With four losses in five games, the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl aspirations appear to be on life support.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
In 2010, the Packers lost three of four to fall to 3-3, lost two more games with Aaron Rodgers sidelined with a concussion, then needed to win their final two games just to get into the playoffs.
In 2011, the Giants lost four consecutive games and five out of six in November and December and needed to win their final two games just to get in the playoffs.
In 2012, the Ravens lost four of their last five games.
Those three teams won the Super Bowl. No sane person would have staked their life on those teams winning the Super Bowl entering those postseasons. Just like no sane person would pick the Packers to regroup and win Super Bowl 50.
What should give the Packers reason for hope?
The defense: Green Bay has played excellent defense the past three weeks, with a total of 46 points allowed. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has seen this before and likes where his unit is headed into a critical Thursday night game at surging Detroit.
“I’m always hoping that we’re ascending, that we’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “I’ve seen us do that around here more times than not, to where we’ve played our best football. You can go back to the Super Bowl year, that defense was ascending through the playoffs. I think you look at our defense last year, it was ascending through the month of December and into the playoffs. I feel like our last three games, we’ve been an ascending defense. We’ve done more of the things that it takes in terms of keeping people out of the end zone.
“I think our run defense, going all the way back to the Carolina game, has improved tremendously. When you look at Thursday night’s game compared to the first game of the season against Chicago, it was night and day in terms of the run defense. Thursday night’s going to be a big challenge for us because this team is playing with a lot of confidence. We’ve got a real appreciation for their skill. We’ve played these guys enough that we know what Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate and (Matthew) Stafford and what they’re capable of. You’ve got to be at your best. I’m hoping that we can go in there and continue to ascend and play our best defensive game of the year. We feel like that’s what it’s going to take. This is the time of the year where teams start to separate. As you go into the month of December, everything you do is geared to trying to play your best during the month of December and carrying momentum into January.”
More defense: One thing the Packers haven’t done is dominate the giveaway-takeaway ledger like they’ve done in past seasons. With 14 takeaways, Green Bay is tied for 21st. Since Capers took over as coordinator in 2009, the Packers are fifth with 196 takeaways. After averaging a league-high 22 interceptions during the previous six seasons, Green Bay has 11 this season.
“I look at interception-type balls,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Q (Quinten Rollins) dropped one (last week vs. Chicago), Sam (Shields) dropped one (vs. San Diego.) Those were two drops. We haven’t really had dropped many others. We had three others that could have been great catches. Casey had one taken away from him vs. San Diego from a penalty. We’re not going to chase interceptions. They’re going to come. I want them but we’re not going to come out of coverage to go get them. …
“Casey played a ball perfectly in this past game but the ball slipped out of the quarterback’s hand. If he makes a good throw, Casey picks it and goes score. That’s happened to Casey like five times this year. He’s read the play, the ball either gets tipped or the ball slips out of the quarterback’s hand. He should be sitting at four interceptions but he has none. That’s part of the game.”
Maybe the Packers’ fortunes will change. Several times this season, a Packers pass rusher has deflected a pass, only for the ball to flutter into no man’s land for a harmless incompletion. At some point, a few of those passes will fall into the waiting mitts of a defensive back. Right?
“Well, you guys have heard me say how many times that those things come in bunches, whether it’s sacks -- we go three games and not get a sack and then we get six. Same way with takeaways. You can go a while where you say, ‘Geez, we’ve always been a big takeaway defense.’ Last week, we were really close on those two. The one that Q had in his hands. That would have been really big in that game. We were able to get good pressure on (Jay) Cutler and he was unloading the ball. That’s when you have to be able to come up with them. The fumbled snap, I thought Q had it and then they wrestled it away from us. In those close games, in these tight games, we have to find a way to make two or three of those plays because they change the outcome of the game. They give the ball to the offense in great field position. Normally, it ends up with points on the board.”
