World’s Best Preview: Defending Indefensible

Nobody can match our preview of Sunday’s Packers-Lions game. Our 20-point, 4,500-word novel leads off with the defenses’ challenges dealing with Nelson and Johnson. Plus, Green Bay’s play-action game, the teams’ right tackle issues and tons of stats and notes we guarantee you won’t find anywhere else.

Even more than the quarterbacks, it’s the wide receivers that are taking center stage for Sunday’s NFC North showdown between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

In one corner, it’s Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson, who has been a one-man passing attack through the season’s first two weeks. In the other corner, it’s Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, who is physically the best receiver in NFL history and is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

“I’m not going to say ‘don’t care’ about what he does,” Nelson said this week. “Our defense is going to have to handle that. I’m more worried about what our offense has to do and that’s to get points on the board and win the game. That’s all that matters. Comparing you across to another receiver, it’s not the time and place during a game.”

Johnson and Nelson – and how they’re going to be defended on Sunday – is perhaps the most intriguing story line this week.

Nelson merely leads the NFL in passes caught, passes thrown his way and receiving yardage. It stands to reason that the Lions aren’t going to make the same mistake the Jets made last week, when coach Rex Ryan stacked the box and essentially left Nelson one-on-one with his beleaguered cornerbacks. Considering 40 percent of the targets have gone to Nelson and 54.6 percent of the receiving yardage has been provided by Nelson, the Lions almost certainly will shower Nelson with extra attention.

Before his 209-yard outburst against the Jets, Nelson’s career-best day was 162 yards against the Lions in that wild, 45-41 Packers victory on Jan. 1, 2012.

“Jordy, you always see him making some big plays,” Johnson said. “He is definitely their big-play guy and he is a guy that we got to be able to contain come Sunday.” “I don’t know” what the Lions have planned, Nelson said. “We’ll just go with the flow, I guess. We’ll study the film and what they’re doing. Just prepare for that and then if they change something on gameday, we’ll adjust on the sideline. We’ve got a bunch of talented guys on this team that can make plays. If that’s what they decide to do, they’ll step up and make plays without blinking an eye.”

The Packers will have to give Johnson extra attention, as well. After all, in his last four matchups with the Packers, he’s caught 32 passes for 606 yards and three touchdowns, and topped 100 yards in each game. In 12 career games against the Packers, he’s scored 12 touchdowns. The difference is, the Lions have the supporting cast to make teams pay for that approach.

They signed Golden Tate away from Seattle in free agency to give them a legit No. 2 receiver. He’s caught 11 passes in the first two games. They are flat-out loaded at tight end with Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and 2014 first-rounder Eric Ebron. Since the start of the 2010 season, Pettigrew ranks fourth among tight ends with 255 receptions. Fauria, who incredibly went undrafted last year despite his towering 6-foot-7 frame, caught seven touchdown passes as a rookie. Out of the backfield, Reggie Bush (54) and Joique Bell (53) combined for 107 receptions. Ebron, a gifted athlete who was the first tight end drafted this year, has three catches in two games.

“I think that it does sort of tip the scales a little bit to keep the double-coverage off of him,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said in a conference call of adding Tate and Ebron to an already-potent offense. “We saw in the first game that a lot of people single-upped on him. And, obviously, when that occurs, he’s pretty hard to handle. I would anticipate that teams would use double-coverage and things of that nature, try to roll to his side. That should open up opportunities for not only Golden -- you saw in our first game, about six targets -- but also our tight ends on the inside and also our running game, as well. I think all of those things open up a bit when he gets coverage rolled his way.”

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers knows he’s got quite a challenge on his hands.

“This is a talented offensive team,” Capers said. “They’ve got a lot of tools. You just can’t zero in on just one guy because they’ve got other guys who can beat you.”

“STATISTICS ARE FOR LOSERS”

With Eddie Lacy’s Rookie of the Year season, the Packers fielded their best rushing attack in a decade. They ranked seventh in the league with 133.5 rushing yards per game – their sixth-best total since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. They were fourth with 4.65 yards per carry, ninth with 54 runs of 10-plus yards and tied for second with six individual 100-yard games. The team rushed for at least 180 yards five times in barely a month-and-a-half.

By that measuring stick, Green Bay’s rushing attack has been terrible, with back-to-back games of 80 yards vs. the Seahawks and Jets to start the season. Lacy has rushed for 77 yards this season. He had at least that many yards in eight of his 15 games.

