NEW FOCUS ON OFFENSE
In 2011 and 2014, the Packers led the NFL in scoring.
That kind of offensive dominance would be great to somehow have again this season, but that’s not McCarthy’s focus.
“I’m a fundamentalist,” McCarthy said a day after the Packers lost 17-14 at Minnesota. “I always go back to the foundation of why we do things and how we do it and staying true to that. Frankly, a conversation Aaron and I had this year, we’re not really worried about statistics. We’re not worried about being No. 1 in the league in scoring. This is about being a well-rounded football team, playing better in the area of balance, the things we need to do a better job of, and it takes all three phases to get this done. We need to win the field position battle every week, we need to win the time of possession battle every week, so all of the variables and factors into that, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s the team that I’m developing because that’s what wins when you need to really win. And we haven’t gotten that done in two weeks.”
It was an incredibly interesting statement. And one worth exploring.
What is the correlation between field position and time of possession into winning football games?
For field position, the connection is strong.
FootballOutsiders.com keeps track of average drive starts. We looked at the four teams that reached the conference championship games from 2010 through 2015. Over those six seasons, those 24 teams had an average field-position ranking of 9.3. That ranking is pushed down a bit by two recent Super Bowl champions. Last year’s Broncos, who were awful on offense and couldn’t flip the field position, ranked 26th. The 2011 Giants, who weren’t very good at anything in the regular season before catching fire in the playoffs, were 29th. However, over our six-season look, 10 of the 24 teams that reached the conference championship games finished in the top four in average field position.
The Packers this season? Their average starting point is the 21.86-yard line, which ranks 30th. The opponents’ average starting point against the defense is the 31.90-yard line. That’s 10 yards — a full first down difference for every possession. If it’s a 10-possession game, that’s 100 yards. That’s a huge edge, no different than being outgained 350 to 250.
“It's obviously not been very good,” McCarthy said. “When you're on the road, field position is important over the course of the game, but I think it's so important in the first quarter because you're on the road and there's that surge of energy from the home team, so it's important to change the field position in those particular situations. We need to learn from that and we need to do a much, much better job of that this week at home against the Lions.”
The link between time of possession and winning is a bit less clear cut. Of the 24 conference championship teams over the last six seasons, the average ranking is 12.9 — slightly above average but nothing overwhelming. Of recent Super Bowl champions, Denver was 21st in 2015, New England was 22nd in 2014, Seattle was 17th in 2013, Baltimore was 29th in 2012, the Giants were 21st in 2011 and Green Bay was eighth in 2010.
However, teams that have won time of possession this year are 23-9, good for a .719 winning percentage. Last year, they went 173-83 for .676. Since the start of the 2008 season, when Rodgers took over as quarterback, the Packers are 54-16-1 when winning time of possession. That’s a .736 winning percentage. On the other hand, they’re 30-29 when losing time of possession. That’s a .508 winning percentage.
In the last 10 postseasons, the time-of-possession winner went 72-18 for .800. So, that’s a stronger correlation. Under McCarthy, the Packers are 5-4 when winning time of possession and 3-3 when they lose time of possession.
McCarthy’s goal is to avoid a repeat of 2011, when the Packers scored the second-most points in NFL history and went 15-1 in the regular season, only to be a one-and-done playoff loser. McCarthy thinks he’s found the formula in the numbers.
“I believe in playing to the strength of each other,” McCarthy said when we followed up on his field-position and possession-time focus on Wednesday. “I’m talking about offense, defense and special teams. When you don’t have balance – I’ve coached a team that wasn’t balanced and the result is what it was – so you learn from those experiences. It’s important to win the time of possession. It’s important to win the field position. We haven’t won the field position in two road games. Field position is a critical factor in winning on the road. I think anybody can acknowledge that and relate to that, especially when you go into a hostile environment. There’s a surge of energy and things that go on. So it’s important not only to win the field position but particularly win it early in the game. Those are the things that are part of the equation for winning, and that’s what we’re focused on. I have great confidence we’ll score a lot of points but I don’t do cartwheels over being No. 1 in the league in scoring. Because there’s a lot more to playing offense than scoring (and) doing everything you possibly can to get your numbers to a certain level.”