Rodgers is still Rodgers: Assuming the defense keeps playing at a high level – or perhaps even starts taking away the ball – the offense doesn’t need to make leaps-and-bounds improvement. After scoring a league-high 30.4 points per game last season, the Packers enter this week’s game averaging 23.8. If the Packers could have hit that mark, they would have beaten the Lions and the Bears and been entering this game on a three-game winning streak.
If Green Bay can get a few things figured out in the passing game and if it can deliver at crunch time – unlike the fourth-and-goal failure at Carolina, the two-point failure against Detroit and the first-and-goal failure against Chicago – this team can get right back into the hunt in a wide-open NFC. Remember, the 2010 Packers scored less than 20 points in six regular-season games, so that wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, either.
“I think at this point, it’s important to take the next step, which would be the ‘effective,’” Rodgers said. “The ‘prolific’ is kind of a few steps down the line as you put some effective games together. We’re not even being effective enough anywhere near our potential, I think. The positive signs are that we’re running the ball better. The line’s been blocking really well. They had a great game of pass protection and running the ball (vs. Chicago). I think there’s still some more yards to get out there but, yeah, I think we’re running the ball better, which is encouraging. We’ve just got to do a better job of winning consistently and completing passes.”
IT STARTS WITH RODGERS
In November, there were 40 quarterbacks who threw at least 40 passes. With a completion percentage of 53.9 percent, Rodgers ranked 37th in that group.
That’s right: The player who entered this season as the third-most accurate quarterback in NFL history ranked 37th in the month of November. It was the worst month from a percentage standpoint in the two-time MVP’s career. As a byproduct, the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history ranked 34th with a mark of 81.3 – about 25 points below his career mark. Only Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick averaged less than Rodgers’ 5.74 yard per attempt.
To be sure, the Packers’ receivers are having a hard time winning on the perimeter and the tight end position isn’t stretching the defense one bit. To be sure, the loss of Jordy Nelson has been devastating, with defenses not fearing the deep ball and not worrying about anyone other than Randall Cobb in the passing game.
For the first time in his career, Rodgers isn’t surrounded by star power. Rodgers’ decisions in the passing game are based on where he finds the best matchup. For most of his career, there have been inviting matchups all over the field. This season, not so much, and it’s impacted Rodgers’ accuracy.
“Oh, sure. I’m sure it has,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said. “You take away your No. 1 guy, you’re going to be scrambling to find other guys. That’s definitely changed the way we do things a little bit but, at the same time, it’s no excuse. We’ve got to go out and play.”
Van Pelt hinted that Rodgers has been dealing with something that’s played a role in his performance. It hasn’t helped that Davante Adams’ growth was stunted by an ankle injury that sidelined him for most of four games and Ty Montgomery, the one receiver other than Cobb that can win with quickness and consistently gain yards after the catch, will miss his sixth consecutive game with an injured ankle.
So, as the calendar mercifully has turned to December, the Packers are trying to find answers.
“I don’t want to make excuses for anybody but we’re playing through some things that are tough to deal with,” Van Pelt said. “We’re playing through some things on the outside, too, and we’re still not quite 100 percent healthy. We’re still missing some guys that were productive for us early on. We’ve just got to find a way to get it done. I don’t know. It’s the thing we’re all looking for right now.”
THE OTHER SIDELINE
-- Taken over the course of the full season, the Lions’ defense has not been impressive. It’s a different story the past three weeks. Here are the full-season numbers compared to the past three games:
Points per game: 28th (26.2); fifth (14.3).
Yards per game: 18th (354.6); fourth (271.7).
Yards per play: 21st (5.6); third (4.4).
Yards per passing attempt: 24th (7.4); sixth (5.7).
Passer rating: 31st (104.3); 21st (89.1).
Rushing yards per game: 22nd (112.5); second (55.7).
Rushing yards per attempt: 14th (4.0); second (2.6).
The defensive turnaround started with the Lions’ shocking win at Lambeau Field last month.