“Are you talking statistically? Statistics are for losers, right?” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re all in tune with that, right? It’s Week 2. I feel good about where our running game is.”

And he should, because it’s serving its purpose. By the end of 2011 and throughout 2012, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had to face defenses that looked at Green Bay’s running game and shrugged its shoulders. Opponents played two deep safeties and ignored Rodgers’ play-action attempts, which turned Rodgers into a highly paid dinker-and-dunker.

No doubt, McCarthy would argue these statistics aren’t for losers: According to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers is 16-of-21 for 193 yards with two touchdowns and one interception on play action, giving him a fourth-best passer rating of 115.8. The second of the touchdowns was the 80-yarder to Nelson last week.

“We haven’t run the ball that effectively in two weeks but the threat of it has gotten us some one-one-one matchups outside for our receivers, which has helped us move the ball when we’ve needed to,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee on Tuesday. “The more we can run it and have balance, the better our offense is going to be. It’s going to slow down the pass rush, it’s going to give us that play-action look. We need to continue to find ways to run the ball a little bit better. If teams are going to start rolling some coverages toward Jordy, then we need our other guys to step up and we need to be able to run the ball a little more effectively.”

Not all right (at right tackle)

Before just about every game, you can point to offensive line play as a pivotal factor. And that certainly is true for this game.

From Green Bay’s perspective, can a front wall that includes a rookie center (Corey Linsley) and a suspect right tackle (Bryan Bulaga or Derek Sherrod) pass protect well enough for Rodgers to pick apart an injury-riddled Lions secondary? If Bulaga returns from a knee sprain sustained in the opener at Seattle, will he have the mobility to win on the edge? If Sherrod starts, will he play better than he did at Seattle? After all, the challenges will be similar: fast defenders, fast surface, lots of crowd noise.

“When you’re inside and you have that kind of surface with the crowd noise – which their crowd’s been better the last few years, for sure, it’s been louder earlier -- it makes it tougher,” Rodgers said. “You have to start fast, try and get their crowd out of it. As what happened Sunday (against the Jets), any time you’re playing at home and you get behind a little bit, you never feel like you’re quite out of it. If you can just make a couple plays, get the momentum going and kind of ride that wave – which we did Sunday – which you have to overcome when you’re playing on the road. So you have to start fast and you have to put the team away.”

From Detroit’s perspective, the Lions have a major issue at right tackle. Last year, LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard essentially split about 1,000 snaps. Hilliard, however, is in on injured reserve. Waddle, who started the opener, is out with a calf injury. Last week, Garrett Reynolds, who was cut during training camp and re-signed on Sept. 10, got the start. Not surprisingly, Reynolds is the trouble spot. He allowed two sacks against the Panthers.

Can Green Bay mount any rush against Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford with a standard four-man rush? Last season, on a percentage basis, Stafford was the second-toughest quarterback in the league to sack (3.63 percent of his dropbacks). Given Stafford’s multitude of weapons, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers would be rolling the dice in dialing up as many blitzes as he sent at the Jets’ Geno Smith.

“First of all, he’s a veteran quarterback,” Capers said. “This is a very protection-conscious team. You’re going to see them chip and help. They really try to be protection-conscious in terms of they’ll keep extra people in and try to throw the ball up the field. When you’ve got a receiver like Calvin Johnson, they’ll throw it up and let him have his chances of going up and getting it.”

History lessons

-- The Packers have dominated the series, both in ancient and recent history. Green Bay leads 94-66-7, including an astounding 14-2 under McCarthy. Of those 14 wins, eight have been by at least 10 points. The 2012 game at Detroit, however, was a 24-20 verdict in which Rodgers hit Cobb for the winning touchdown in the final couple minutes.

Since McCarthy took the helm in 2006, only New England’s 15-1 record against Buffalo and Pittsburgh’s 15-2 domination of Cleveland are better against a divisional opponent.

“We're not thinking about that, to be honest with you,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We've had a successful track record in the NFC North, a very tough division, but at the same time, in any given game, anything can happen. I don't think we can look past last year's butt-whoopin' that they put on us. But we've also put it on them. It should be a good matchup, but one that we need to come away with, especially (since) it would put us in the win column as well as being a start to our division games.”

