World’s Best Packers Preview: Playing with Pride

Plus, the Lions have everything on offense but production ... potentially the best receiver but the worst running game in NFL history ... a fresh spin on our three-and-outs video ... and much, much more in a story overflowing with stats, notes and quotes we guarantee you won't find anywhere.

“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

That’s one of the many quotes attributed to Vince Lombardi.

The Green Bay Packers (6-2) were knocked down by the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. They’ll attempt to get up when they host the Detroit Lions (1-7) on Sunday.

Defensively, the Packers weren’t just knocked down. What had been the No. 1-ranked scoring defense was pushed around by the Broncos. A week later, the defense wasn’t pushed around but it was torn apart by the Panthers for most of the first 50 minutes. Then, the Packers got up and showed some fight. Of Carolina’s final six possessions, five of them ended without a first down. The Packers’ rally fell short, but maybe — just maybe — the defense is on the road to recovery.

“We had a tough second quarter. To me, that’s when you measure what’s inside of here,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, pointing to his heart. “You can give into it and say, ‘Hey, this is not our day.’ Or you can go out there and fight your way back into things. I really liked the way our guys competed. I thought we showed a lot of grit to fight our way back into things to give ourselves a chance to tie the game at the end. As much as we were down 27-7, you better play your tail off. We had six three-and-out or less. We were able to withstand the second quarter and come back and fight our way back into it. I liked that about our guys. It shows we have a lot of heart.”

It almost seems nonsensical to say you can build momentum from a loss. And no one with the Packers would go that far. But on a day when the defense could have quit and decided to turn things around vs. Detroit, that unit put its foot down in the fourth quarter. Now, with a pivotal stretch of division games starting, can the Packers use that strong finish as a launching point?

“I don’t know if you can take momentum off a loss but, yeah, absolutely,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You look at what we did right. You don’t always want to dwell on the things you failed on — obviously, you need to improve on those — but you look at how we finished the game with a couple three-and-outs, a huge interception at the end. One or two plays here or there, it could be different. We just started entirely too slow in both those games and put ourselves in a deep hole that was hard to come out of.”

On the other side of the ball, Green Bay’s offensive line had a miserable day vs. Carolina. Usually, Aaron Rodgers destroys blitzing defenses because he and the rest of the offense are a step ahead of every defensive coordinator’s plans. It was a much different story against the Panthers. When’s the last time unblocked defenders poured into the backfield to drop Rodgers before Rodgers had a chance to even look at his first read? But that’s what happened last week. Did right tackle Bryan Bulaga getting bullied into Rodgers’ face cost the Packers a chance to send the game to overtime? Perhaps. But long before that play, reliable veterans in the protection didn’t get it done.

“Unacceptable. It’s unacceptable,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “Mental errors are not tolerable, and they will be corrected, have been corrected. You can never have anybody run through your A and B gaps. Aaron took too many shots from unblocked defenders. I’ve got to do a better job preparing them to make sure they’re prepared in those situations, and they need to do a better job with execution to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Center Corey Linsley said he and the rest of the linemen played well for the vast majority of the snaps. It was just the one really bad play here and there — “onesies,” as Campen called them — that led to the offense’s demise.

Other times, Linsley said, “It was overthinking. Guys thinking too in-depth. When a defense makes an adjustment, we all know it. If you drew it up on the board, every single running back and every single offensive lineman would get the question right. That’s the best thing that we’re doing this week is we’re working on the base stuff. ... We’re ready to move on and we’re ready to move forward to Detroit. We’re ready to put all of that stuff behind us.”

Campen’s expectations are simple for this week. He’s seen his group play at an incredibly high level. It’s time to get back to that standard.

“To play with pride, to play with a purpose, to play with passion,” Campen said. “Understand that you have to come back from those things, and they will. I truly believe they will. You want to be playing your best ball. They know that. They put in a lot of work this week. They put in a lot of work in the film room and at practice. They’ve done a really good job. There’s a lot of prideful men there. We don’t want to play below our standards, ever. And they know that. And, hey, I’ll throw myself in there, too. Obviously, if they were off or whatever you want to call it, you can’t have off-days. You just can’t. You can’t have guys running free through A gaps and crap like that. I assume that responsibility, just as they do. They’ve played too well too many times to play like that. That wasn’t good enough.”