“We just took a hard look at who we were and what we were doing,” Lions safety Glover Quin said. “We just kind of went back to the drawing board and had to figure out why we weren’t playing very well and then we had to get everybody on board. And everybody bought in to what we were trying to get done. We always knew we were talented, we just weren’t playing very well. We weren’t executing very well. These last few weeks we’ve been executing better and we’ve been stopping the run defensively. Any time you can stop the run, that obviously helps you out and you can get off the field on third down. All those things go into playing good defense, so everybody has just been locked in, focused and we’ve been practicing well. That’s just a tribute to the guys in the room and the look that everybody had to take into the mirror. Look at yourself and how you were performing and how you could step up and be better.”
-- At the 2013 Senior Bowl, Ezekiel Ansah was one of the most-talked about prospects. His physical tools and upside were undeniable. The production, however, ran hot and cold – not surprisingly considering the native of Ghana went to BYU in hopes of being the next LeBron James and caught the football team’s attention because of his success as a sprinter on the track team.
For the Lions this season, Ansah’s production has run hot as he’s got a career-high 11.5 sacks. Ansah, the fifth pick of the 2013 draft, ranks second in the NFL in sacks (J.J. Watt has 13.5), is third with 23 quarterback hits and tied for first with four forced fumbles. He’ll pose a big challenge to Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, who fared well against Ansah a few weeks ago (no sacks, one hurry) but will have to deal with the speed and noise of Ford Field.
“You prepare but, at the end of the day, it’s not as much about what the other person does as it is what you need to do in your fundamentals,” said Bakhtiari, who’s strung together several quality performances. “It’s making sure I go out there and I play my game. That’s the most important thing. It’s going to be fun. I definitely enjoy the game, especially when you have a good opponent out there.”
With 27 sacks, he’s got almost as many sacks as the next two players from the Class of 2013, with the Rams’ Aaron Donald (16.0) and the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson (15.0) having combined for 31.0 sacks.
“I think he’s really just kind of scratching the surface,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “I don’t think anybody knows exactly how good he can be with the limited amount of football that he’s played in comparison to most guys his age. His growth and development, I mean, every, single year you look at his body physically. We have all the body comps and just kind of looking at his strength, he’s still developing, getting stronger, getting faster. He’s a pretty unusual guy. You think about a guy that size – I think, if I’m not mistaken, this time when we checked his body comp, he had the second-lowest fat percentage on our football team. You think about that when he’s a 200-almost-80 pounder. So he’s a pretty unique individual. He’s blessed with some unique gifts.”
-- Golden Tate’s first season with the Lions was a rousing success, with 99 catches for 1,331 yards in 2014. He hasn’t been quite as prolific this season, with his 59 catches going for just 552 yards – a meager 9.4-yard average. But Tate remains a big-play performer, as he showed when these teams met a few weeks ago. After being held to three catches for 9 yards for most of the game, Tate had a catch-and-run of 43 yards to convert a key third-and-3 and set up a late touchdown.
“Golden Tate is one of the best run-after-the-catch receivers in the league,” Capers said. “He’s got running back skills once he gets the ball in his hands because he’s really strong in his lower body. If you looked at his stats, he probably breaks more tackles than any receiver in the league.”
Capers is right. According to Pro Football Focus, Tate has broken 20 tackles this season, tops among receivers. On the big play vs. Green Bay, he broke two tackles.
“Let me tell you something: The guy looks like he’s not as strong as he is but he’s very strong,” Whitt said. “He’s very strong through his legs. Some guys, you tell them to tackles in his legs. You can’t tackle him in his legs because you’ll bounce off and he’s bounced off of everybody. He’s a very, very, very strong runner.”
-- Taken as a group, the Lions’ three running backs hardly look like a three-headed monster. Rookie Ameer Abdullah has team-high 347 yards on 3.6 yards per carry, veteran Joique Bell has 163 yards on 2.9 per carry and Theo Riddick has 84 yards on 3.0 yards per carry. Detroit has the NFL’s worst rushing attack and averaged just 1.7 yards per carry against Green Bay.