ATTACKING THE MIDDLE
In a league in which ever the smallest of details are considered top secret for competitive purposes, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy made an unusually pointed statement on Wednesday.
“After two games, we definitely could use more opportunities down the middle of the field,” McCarthy said.
The numbers make that obvious.
The league’s statistical site breaks down passing plays by “short left,” “short middle,” “short right,” “deep left,” “deep middle” and deep right.” Through two games, the Packers have thrown 32 short-left passes and nine deep-left passes. Those figures rank first and fourth, respectively, through two games. That’s more passes than to the other quadrants combined. Here’s the one-sided breakdown: 41 passes to the left, 13 passes to the middle (10 short, three deep) and 15 passes to the right (14 short, one deep).
Contrast that to 2014, when the Packers led the NFL in scoring and Aaron Rodgers won his second MVP award. Here’s the breakdown: 185 passes to the left (153 short, 32 deep), 129 passes to the middle (108 short, 21 deep) and 222 passes to the right (179 short, 43 deep).
For further contrast, look at how opponents have attacked the Packers’ defense: 21 passes to the left (15 short, six deep), 23 passes to the middle (19 short, four deep) and 26 passes to the right (21 short, five deep).
It’s early, but the offense’s ball distribution stands in stark contrast to what McCarthy said at the end of the season.
“I’ve said this for a long time,” McCarthy said at his season-ending press conference, “everyone wants to talk about passing game, speed of receivers. Philosophically to me, to have a successful passing game, you have to have big targets that can turn through the middle of the field, whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver.”
Unlike last season, McCarthy and Rodgers have those targets. Receiver Jordy Nelson is back and tight end Jared Cook was added in free agency. Nelson has caught 11 passes for 105 yards. Only two of his 20 targets have come over the middle. Cook, one of the tallest and fastest tight ends in the league with a proven big-play pedigree, has five catches for merely 38 yards. Five of his eight targets have come to the left with only one deep-middle throw.
A more diversified attack should help all facets of the offense, said receiver Randall Cobb.
“Whenever you’re able to hit a few over the middle, you’re able to hold the safety in the middle and get the deep ball on the outside,” he explained. “And it helps with the running game, being able to hold the linebackers back so they’re not as quick to rush on certain run plays.”
MEGATHREATS INSTEAD OF MEGATRON
Longtime nemesis Calvin Johnson is “Dancing with the Stars” with Lindsay Arnold rather than playing for the Lions and catching passes from Matthew Stafford.
Detroit’s offense, however, has replace quality with quantity. They addressed Johnson’s retirement by signing Marvin Jones away from the Bengals. In July, they added veteran Anquan Boldin. Along with slot receiver Golden Tate, potential-packed tight end Eric Ebron and prolific pass-catching running back Theo Riddick, Stafford has a deep and talented group of pass-catching threats.
“I think it’s one where, No. 1, obviously you cannot replace a guy with that kind of talent,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “The size, the speed, the strength -- he’s certainly a Hall of Famer, without question. Our game is a little bit different because of the fact that we’re going to spread the ball around a little bit more than we have previously. But we have guys that without question we think can make plays.”
Through two games, Jones has 12 catches, Ebron, Tate and Riddick have nine apiece, and Boldin has seven. While it’s far too early to use the phrase “putting them on pace,” we’ll use that phrase, anyway. That puts Detroit on pace to have five players with at least 56 receptions.
That depth will test coordinator Dom Capers’ defense, which has given up a 101.3 passer rating and a total of 606 yards in the two games.
“All you have to do is look at their stats in the first two games,” Capers said. “This is an outstanding offense. It’s an explosive offense. It starts right with Stafford. He’s off to a really good start. You can’t ever relax with this offense because you can play really, really well and then all of a sudden … you look at their opener against the Colts. They’re sitting there with 37 seconds left and down by one, 35-34, and they go 19, 9 and 22 or 23 yards and next thing you know they’re sitting there kicking a field goal to win the game. That’s the kind of team it is.”