THE TOOTHLESS LIONS ATTACK

With Matthew Stafford at quarterback, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at receiver, a first-round pick at tight end (Eric Ebron) and four premium picks used on the offensive line (left tackle Riley Reiff and Laken Tomlinson were first-rounders and center Travis Swanson and right guard Larry Warford were third-rounders), the Lions have one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL.

Right?

No. Not even close. Amazingly, for all of the big-name talent and with an offensive-minded head coach in Jim Caldwell, the Lions are ranked 31st in scoring with 18.6 points per game. Other than their 37-34 victory in overtime against the defense-challenged Bears in Week 6, the Lions haven’t scored even 20 points in a game since a season-opening loss at San Diego.

With that, it’s no wonder the Lions are 1-7.

“We don’t pay attention to records,” Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. “We pay attention to the film, and they look like a good football team. I wouldn’t know their record by looking at the film.”

Stafford, who had the bye week to look at the film, said there were a “couple” of reasons for the shocking lack of production, then quickly rattled off four: “We haven’t hit enough big plays in the passing game. We need to run the ball better. We need to protect the quarterback a little bit better. I need to do a better job of getting the ball out. There’s a lot of different things when you’re at that point.”

Stafford’s on pace for another 4,000-yard passing season and Johnson is on pace for a 1,300-yard campaign. However, after throwing 41 touchdowns vs. 16 interceptions during his banner 2011 season, Stafford has regressed in terms of big plays vs. giveaways. This season, he’s thrown 13 touchdowns vs. 11 interceptions, giving him 84 touchdowns vs. 59 interceptions in the past three-and-a-half seasons. That ratio of 1.42 touchdown passes for every interception just isn’t good enough.

It’s probably not fair to compare anyone to Aaron Rodgers, who is an out-of-this-world 4.08-to-1 for his career. However, for his career, Stafford is at 1.50-to-1. That ranks 17th among 30 active quarterbacks with at least 1,500 passing attempts.

The Packers, however, aren’t buying any of that. In this case, the names on the back of the jerseys and the sporadic bits of impressive film are what matter.

“You’ve watched all the games we’ve played against them,” Capers said. “I’ve seen this offense when they’re in sync. Calvin Johnson is still one of the elite guys in the league. Golden Tate, I thought, was an exceptional pickup for them. I think he leads the league in broken tackles. He’s a strong guy. You see he’s really good with run after the catch. So, those two guys complement each other. They’ve got a No. 1 draft pick in Ebron at tight end. And Stafford, they’ve struggled at times protecting him, but he can still make all the throws. I see him down the red area, he’ll buy time and he can throw the ball to anyplace on the field and you’ve got those big old targets. This is a talented team. They’ve had two weeks to prepare for us.”

JOHNSON TURNS WHITT’S HAIR GRAY

Johnson turned 30 in September and hasn’t been quite as great as he has been throughout his career. Still, at 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, he’s arguably the most physically dominant receiver in NFL history.

Through eight games, he’s caught 48 passes for 659 yards, putting him in position for his second season of 100 receptions and fifth season with 1,300 yards. His 13.7-yard average is the lowest of his career and his projected six touchdowns would be significantly less than his 10.6 average from the previous five seasons.

“Everybody talks about what Calvin’s not doing but watch every game and you’ll see a corner and a safety over the top probably 40 percent of the time,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “He gets more double coverage than anybody else. Single him up and see what happens. Single him up all game. Other guys will go up against an elite receiver and single him up and they can handle him. Go single Calvin up all game and see what happens to you. The respect factor that other defenses are showing him that have elite corners, they’re still not putting those guys out there against him all game. I have so much for him. He’s the reason why I have so much gray now. And he’s a classy, good guy, so I have a lot of respect for him and his ability.”

In the game before the bye vs. Kansas City, Johnson surpassed 11,000 career receiving yards in his 127th game — the fastest in NFL history. Among players with at least 100 games, Johnson’s career rate of 87.1 receiving yards per game is a record by a mile — Torry Holt is a distant second with 78.9 per game. Think a 100-yard receiving game is a big deal? Johnson has averaged 102.1 yards over his last 75 games and 106.3 yards over the last 60 games. No one in NFL history has been so productive during those spans. Since the start of the 2011 season, Johnson ranks first in receiving yards with 6,873 (Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown is a distant second with 6,094), second in receptions with 421 and fourth in touchdowns with 44.