While Abdullah has speed and Bell has power, the most dangerous of the backs is Riddick. He’s got 55 receptions for 507 yards and three touchdowns, ranking first among all NFL backs in receptions, second in yards and tied for first in touchdowns.
“The guy that they’ve gotten involved is Riddick,” Capers said. “They’re looking to see if they can’t get a matchup issue inside, whether he’s out of the backfield or they split him out. They’re equally as dangerous and Riddick’s excellent with the ball in his hands after the catch because of his quickness and his ability to juke and maneuver and run those option routes.”
Linebacker Clay Matthews compared Riddick to former Lions back Reggie Bush for reasons that go beyond them wearing jersey No. 25.
“This 25 almost has as many receptions as Golden Tate,” he said. “Really good plant (and) cut type of guy. Very similar to Reggie Bush. They definitely can do some things in the passing game that aren’t just with the receivers. Then you mix it up with Bell and what he’s capable of doing. You’ve definitely seen a different Detroit team since we played them these past couple games and they look good.”
-- At 30 years old and in his ninth season, Johnson might not be the unstoppable force he’s been in years past. But he’s still incredibly good, as he reminded the nation on Thanksgiving by scoring three touchdowns in as many possessions against the Eagles.
Johnson and Hall of Famer Lance Alworth are the only players in NFL history to average 100-plus receiving yards over a 75-game span. At the height of his powers, Johnson averaged 102.1 yards per game over a 75-game period – tops in NFL history. Since then, he’s slumped to merely 100.4 yards in his last 75 yards. For his career, he’s scored 14 touchdowns in 15 games vs. Green Bay.
“It’s like we often remind the guys on this team that they have an opportunity to be with a very rare individual in Calvin Johnson,” Caldwell said. “He’s everything you’ve asked for in terms of a real pro. He’s the epitome of a professional athlete in terms of his approach to the game. He gets in here early, he stays late, takes great care of his body. Obviously, the numbers in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish on the field speak for himself. But he’s an even better person. He’ll be a Hall of Fame player, he’s a Hall of Fame person long before that – that will be bestowed upon him. But just tremendous in every way.”
-- One long streak against the Lions died at Lambeau Field a few weeks ago, when Detroit came to Green Bay and emerged victorious for the first time since 1991. The Packers haven’t been swept by the Lions since 1991, when Detroit won the NFC North behind Wayne Fontes and before new Packers general manager Ron Wolf ushered Lindy Infante out the door and started his sweeping revamp of the franchise.
The Lions have won three out of four against Green Bay for the first time since the 1998 through 2000 seasons.
-- Green Bay has dominated the NFC North during McCarthy’s tenure. In each of his first nine seasons, the Packers finished with a winning record against their division rivals. New England is the only other team that’s posted a winning record within the division for the past nine seasons. That streak is on the line, with the Packers sitting at 2-2 after losing at home to Detroit and Chicago. For McCarthy to make it 10-for-10, the Packers will have to beat the Lions on Thursday and the Vikings in Week 17.
“We’re just making the road that much more difficult for us moving forward,” Matthews said. “This is a team that’s playing very well; at the same time, a division game in which we desperately need. Hopefully, we can come up, get this win, bounce back, enjoy a few days off and then really hit this last quarter of this season running because this third quarter has been pretty difficult.”
-- The Packers own a 95-68-7 lead in a series that dates to 1930. The Packers not only have dominated at home – last month’s loss notwithstanding – but they’ve done pretty well in Detroit, too. They are 8-5 at Ford Field, with that .615 winning percentage being the best for any team that has played at least five games in the stadium.
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
-- After a dismal four-game stretch in which he averaged less than 20 rushing yards per game, Eddie Lacy is back. For the first time in his career, he’s had back-to-back 100-yard games. Lacy, who was inactive for the Nov. 15 game with a groin injury, should provide some needed balance after Rodgers chucked it 61 times in that matchup. Not coincidentally, Lacy’s had 39 attempts in those two games after not having more than 31 carries in any two-game stretch this season.