-- Rodgers is a sizzling 9-1 for his career against the Lions, and he didn’t even see the end of the one loss, a 7-3 verdict on Dec. 12, 2010, in which Rodgers suffered a concussion at the end of a first-half scramble. In the 10 games, Rodgers has thrown for 2,559 yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions, with 68.3 percent accuracy and a passer rating of 111.0.

“Shoe comfort, probably,” Rodgers joked of his success at Detroit. “I don’t know. They asked me the same thing (in his conference call with Lions beat reporters. “We’ve had some success against them over the years but I don’t think you can point to one specific thing. Probably, if you point to anything, it’s probably turnover margin and big plays. We’ve done a pretty good job of taking care of the football against them the last few years and our defense getting some turnovers.”

-- The Packers are 8-4 in their 12 trips to Ford Field, a winning percentage of .667. Among teams that have played at least four games in Detroit’s new-ish dome stadium, only the Buccaneers, Falcons and Giants have a better winning percentage, with all three teams going 3-1 (.750).

-- The last trip to Detroit, however, was a disaster. The Packers got the Thanksgiving stuffing kicked out of them, 40-10, with the Lions scoring the final 37 points. It was Detroit’s biggest victory in the series since a 34-0 romp in 1973. With Matt Flynn at quarterback, Green Bay managed only 126 yards. Almost half of those came on a 56-yard completion to James Jones in the final moments of the game. The Lions’ defense sacked Flynn seven times; the Lions’ offense piled up a whopping 241 rushing yards en route to 561 total yards – the sixth-best figure in team history.

“It was a bad day,” McCarthy said, stating the obvious this week.

The other sideline

-- The Lions’ headliners are a high-powered offense and a ferocious defensive front four. The Lions also have an excellent outside linebacker in DeAndre Levy, who played at Wisconsin and grew up in Milwaukee.

Levy intercepted a pass in the Lions’ opening victory over the Giants, the 12th of his career – just the sixth linebacker in franchise history to achieve that feat. Incredibly, Levy challenged for the NFL interception title last season before settling for a team-leading six. That was the most by a Detroit linebacker in 55 years. Including the Week 1 pick, Levy has seven interceptions since the start of 2013. Only Richard Sherman (eight) has more. He also led the team with 15 passes defensed.

“The New York Giants game, I thought he was outstanding,” McCarthy said. “We have great respect for him. We clearly think he’s one of their best players on defense. His productivity, just particularly the old system, and similar to what they’re doing now. He has a really good understanding. Both those linebackers (Stephon Tulloch being the other) I think are outstanding players, so we have a lot of respect for him.”

Among active linebackers, Levy ranks third with 12 interceptions (75 career games). The leaders are Karlos Dansby (16 in 154 games) and Lance Briggs (15 in 167 games).

“I think he’s gotten better and better every year,” Rodgers said. “He’s a talented guy and he’s gotten, as his experience has added up, he’s just continued to play well. He makes a lot of plays around the football. He’s very active in the run game and he has good smarts on where to get in the passing game. Talented guy. You’ve got to figure out where he is every play.”

-- The strength of Detroit’s defense, obviously, is the defensive line. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are former first-round picks, as is defensive end Ziggy Ansah. Suh is one the league’s premier defenders. Since entering the league in 2010, he leads all defensive tackles with a combined 51 sacks (27.5) and tackles for losses (23.5). Fairley, who had battled weight issues in previous seasons, showed up in tip-top shape as he enters his final season under contract. Ansah led all NFL rookies last year with eight sacks, including two in Detroit’s rout of the Packers last season.

The depth is outstanding, too. Jason Jones is the other starting end. Backup tackle C.J. Mosley had two sacks last week against Carolina and backup end George Johnson had 1.5 sacks against the Giants. The other reserves are end Devin Taylor and rookie tackle Caraun Reid.

“Their front seven and ability to roll eight defensive linemen like that -- I don’t know if I’ve seen one through eight play with the ability the way they do, and they don’t miss a beat,” McCarthy said.

Detroit’s run defense has been great, which starts with that front wall. The Lions ranked sixth in the league last year with 99.8 rushing yards allowed per game. Through two games, they rank second with 57.5 rushing yards allowed per game, including just 62 in a losing performance at Carolina last week.