“The catch radius of Calvin Johnson down around the red area, you have to stand beside him down on the field to respect how big the guy is,” Capers said.

In Johnson’s 14 career games against Green Bay, the Packers have done well — relatively speaking, of course. Johnson has caught 81 passes for 1,284 yards and 14 touchdowns vs. Green Bay. He’s caught only 48.5 percent of passes thrown his way, according to league data. Against the rest of the league, his catch rate is 56.7 percent. In two games last season, he caught 10 passes (21 targets) for 121 yards and two touchdowns; both of the scores came in the Lions’ 30-20 loss at Lambeau Field.

However, none of Green Bay’s starting corners are taller than 5-foot-11. Getting back veteran Sam Shields would help because of his speed and experience. In missing most of the last two games with a shoulder injury, Denver’s Peyton Manning and Carolina’s Cam Newton put up better numbers than they had all season. In last year’s games, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s best estimation of coverage assignments, Johnson caught 4-of-9 passes for 58 yards and no touchdowns vs. Shields.

“Sam’s always a big part of our plans in terms of being able to match up one-on-one,” Capers said. “When you don’t have a guy like that, sure, it affects you.”

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— The blame for Detroit’s shockingly low offensive production shouldn’t all fall on Stafford. Behind a disappointing offensive line, the Lions rank 20th in sacks allowed per passing attempt and 27th with 3.71 yards per rushing play. Detroit is so far down in team rushing that it has to reach up to touch bottom, with its 69.6 rushing yards per game being a whopping 12.7 yards behind No. 31-ranked Cleveland.

Last year, the Lions flirted with fielding the best run defense in NFL history. This year, the Lions are flirting with fielding the worst run offense in NFL history. Detroit has rushed for 557 yards in eight games, putting it on pace to finish the year with 1,114. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1976 (and excluding the strike-shortened season of 1982), only three teams have finished with less than that total: the 2000 Chargers (1,062), the 2000 Browns (1,085) and the 1992 Colts (1,102). Since 2001, there’s only been three rushing seasons of less than 1,200 yards, so Detroit’s rushing game isn’t just bad. It’s historically bad.

“Right now, there’s not anybody on our team that’s doing exactly what they need to be doing all the time,” Caldwell said when asked about his line. “We’ve been really inconsistent, that group included. And so we have to get them to gel, to get them a little bit better. We have a little different style in terms of what we’re doing with them at this point. We’ll see what happens.”

— In his first season as the Lions’ coach, Caldwell guided the team to an 11-5 record — a four-win improvement over 2013. He became just the third coach in franchise history to lead it to the playoffs in his first season. Moreover, it was only Detroit’s fourth 11-win season ever and its first since Wayne Fontes led the Lions to a 12-4 mark in 1991.

With that, you’d think the Detroit City Council would vote to name a street in his honor. Instead, Caldwell, who led the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2009, is very much on the hot seat. Before the bye, Caldwell fired three offensive coaches, including offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. During the bye, owner Martha Ford fired team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew.

Presumably, whoever Ford hires as president and general manager will want their own coach.  That could lead to an incredibly short tenure for a coach who was one blown call at Dallas from leading the Lions to their first playoff win since 1991.

“It’s a fact. You don’t hide from it,” Caldwell said of his message to the team amid the turmoil. “Obviously, it’s not something that you can stick your head in the sand and say, ‘You know what? This really didn’t occur.’ That would be ridiculous. But we obviously address it. We look at it and see it for what it is and we move on. For the players, it happens on a daily basis. There are guys getting cut and released every single day. For them, that is not something uncommon.”

— Last season, the Lions used 27 takeaways and a plus-7 turnover margin to fashion an 11-5 record. It’s been a different story this season. Detroit is a league-worst minus-9 in turnovers. With 20 giveaways, the Lions needed just eight games to match last year’s 16-game total.

The interception well has gone dry, as well. Last year, safety Glover Quin led the NFL with seven interceptions and fellow safety James Ihedigbo tied for eighth with four interceptions. That gave the Lions’ safety tandem a whopping 11 interceptions — three more than any other pair — as Detroit finished third with 20 picks. This year, Quin has two interceptions, Ihedigbo has none and the Lions have just four as a team. Ihedigbo, however, does have three forced fumbles.