Not that Lacy is clamoring for more touches. That’s not his style.
“I think any back in this league, I think stats or yards do better the more you get the ball,” Lacy said. “But we have one of the best quarterbacks in (the game) and I’m pretty much his sidekick. Whenever I’m needed, I go out and do exactly what I have to do and I try to make the most of those opportunities. I’m not a guy that’s going to be like, ‘We should do this’ or ‘I should do that.’ That’s not my role, that’s not the type of person I am, and I’ll never do or request such a thing. But I just make the most of every opportunity I get and let the chips fall where they may fall.”
The Lions, however, suddenly after a dominant run defense. Even without Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and DeAndre Levy, they’ve allowed less than 70 rushing yards in each of the games in their three-game winning streak. That’s the team’s third-longest streak in the past four decades. They’ve allowed a total of 167 rushing yards in those games.
The Lions, however, didn’t have to deal with Lacy in the last matchup. How will they tackle the big back?
“I don’t know, I’m looking for that answer myself,” Quin said. “He’s definitely a tough tackle. Big, big, big strong guy and you watch the film and guys are missing him. In the open field, they’re missing him. In the hole, they’re missing him. They’re hitting him and bouncing off. He’s definitely a tough tackle. You can’t rely on one guy to get him down. You’ve got to gang tackle him and swarm and it takes more than one guy, especially in the secondary. He’s a huge guy, but he’s got great feet, great balance, so that makes it tough. If you try to shoot his legs, he can bounce off that. If you try to take him up high, he can run you over, spin off you or whatever he wants to do. He’s definitely a tough tackle, having him back and the last two weeks he’s been running well, that obviously helps their run game out, which obviously helps their offense. So, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing a great job of gang tackling and swarming and trying to play fast so we don’t let him get going.”
-- While Rodgers is slumping, Stafford is surging. Over the past three weeks, Stafford’s passer rating of 106.5 ranks fourth in the league. On Thanksgiving, Stafford had the first game of five touchdowns and no interceptions in franchise history. McCarthy noted the Lions have been running more three-receiver sets under new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Lance Moore, however, has been ruled out, so the Lions might show less of that grouping.
“Regardless of who we’ve been putting out there lately, that they’ve been contributing and playing their role,” Caldwell said. “I think we’ve been reasonably effective. I think we’ve got it headed in the right direction. I don’t think we’ve arrived yet and I don’t think we’re as good as we can be. I do think the guys that we’ve put out there, regardless of the substitution group, they’ve been performing reasonably well. That’s up until this past week. This week’s a whole new entity.”
-- Good riddance to November. The Packers went 1-4 to go from the fight for the No. 1 seed in the NFC to a game behind in the NFC North. Maybe December will be better. Under McCarthy, the Packers are 26-12 in December, with that .684 winning percentage being the fourth-best during that span.
-- Five teams have allowed fewer than 20 points in each of the past three games. Two of those teams will meet at Ford Field. The Lions have yielded 14.3 points per game, which is tied for fourth-fewest in the league, while the Packers gave given up 16.0 per game, which ranks sixth.
“We have to do whatever it takes to give up enough points to win the game. That’s our job,” Capers said. “If 17’s too much, we have to give up less. That’s the way I look at it and I think our guys do that, too. We have to focus in on what we can do to go out and do whatever it takes to win the game. That’s going to be our goal Thursday night. I don’t know how many points it’s going to take but we’ve got to go out and play our best football game and do whatever it takes to find a way to help the team win the game.”
-- With Green Bay’s Jeff Janis and Detroit’s Abdullah, these teams feature playmakers as kickoff returners. Janis, the Packers’ Plan C after injuries to Ty Montgomery and Micah Hyde, had a 70-yard return against Minnesota and a 64-yarder vs. Chicago in which he broke five tackles. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Janis is the first NFL player since the Houston Oilers’ Willie Tullis in 1981 to have two kickoff returns of 60-plus yards in his first four career attempts. Hyde is healthy but Janis has won the job.