Jones ranks seventh in the NFL with 203 receiving yards. Tate, who has back-to-back seasons of 90-plus catches, is a dynamic run-after-catch threat. His 43-yard catch-and-run at Lambeau Field gave the Lions a late 18-10 lead. He ranked eighth in the NFL and fifth among receivers with 527 yards after the catch last year. Boldin is ageless. With 69 receptions for 789 yards last season, Boldin became the first player in NFL history with at least 50 catches for 600 yards in each of his first 13 seasons. Since entering the league in 2003, he ranks fourth in receptions (1,016) and yards (13,278).
“I think anytime you lose a talent like (Johnson), it’s tough,” Stafford said. “But our guys have done a really nice job and the ball is being spread around. We’ve got a lot of guys with a bunch of catches already this year. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do that and spread the ball around and make it tough on defenses.
INSIDE THE LIONS
-- With a name like Jim Bob Cooter, you can’t help but smile. But Cooter has made a big difference since, as a 31-year-old, he was promoted from quarterbacks coach and replaced Joe Lombardi as the team’s offensive coordinator after the seventh game of last season.
Under Lombardi, a grandson of Vince Lombardi, the Lions started last season 1-6 and averaged 19.9 points per game, with five games of less than 20 points. During the final nine games, the Lions went 6-3. They averaged 23.2 points – an incremental improvement – but 28.8 over the final five.
Cooter’s influence has been especially felt with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Over the final eight games of last season, the Lions ranked ninth in passing yards, third in passing touchdowns, second in completion percentage and third with a plus-20 on touchdown passes (23) vs. interceptions (three). Put all of that together, and Detroit was sixth in that span with 26.3 points per game.
“In 2009, when I got the head-coaching job in Indianapolis, we hired him and you could tell right then and there that he was a pretty special guy, smart, innovative, very fine teacher,” Caldwell said. “He’s young, but he relates to the guys well and tries to put them in the best position to make plays for us. The transition has been pretty smooth in that regard.”
Could Cooter transition to a new line of work? A van in Detroit had “Jim Bob Cooter For President” printed on its back windows.
“I know he’d get the southern states, that’s for sure,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
-- In July, the Lions signed cornerback Darius Slay to a four-year contract extension worth $50.2 million. A second-round pick in 2013 out of Mississippi State, he is a budding star at the position with his combination of size (6-foot) and speed (4.36 at the 2013 Combine).
“He’s a really good player,” Stafford said. “Obviously, has the size you’re looking for, longer guy, got great long speed, quickness, is around the football, does a great job of breaking up passes and understanding what receivers try to do against him. He’s a young kid still but doing a really nice job for us.”
Slay has more than talent.
“He loves the challenge and, obviously, he’s going to be presented with one this week,” Caldwell said.
Slay broke up 17 passes in 2014 and 13 in 2015, when teams largely avoided throwing the ball in his direction. One of those quarterbacks was Rodgers. In the game at Lambeau Field, Slay covered James Jones. Jones had zero catches and was targeted just twice. Rodgers, meanwhile, threw 21 passes to Davante Adams.
“He’s a player who’s gotten better every single year,” Rodgers said. “He has the respect of us a lot of us quarterbacks because he does ‘star’ coverage, which is a little rare in this league, where he will switch sides and cover a receiver on the right and left side. Not a lot of corners will do that. That says a lot about the competitor he is and I give him credit for that.”
-- Rodgers owns an 11-3 record as a starter vs. Detroit, with one of those losses coming in 2010, when he was knocked out with a concussion. He has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,553 yards with 26 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 105.9 passer rating.
That dominance wasn’t there last year. In the home loss, Rodgers threw for 333 yards but needed 61 attempts and 35 completions. In the win at Detroit, he completed 24-of-36 for 273 yards. He threw two touchdown passes in each of the games with one interception at Detroit. Caldwell, no doubt trying to avoid poking a sleeping bear, said, “I don’t know if we did anything well” against Rodgers last season. From a big-picture, Caldwell said he only sees “greatness” when watching Rodgers, despite his statistical struggles.
“I know often times that people like to criticize, but let me just tell you something: The guy is phenomenal,” Caldwell said. “The guy has talent coming out of his ears. He can make every throw. He can run. He’s just a great leader. What are you talking about? He’s exceptional.”
