubles in fourth-quarter comeback situations during the bye. Stafford has 10 career victories when tied or trailing in the fourth quarter, including four game-winning touchdown passes thrown in the final minute. He's overcome deficits of 20, 21 and 24 points in his career.
"Any time you get a win, it's a win," Stafford said. "Everybody loves to be up in the first half and all the way into the fourth quarter and be able to run the ball out with (the) four-minute (offense), but it's the NFL, it doesn't always happen that way, and sometimes you have to make plays to get the job done at the end of the game. Any time I'm out there with the guys that we have, I feel like we're never out of a game and we've proven that a few times."
— 17. Both teams have new looks on the offensive line and both have been successful – though in differing fashions.
According to data from the Lions' media preview, Green Bay is ninth in the league with negative-yardage plays on 8.3 percent of the snaps. That includes 10 sacks and seven lost-yardage running plays out of 205 total plays.
Detroit is 10th with a negative-play percentage of 8.6. The Lions have three new starters up front – left tackle Riley Reiff (first round, 2012), right guard Larry Warford (third round, 2013) and right tackle Jason Fox (fourth round, 2010)/Corey Hilliard (free agent, 2009). The Lions lead the league with three sacks allowed and a 1.9 sack percentage. It's been feast-or-famine in the run game. The Lions are fifth with 15 running plays of at least 10 yards but they've also given up 19 lost-yardage running plays.
"They've done well," Stafford said. "We've run the ball better, which is a plus for them, and then we're getting the ball out quick. But any time I've asked for them to hold up to make a play down the field or anything like that, they've got a great job. They've kept me clean probably most games and that's what you want. These guys are playing physical, playing with a lot of passion, playing hard and learning on the fly which is good."
— 18. The Packers' 53-man roster includes 33 players they drafted, two claimed on waivers and one unrestricted free agent. The Lions' roster is made up of 23 draft picks, five unrestricted free agents, three waiver claims and four players acquired via trades. All other players on both rosters are street free agents and undrafted free agents.
— 19. The Lions are 3-1 and in first place and the Packers are 1-2 and in third place in the NFC North. That's all well and good, Schwartz pointed out, but it doesn't mean much. For proof, just go back to last season.
"I think it's a little too early in the season to standing watching, who's in first place, who's in last place," Schwartz said. "Green Bay was 2-3 and I know that Chicago started 7-1 last year. One team made the playoffs, one didn't. Your first few games, you've just got to go play. It's a race to see who can correct their mistakes the fastest, who can plug the next guy in the fastest, who can find their personality the fastest. The teams that are able to do that are the teams that go. Minnesota last year was 6-6 and sort of pushing along, won their last four and got that playoff spot. The Redskins last year, I think they famously said they were out of the playoffs – I think they were 3-6 and won seven in a row."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.
— 20. Williams, on the familiarity with the Lions: "You continue to see the same thing and the same thing. You're like, ‘Oh, man, it seems like they're running the same thing.' You recognize it on the field and sometimes you may not believe it. ‘Nah, they can't be running this,' but you've got to trust what you see, you've got to trust what you study."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.