-- The Lions will need a big game from their defensive line because their secondary is a mess. Louis Delmas, the hard-hitting but injury-prone safety, departed in free agency. Their longtime top cornerback, Chris Houston, was released in June. So, the Lions’ secondary was a weakness entering the season. Injuries have made the problem worse. Safety James Ihedigbo has been out with a neck injury and is listed as doubtful. The depth at cornerback has been wiped out. Nickel corner Bill Bentley and rookie Nevin Lawson were put on injured reserve. The player who would have been the third corner on Sunday, Cassius Vaughn, will miss Sunday’s game.

That leaves a paper-thin depth chart at corner. Rashean Mathis, a 34-year-old, 12th-year pro, and Darius Slay, a 23-year-old second-year pro, are the starters. McCarthy spoke highly of Slay’s physical tools this week. Danny Gorrer, who was signed this week, and safety Don Carey will be in the mix as the nickel corners. Gorrer, 28, has two starts and intercepted one pass in 27 career games.

“You know, it’s one of those things in this business that you, week in and week out, you’re going to have adjustments that you have to make,” Caldwell said this week. “And so you’re going to have to make certain moves to get yourself in position to be able to play and play well and we think we’ve done that. We think the guys we’ve selected and brought in and also brought up from our practice squad are going to be more than capable.”

-- Tulloch, the Lions’ middle linebacker, has played in 130 consecutive games, the longest active streak by an NFL defender; that’s 16 more than Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay and Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway (114 each). Among linebackers, Tulloch, Greenway and Green Bay’s Julius Peppers (98) have the three longest streaks.

Noteworthy numbers

-- Since the start of the 2011 season, Stafford has piled up some huge numbers. His 15,292 passing yards and 1,276 completions rank second and his 93 touchdown passes are fifth. (Drew Brees leads all three categories with 16,385 passing yards, 1,392 completions and 131 touchdowns; Rodgers is second with 105 touchdowns.)

Passing yards, of course, can be a meaningless statistic. So, while the Lions are just 13-10 when Stafford throws for at least 300 yards, they are 11-1 when he has a passer rating of at least 105.0. Strangely, Detroit is 5-5 when he has a completion percentage of at least 70.0.

Against Green Bay, he’s 1-6 with 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Stafford, who needs seven touchdown passes to break Bobby Layne’s franchise record of 118, has 12 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. Three of those came last season.

For Stafford, he’s going through a big change. With Caldwell having brought in former Saints assistant Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator, Stafford is running more of the offense at the line of scrimmage. Between that and the schematic changes, Stafford likely will be further along when these teams meet in Week 17 than he will be on Sunday.

“I think that, without question, development and growth happens throughout the season, whether you’re in the same system that you’ve been in for 40 years or whether you’re in a new system,” Caldwell said. “That growth and development is key. Initially, you have to get better each and every week. Every week’s a huge challenge, a little bit different things that you face from a schematic standpoint. The talent level, there’s so much parity, yet there’s some unique individuals that you face that expose you to different types of issues within your offensive scheme. So it takes you going through that a few times to get all of the kinks worked out. I think he’s doing a great job of it. He’s developing within the system and I think you’ll see him continue to get better.”

-- Johnson, who set the franchise record last week with a catch in 108 consecutive games, is nearing some significant milestones. One more 200-yard receiving game will give him seven for his career, which would break a tie with Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for most in NFL history. He needs 425 receiving yards to reach 10,000 for his career.

The three-time All-Pro’s career average of 88.7 receiving yards per game is tops in NFL history. By a mile. Andre Johnson is second with 82.3 yards per game and Torry Holt is a distant third at 77.4 per game. More impressively, over the last 60 games, Johnson has averaged 105.9 receiving yards per game. Alworth, who averaged 104.7 yards per game during a 60-game span from 1964 through 1968, is the only other receiver in NFL history with a 60-game stretch averaging at least 100 yards. Since the start of the 2011 season, Johnson has 5,384 receiving yards. That’s a stunning 1,248 yards more than any other receiver in the league (Brandon Marshall, 4,136).

-- Bush is the headliner but Bell is one of the more underrated running backs in the league. Combined, they form an excellent duo. Last season, Bush rushed for 1,006 yards and added 506 receiving yards, while Bell rushed for 651 yards and caught passes worth another 547 yards. That made them the first duo in NFL history in which both backs topped 500 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in one season, and they were the only tandem last season with a combined 1,600 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.