Under normal circumstances, Rodgers would seem poised to feast on the Lions. The Lions have been hit hard by injuries, including to star rusher Ezekiel Ansah. And their pass defense hasn’t been very good, as they enter the game ranked 24th in passing yards allowed, 22nd in yards allowed per completion and 27th in opponent completion percentage.
So, here’s the matchup: Rodgers hasn’t had a 100 passer rating in 14 games. The Lions rank 27th with an opponent passer rating allowed of 112.7. Advantage, Packers? Who knows. The Lions gave up a 100.9 passer rating last season but kept Rodgers under wraps. Oddly, from a player who ranks No. 1 in NFL history in passer rating, No. 4 in yards per attempt and No. 6 in accuracy, he only ranks highly in one stat to this point: His three fumbles are tied with Chicago’s Jay Cutler for tops in the league.
“Tom (Clements) and I could sit in a room with him with (McCarthy) and let that tape roll and not say a word, and he knows exactly what he should have done and what he shouldn’t do,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “You don’t want to be the master of the obvious but, at the same time, you’re coaching the younger guys in the room, too. You make comments on it, but there’s no one that feels worse in the room than he did after the game the other night, and that’s the truth of the matter.”
-- The Lions placed their leading rusher, Ameer Abdullah, on injured reserve on Wednesday. That leaves Theo Riddick and Dwayne Washington as the options in the backfield. Riddick is a tremendous threat, though most of his damage has come in the passing game. Last year, he led NFL running backs with 80 receptions and, in 2014 and 2015 combined, he had 114 catches compared to 63 rushes. Among running backs, he ranks second in the NFL in catches, yards and touchdowns since the start of the 2014 season. Riddick enters the game with 18 carries for 82 yards (4.6 average) and nine catches for 91 yards. Washington, a 223-pound rookie seventh-round pick who Caldwell said can run around or over defenders, has six carries for 32 yards (5.3 average).
“I thought Theo did a really nice job the first two weeks of the season when we handed him the ball,” Stafford said. “Some of his runs probably look a little bit more unconventional than other guys but he does a really nice job of gaining yards and that’s what it’s all about at that position.”
In light of Riddick’s pass-catching prowess, it will be interesting to see if the Packers attempt to match up on him with linebacker Joe Thomas. That’s what the Packers did last week against the Vikings’ No. 2 runner, shifty Jerick McKinnon. When McKinnon entered the game, Thomas did, as well. McKinnon finished with two carries for 2 yards and one catch for minus-1 yard.
“Riddick’s a good matchup back out of the backfield. He gives linebackers problems. He’s very shifty and has the ability to make you miss and breaks a lot of tackles,” Thomas said. “When you know it’s a running back that they try to match up, I’m going to accept that challenge.”
-- In a rivalry dating to 1930, when the Lions debuted as the Portsmouth Spartans, 2015 produced two of the more memorable games in the series. The first was at Lambeau Field on Nov. 15, with the Lions snapping a 24-game losing streak in games played in Wisconsin by holding off the Packers 18-16. The Lions did their best to give away the game as the Packers mounted a late comeback but kicker Mason Crosby mis-hit the game-winning, 52-yard field goal as time expired.
The Lions downplayed the achievement this week. Other than the final score, there’s not a single mention of the game in the team’s 40-page media preview. Neither Caldwell nor Stafford had much to say, either.
“That’s so long ago and, just in terms of where we are now, it’s not something that’s on our radar screen,” Caldwell said. “We really are focusing in on this game and we’ve got a tough battle ahead of us. It’s a heck of a team that plays extremely well with a lot of talent. The reminiscing and all that kind of stuff was gone the week after that.”
-- Less than three weeks later, the Packers beat the Lions 27-23. You know how that game ended, and McCarthy and Rodgers relived those heroics on Wednesday.
“Really, on all pass plays, you look for the protection and the time clock because, obviously, when you have to make that throw, there’s a longer time clock,” McCarthy said. “And, really, the launch of the ball. When Aaron had the protection and just the angle he threw the ball, I just remember thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance.’ So it’s, definitely he took it to another level as far as the angle. I mean, that’s a phenomenal throw. But just the fact that our protection time clock was intact, he was able to buy the time, get his feet set and launch it, and obviously we all understand what happened on the other end. It was a great catch by Richard.”