— A few statistical on-track-for numbers from the NFL: Stafford has 2,083 passing yards and is on pace for his fifth consecutive 4,000-yard passing season. Stafford’s four 4,000-yard seasons are the most in franchise history. He owns four of the seven 4,000-yard passing seasons in club history. … Johnson reached 11,000 career receiving yards (11,064) in his 127th game, becoming the fastest player in NFL history to eclipse the 11,000-yard mark. Johnson is on pace for his seventh career 1,000-yard season and sixth such season in a row. He already holds team records in both categories. … RB Theo Riddick has 42 receptions and is on track to become the first Lions running back with at least 80 receptions in a season. … DE Ezekiel Ansah has seven sacks and looks to challenge Robert Porcher’s single-season team record of 15 sacks set in 1999.

HISTORY LESSONS

— In case you hadn’t heard: The Packers have won 24 in a row vs. the Lions in the state of Wisconsin. Rodgers is 6-0 with a 70.2 percent completion rate, 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 114.9 passer rating. Stafford is winless in four games at Lambeau despite averaging 315.8 passing yards while throwing for 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Overall, Stafford is 2-7 vs. Green Bay with 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 75.3 rating.

“I don’t really think it does (matter) because there are probably some guys on both teams who weren’t born when that streak began,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of the games. There have been some close ones over the years, some battles. It’s just kind of fell our way the last 20 times or whatever.”

— In his last game against Detroit, Rodgers — gimpy with a calf injury — led the Packers to a 30-20 win. He completed 17-of-22 passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns and a 139.6 passer rating. Add in his touchdown run, and here’s Rodgers’ stat line: one healthy leg, three touchdowns, five incompletions.

— McCarthy has guided the Packers to a 15-3 record vs. Detroit since taking over the Packers in 2006. The only team that’s been more dominant against a divisional rival is New England over Buffalo, with the Patriots owning a 17-2 mark during that span.

“I think you have to throw out the stats and records when you’re playing a division team,” Rodgers said. “You see it happen every year. It’s tough battles when you play a team you face twice a year. They have the entire offseason to work on scouting you and coming up with schemes they like against you. So, it’s always a battle of execution when it comes to a division game.”

— Green Bay leads the series 95-67-7 — and that’s with Detroit winning 11 in a row from 1949 through 1954. The Packers are 2-0 in the playoffs — 28-24 on Jan. 8, 1994, and 16-12 on Dec. 31, 1994. Both games were among the most memorable in franchise history. In the first, played at the Silverdome, Brett Favre threw three touchdown passes to Sterling Sharpe, including a 40-yarder in the waning moments for the winning score. In the second, played at Lambeau Field, the Packers held Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders to minus-1 yard on 13 carries and 4 yards on three receptions.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

— STATS defines a three-and-out drive as a drive that ends with three offensive plays and a punt. So, neither Eddie Lacy’s second-down fumble nor the series of laterals to end last week’s loss at Carolina figures into the mix. With that as a backdrop, the Packers have gone three-and-out on 24 of 90 possessions, with their three-and-out rate of 26.7 percent ranking 28th in the NFL.

That stands in stark contrast to 2014, when the Packers led the NFL in scoring. Green Bay went three-and-out 23 times all season for a second-ranked rate of 13.6 percent.

With Green Bay’s up-tempo attack, one first down tends to become a second first down, which tends to become points on the scoreboard. When the Packers get at least one first down on a drive, they have scored 51.5 percent of the time, including a touchdown rate of 34.8 percent.

“When you’re moving the ball and getting first downs and moving the chains, you get your tempo up,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “When you’re seeing the chains going, that’s what you get excited about as a lineman. ‘Hey, we’re moving the chains.’ It doesn’t matter how you’re doing it — running the ball, passing the ball — you’re moving the chains. Linemen like that. They like that. They like getting the defense tired. They like to push the tempo.”

Three-and-outs by the Green Bay offense have an obvious impact on the Green Bay defense. When the Packers failed to get a first down on four consecutive series in the second quarter last week at Carolina, the Panthers had a touchdown, field goal, missed field goal and a touchdown. Carolina turned another three-and-out in the fourth quarter into a touchdown, meaning 24 points came after a going-nowhere Packers possession.

“You definitely want momentum, and it helps in a number of different areas,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “It keeps our defense off the field, gives them the proper rest. We want more attempts. In order to get more attempts, you’ve got to be consistent in situational football.”