Bush, who ranked fifth among backs with 108.0 scrimmage yards per game last season, had a huge hand in Detroit’s romp over the Packers at Ford Field last year. He rushed 20 times for 117 yards and one touchdown and caught five passes for 65 yards, including a long gain when he was split wide left and beat inside linebacker A.J. Hawk.

-- It will be clash of third-down titans when the Packers have the ball. From 2007 through 2013, Green Bay and New Orleans were the only teams in the league to rank in the top 10 in the league in third-down conversions in each of those seven seasons. It’s early, but the Packers rank sixth with a 50.0 percent conversion rate this season and are tops in the league with a 44.4 percent rate on third-and-6-plus.

On the other hand, thanks to that menacing defensive line, Detroit led the NFL last season by holding opponents to just 30.3 percent on third down. Through two weeks, the Lions are even better this season. By holding the Giants to 3-of-13 and Carolina to 3-of-12, they have limited their foes to just 24.0 percent success on third down.

Four-point stance

-- This is a huge game for both teams and the start of a critical early-season stretch for the Packers.

The Packers play at Detroit on Sunday and at Chicago next Sunday before hosting Minnesota the following Thursday. That’s three division games in a span of 12 days – a first for Green Bay since 1986.

By and large, the Packers spoke in clichés about this stretch. You know, take it one game at a time, etc., etc. Rodgers, however, spoke the obvious about what’s at stake.

“I think the guys know: This is a stretch that could really have some implications on our postseason future,” Rodgers said. “Winning your division games is the easiest way to winning your division, which guarantees a home playoff game, so these are important. Two of the three on the road and the third one’s a short week. It doesn’t get any easier but that’s how we like it.”

For Detroit, which closes the season with four division games in five weeks – capped by a trek to Lambeau Field for the finale -- it’s the first measuring stick for Caldwell.

“You know what I’m more interested in more so than anything else is focusing in on us getting better each and every week,” Caldwell said. “That’s the key against the challenges that we have to face, and we’re facing a great challenge in terms of a team that’s played extremely well historically and traditionally. A lot of great players on both sides of the ball, so we’re really focusing in on the fact that we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better, we’ve got to be better than we were last week and we know it’s going to be a grind.”

-- Jeremy Ross flashed immense potential during his brief run as the Packers’ returner at the end of the 2012 season. His muffed punt in the playoff game that year at San Francisco, however, would be the beginning of the end, and his fumbled kickoff at Cincinnati in Week 3 of last season would be the final straw.

Ross landed in Detroit and has shown his skill. In 10 games with Detroit last season, he had seven explosive returns (a 40-yard kickoff return or 20-yard punt return), including a 35-yard punt return against Green Bay and touchdowns on a kickoff and punt at Philadelphia. Through two games, he’s averaging 10.5 yards per punt return, though his fumble on a kickoff return at Carolina was his third turnover in a Detroit uniform.

“I think players continue to develop,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “When Jeremy was with us, he was a young guy. He’s learned from his mistakes. He’s done well in Detroit. He’s a first-class citizen. He’s a smart guy. He’s a good football player and I’m not surprised he’s done well.”

-- In a kicking competition, the overwhelming advantage belongs to Green Bay. Mason Crosby is 4-for-4 this season, including a 55-yarder last week. Dating to last season, he’s made 18 consecutive field-goal attempts – the second-longest streak in franchise history behind Crosby’s string of 23 in a row in 2010-11.

Meanwhile, with ageless Jason Hanson in retirement – though at practice on Friday to lend a helping hand, err, foot -- the Lions selected Boston College’s Nate Freese in the seventh round. Freese went 6-for-6 in the preseason, including three kicks from 50-plus yards, to beat out Packers prospect Giorgio Tavecchio. In the regular season, however, Freese is just 2-of-5, with the makes from 27 and 28 yards and the misses from 43, 49 and 49 yards. He was a perfect 20-of-20 as a senior and made 86.4 percent of his attempts for his career.

“He’s an excellent young kicker,” Slocum said. “Never missed in college. He’s a guy who made everything in college, so I’m sure he’ll get on track.”

-- In the red zone, these offenses have been outstanding over the last several years. Since 2010, Detroit boasts the league’s second-best touchdown percentage (62.7) while Green Bay ranks fourth (60.5).


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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