“He’s a strong guy, he’s an athletic guy,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “He’s one of those guys in the weight room that’s probably a lot stronger than you might think in terms of explosion and so forth. I’m happy for him, I really am. He’s done a nice job. That’s what you want to see guys do. This whole year, he’s gotten better and better as a gunner and better on the punt return and punt block team and obviously kickoff return now and he’s on the kickoff team, does a great job there. I think he just continues to improve.”
Abdullah made history vs. Green Bay a few weeks ago as his 104-yard runback to start the second half was the longest nonscoring play in NFL history.
Of course, with this game in a dome, it might not matter. Return opportunities will be limited with Green Bay’s Mason Crosby and Detroit’s Sam Martin handling kickoff duties.
-- With Rodgers at quarterback, Cobb at receiver and a veteran offensive line to lead a quality combo in the backfield, you’d expect the Packers to be scoring more than the 19.3 points per game they’ve averaged during their 1-4 slump. With Stafford at quarterback and Johnson and Tate at receiver, you’d expect the Lions to have scored 20-plus points in just three of 11 games.
There’s plenty of respect, though, regardless of what the numbers might say.
“What I see is, without question, one of the top quarterbacks that ever played the game,” Caldwell said. “I see explosive receivers on the outside, obviously with Cobb, who can give you all kinds of problems. And (James) Jones, who’s a guy that can catch and run with it and Davante Adams has got speed and ability. Richard Rodgers can catch the ball and move and Lacy’s rolling again and also (James) Starks has been having pretty good games, too. Those guys all have ability. And an unbelievable offensive line – one of the best lines in the league. What I see is a lot of talent and explosive people.”
Capers holds the Lions’ offense in high regard, as well.
“This is a team, and I felt this way going into our last game, you think about them last year,” Capers said. “What did they win, 10 or 11 games and had the Cowboys beat in the playoffs. This is a team that has an awful lot of offensive skill. If you don’t do a good job of limiting the big plays on the them, what happened last week, they scored 45 points and made a lot of big plays. He can really take advantage of you if you’re not tuned in.”
-- The danger with the Packers moving Matthews to inside linebacker is who would carry the load at outside linebacker? The Packers have had surprising depth with a rotation of Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliott and the new “slash” role for defensive end/outside linebacker Datone Jones. Against Chicago, Neal played a position-high 47 of 67 snaps, followed by Peppers with 45, Jones with 27 (defensive line and linebacker), Perry with 22 and Elliott with seven.
“I think just the opportunity to play all those guys, they've earned those opportunities,” McCarthy said. “There's really no need for one guy to play 60 and one guy to play 10. That's just really our thought process with our whole D-line group and elephant group.”
The depth has allowed Capers to mix-and-match personnel. Against the Bears, for instance, he lined up with Jones and Perry at outside linebacker. Jones’ size and Perry’s strength make them an imposing run-stopping duo. When Perry’s in the game, the Packers are allowing 0.75 yards less per carry than when he’s out of the game.
-- The Lions’ offense has been about as disappointing as the Packers’ offense this season, as they check in at No. 23 and No. 24 in total yards, respectively. Both teams have struggled on third down, with Detroit at No. 21 and Green Bay at No. 22 on third down, as well. However, the Lions have excelled in the red zone. They rank third with a touchdown rate of 67.7 percent.
THE LAST WORD GOES TO …
Matthews, on letting the younger players know what’s at stake as the Packers enter the stretch run: “If they don’t understand it now, we’ve got to get through to them. Especially when you kind of see how this thing is shaping out when there’s the playoff bracket and indicators of who is winning their division, who’s a wild card seed and people from behind. It really plays out as far as which games you need to win, and right now we need to win a few games to get back on top of our division. That starts this week, really. It’s just focusing on one week at a time. But you’re right, we’ve got a number of guys in here — you look at the 2013 season, you go back to the ’10 season for those of us who were here — and we’ve had to overcome some adversity. It looks like this season is not going to be any different from those, but hopefully in the long run that means something for this team.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.