The game, as you might recall, was extended by an untimed down when Rodgers was grabbed by the facemask as time expired. Those 15 yards made the difference as the Packers rallied from a 20-point second-half deficit.
“After the penalty, I had a good feeling I could get it to the end zone,” Rodgers said. “We lined up in a spread formation and they had three down linemen, so I just knew it was about finding a launch point to get the ball up in the air. I felt confident, once I got outside and we had some good blocks, that I could get it to the end zone. Just try and throw it as high as possible. Given that we were a little bit gassed there, having a couple long drives in the fourth quarter, and then being back on the field at the end of the game, just wanted to make sure that they had time to get down there, and then after Rich caught it, it was just kind of a blackout wave of emotion.”
From Detroit’s perspective, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was criticized for choosing just a three-man rush. That helped give the receivers the time they needed to get downfield.
“You can throw it 70 yards, but to throw it 70 yards as high as he did and to have it come down, that takes a little extra time,” Austin said this week. “He got outside the pocket and basically it was a javelin throw. He was able to really torque it and get it up in there, and get it high, to give his guy an opportunity to catch it. A lot of times when those happen, when you’re throwing that long, you don’t have the trajectory on the ball. That’s what I mean by that, for guys to get down there and for him to throw the ball that high. Most of the time, you’re not going to be able to throw that ball that high if you’re standing in the pocket and you have people around you. He was able to get outside the pocket, and then he was able to, basically, if you watch him, he kind of runs into the throw like a javelin throw. So he’s able to get that ball up there. Made a great play, and I didn’t make a good call and we didn’t finish it.”
-- The Packers are kicking off a stretch of four consecutive home games. How rare is that? The Packers haven’t done that since 1963, when they started the season with a four-game home stand.
The timing is great, considering the problems on offense in the steamy heat of Jacksonville and the noise of Minnesota’s new indoor stadium. Perhaps a big helping of home cooking will get the Packers back on track.
“Home games are important,” Nelson said. “Obviously, when you get them in a row, you’d like to get into a rhythm and get some things going. We want to win our home games. We get a few of them in a row here. If we win our home games, it gives us a strong opportunity to be in the playoffs. That’s where we need to start. There’s no better opportunity than having four of them in a row. Perfect chance to get in a rhythm and get this thing going.”
-- How strange was last season for the Packers? Since the start of the 2009 season, the Packers are 45-10-1 in regular-season home games. That .813 winning percentage trials only New England’s .912. Moreover, under McCarthy, the Packers are 43-17-1 against the NFC North. That .713 winning percentage trails only New England’s .770 and Indianapolis’ .733 for division games. And yet, the Packers lost all three division home games last season.
“I think the games last year is really a reflection of how the NFL is, particularly division games,” McCarthy said. “So, every one of those losses came down to the last play of the game and we didn’t get it done. That’s the beauty of our division. It’s always competitive. If you want to look at the big picture, we’ve had success, but every week’s a new week. This is no different. We have challenges that we’re working through and no different for Detroit. It’s Week 3 and we need to play better than we did the first two weeks. There’s been some sloppiness in our play in Week 1 and 2. I really liked yesterday’s practice. A lot of good things to come out of the padded work (Thursday), so starting to see some things come together and we need to carry that over to Sunday’s game.”
STATS ARE FOR LOSERS
-- There are a lot of ways to look at Green Bay’s scoring slump. Here’s a different take from STATS: The Packers have scored 14 or fewer points in five of their last 12 games. In Rodgers’ previous 109 starts, the Packers were held to 14 or fewer points just nine times.
It would help if the Packers had more success on first down. Rodgers ranks 30th with a 50 percent completion rate on first-and-10. That’s played a key role in Green Bay’s league-worst 2.78 yards per first-down play. Baltimore is next-to-last but three-quarters of a yard better. The Lions rank 30th with 7.27 yards allowed per first-down play, so something’s got to give.
Austin isn’t buying the premise that Rodgers’ level of play has slipped.