— Green Bay has set the tone in the first quarter for much of the season, outscoring opponents 73-19. That’s the most points and the largest differential in the league. The second quarter, however, has been a different story. The Packers have been outscored 71-26. The Lions actually have been worse. They’ve given up 108 points in the second quarter, the most points allowed by any team in any quarter this season, and been outscored 108-50. Who knows what the Lions are doing in the locker room at halftime but it hasn’t been making the right adjustments. They’ve been outscored 46-9 in the third quarter. That means the Lions have been outscored 154-59 in the second and third quarters, a whopping minus-95 differential.

— Here’s a noteworthy stat with the Packers embarking on a key stretch of NFC North games: With Rodgers starting (and finishing), the Packers haven’t lost a divisional home game since the Favre-led Vikings came to Lambeau and won 38-26 in 2009. Since then, the Packers are 12-0. Eight of the last nine games were decided by more than one score, including a three-game divisional sweep last year in which the Packers crushed the Vikings 42-10, the Bears 55-14 and the Lions 30-20. That’s an average margin of 27.7.

“You have to take care of your division,” McCarthy said. “That’s something we’ve always focused on. We have a regimen that we pretty much stick to each and every time we play a divisional opponent. Our offseason preparation was obviously a little different this year playing against the Lions because of what’s gone on in Detroit here in the last month. These are the most important games of the year. That’s our approach. We understand the urgency of these games. We understand the way you have to play in these games and that’s what we’re focusing on as we go through our preparation.”

— You’d never know it from watching the offense spin its wheels for most of the past five games, but Green Bay is tied for second in the NFL with 22 receptions of 25-plus yards. The Saints lead with 23 but have played one more game.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— The Lions used their second-round pick on running back Ameer Abdullah, a do-it-all star at Nebraska. Not only is he their leading rusher with 225 yards, but he’s third in the NFL with 28.2 yards per kickoff return.

The Packers’ kickoff unit has been outstanding, ranking ninth with an opponent return average of just 21.2 yards and 12th with opponent average starting field position of the 20.7-yard line. The challenge is about to get much tougher, though it has nothing to do with Abdullah. Mason Crosby’s touchback rate is an impressive 58.1 percent but, as the weather gets colder, the ball is not going to travel as far.

“He’s got speed, he’s got quickness,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said of Abdullah. “They’re very, very fundamentally sound. It’s one of their strengths. We’re going to have to do a great job. You’re getting into the point of the season where you can’t expect every kick to be a touchback. We’ve got to cover. We worked a little bit extra on coverage this week. The guy’s a good returner.”

— Watch out for Green Bay’s receivers to have a breakout game. First, the Lions are allowing a 73.1 percent completion rate and 8.66 yards per attempt — both easily the worst in the league. Moreover, the Lions have allowed 146.5 yards after the catch per game, fourth-most in the NFL. The Packers are third with 6.60 yards after the catch per catch and 10th with 134.5 yards after the catch per game. They’ve had more than 150 YAC in four of their past six games.

These are two of the best pass-rushing teams in the NFL. That means a tall task for the offensive tackle tandems. According to Pro Football Focus, Detroit’s LaAdrian Waddle has allowed 35 total pressures, second-most among right tackles, and Riley Reiff has allowed 32 total pressures, most among left tackles.

— In the 2014 draft, Detroit used its first round pick on Ebron, making him the first tight end off the board, while Green Bay selected Richard Rodgers in the third round, making him the sixth tight end off the board. So far, they’ve been easily the most productive tight ends. Among all of the second-year tight ends, Rodgers leads with 28 receptions, is third with 224 yards and first with four touchdowns. Ebron is second with 23 receptions, first with 292 yards and tied for second with three touchdowns. Ebron has three drops; Rodgers has one.

THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...

Rodgers, on whether there's a need to tell the fans to "relax," like he did last year when Green Bay started 1-2: "We’re 6-2. We’re tied for the division lead. Everything is right in front of us. We played a couple good opponents and haven’t played up to our standard of play. When you’re playing good opponents on the road, you have to play better because we know how difficult it is for teams coming here and have success – they haven’t. Teams haven’t. We need to take that mentality a little bit with us on the road and have a little better focus as we have this one and then obviously going into a tough environment in Minnesota."

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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