“There’s something wrong with him? I missed it,” Austin said. “That guy is one of the best in the business. I think a lot of times when you go up against a good defense -- Minnesota is a really good defense -- things aren’t always going to be smooth and easy. You watch them, those guys are right in the game with a chance to win it. I think to me that’s more important than whether he throws for 300 yards and 75 percent. I think they’re still a good offense, he’s obviously a great quarterback. They’ve got weapons all over the place. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Aaron Rodgers, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with their offense. I just think they ran into a good defense last week.”
-- It’s early but the Packers are one of two teams with no dropped passes. Meanwhile, only four teams have more drops than Detroit’s four, according to STATS. Boldin and Jones have two apiece.
“It’s been a big point of emphasis for us in training camp and through OTAs,” Cooter said. “Never like to see the ball on the ground. Guys are catching a lot of balls after practice, guys are catching a lot during practice when the defense is up and rolling. It’s really important for those guys. They’re working really hard to get open, to read the defense and make the right decision. Guys don’t want to drop the ball. It’s not something anybody’s trying to do. I think we’ve just got to kind of refocus on it and sort of eliminate it.”
-- On the other side of the equation, the Lions rank third in yards after the catch with 356 while Green Bay, a perennial top-10 team in that stat, ranks 28th with 170. Running back Theo Riddick and Tate, who is built like a running back, ranked second and eighth, respectively, in YAC last season and are the ringleaders.
“They spread you out. They play a space game,” Capers said. “They’ve got excellent skill. Riddick is a real threat out of the backfield. He’s a matchup guy that has great quickness. Golden Tate is excellent with the ball in his hands, excellent after the catch. He’s quick. Very strong. You have to do a great job of tackling him.”
-- Austin’s problem will be curing the Lions’ end-of-game defense. Detroit has allowed zero points in the first quarter, 13 in the second and eight in the third. The fourth quarter, however, has been a different story, as the Lions have given up 30 points – third-most in the NFL.
“We have faded,” Austin said. “We’ve got to be able as a defense, when our offense gives us a lead, we’ve got to be able to hold onto it. At the end of the day it all falls back on me, what I do to get those guys ready and what I call in those situations. Like everything we do, win or loss, we go back. Go back and look at what I called, how I called it, when I called it and see if there’s some things I can do better. I’ll do the same this week, and eventually we’ll get it turned around.”
-- The Lions used their first-round pick on Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, immediately inserting him into the starting lineup at left tackle.
The Lions have poured a lot of resources into their line. Decker replaced Riley Reiff, a first-round pick in 2012, with Reiff stepping into fill a glaring need at right tackle. Left guard Laken Tomlinson was a first-round pick in 2015, center Travis Swanson was a third-round pick in 2014 and right guard Larry Warford was a third-round pick in 2013.
Contrast that to Green Bay’s offensive line. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was a first-round pick, right guard T.J. Lang, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center J.C. Tretter were fourth-round picks, and left guard Lane Taylor was an undrafted free agent.
Giving one point for a first-round pick, two for a second-round pick and so on up to eight for undrafted free agents, ESPN.com Packers beat writer Rob Demovsky found the Lions ranked third with an average draft placement of 1.8 while the Packers tied for 24th with 4.2.
While the Lions used a first-round pick on Decker (after using a first-round pick on Reiff), the Packers got their left tackle in the fourth round. He’s the rarity, with 20 of the 32 Week 1 starters at the position being first-round selections. The Packers recently rewarded Bakhtiari for his excellent play by handing him a four-year contract extension making him the fourth-highest-paid left tackle in the game.
“Really, the credit goes to him and his ability to adjust on the move and not have things phase him,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “All of a sudden you’re in training camp (as a rookie) and you’re the starting left tackle (after Bulaga was injured). He took the thing on and never looked back. He’s very head-strong. Does a real nice job of letting things go – bad things that happen in a game. He practices extremely hard. This kid works. He’s a worker. Don’t kid yourself. He works extremely hard on his trade, to the point that at times in individual periods and those things, you have to pull him back. ‘Give me another rep. Give me another rep.’ He’s one of those kind of guys. It’s worked out very well for him and for us because when it comes to effort and finish and those type of things, he’s one of those guys that you rely on to use as an example. He tracks downfield, he finishes blocks, does a very good job with those things. David’s just going to grow and get better. He is not a finished product, trust me on that. This kid’s going to get better.”
Not only has Detroit invested heavily in its line but those picks are young, with Reiff being the grizzled veteran as a fifth-year player at the ripe old age of 27. If the Lions are ever going to become contenders, that unit must be a driving force.
-- Both teams’ defenses will be beaten and battered. Five of the Packers’ top defensive players, cornerback Sam Shields, safety Morgan Burnett, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, elephant Datone Jones and defensive tackle Letroy Guion, are questionable for Sunday. It’s not much better for the Lions. While Slay is healthy, the Lions’ next-best defenders are defensive end Ziggy Ansah and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Ansah won't play and Levy probably won't, either. Another linebacker, Kyle Van Noy, was injured last week, leaving the Lions with just one of their top six linebackers (Tahir Whitehead) at the start of camp.
“Knowing DeAndre a little bit and competing with him over the years, I’ll miss him being out there because he’s such a tough competitor and strong player,” Rodgers said. “Last year with the injury, I’m sure it was pretty tough on him and I hope he gets back on the field as soon as possible. Ziggy, if he doesn’t play, I probably won’t miss him as much. He’s a force to be reckoned with and he’s had a great young career for himself. He’s a really good player.”
Losing Ansah is a big blow. He had 14.5 sacks last season, which trailed only J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack. He has 30 sacks in three seasons.
“He’s a very dominant rusher,” Bulaga said. “Does a lot of different things for them and moves around in their (base) package. He brings that attitude to that defense.”
Bulaga’s challenge likely will be Devin Taylor (6-7, 275), though he could flip sides to take Ansah's spot. Taylor had 1.5 sacks and a safety last week at Tennessee.
“He does a lot of things well. I remember going against him last year and thought he was a solid player. He plays with his length. He’s got good speed. He’s able to recognize where the ball is well. Their whole defense, the thing you notice is they play very hard, they fly to the ball. They’re very fundamentally and gap sound, so they never get caught in bad positions.”
-- There is some uncertainty with both special-teams units. Who will return kickoffs for the Lions with Abdullah on injured reserve? Will Micah Hyde or Trevor Davis return punts for the Packers?
The player punting the ball to the Packers is as good as it gets. Sam Martin, a fifth-round pick in 2013 who signed a four-year extension worth $13.6 million a couple weeks ago, leads the NFL with a net average of 47.8 yards. Of his nine punts, seven have stuck the opponent inside the 20-yard line.
“He’s excellent. He does a great job,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “That’s one of those guys, when they get into that 45-, 50-yard area, what do you do? Do you try to pressure him? Do you want to be concerned about fake? Because they put it inside the 5, they really do a good job in there. Their gunners do an excellent job of getting down there and covering.”
The Packers haven’t been so fortunate with Jacob Schum, who was signed after the release of Tim Masthay before the final preseason game. Schum ranks 25th with a 41.9-yard average but opponents haven’t done much with his kicks, as he ranks 15th with a net of 40.3. Only one of his nine punts have been returned.
Zook expects better days will be ahead.
“I think he’s done some really, really good things,” Zook said. “If you ask him to grade himself, he didn’t feel like he punted the way he can punt, he knows he can punt, in the Minnesota game. Everybody thinks, ‘Well, you were inside, you should have ...’ but that doesn’t always work that way. That was a big game for him, his first big game. I think he’ll settle in and be fine. Athletes, that’s what they want to do – competitors, that’s what they want to do -- is to be put in that arena, put in that situation and I look for him to have a big game this week.”
-- Imagine the difference in these numbers if not for the Hail Mary: Since starting last season 6-0, the Packers are 5-7 in their last 12 regular-season games. Since starting last season 1-7, the Lions are 7-3 in their last 10 games. Last year, the Lions became only the fourth team in NFL history to win six of their final eight games after an 0-8 or 1-7 start.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers on the NFL's top-ranked run defense: "I’ve liked our aggressiveness with the guys up front. I think they’ve been attacking. It’s not been sit and read, they’ve been attacking. It comes down to lining up and whipping your man a lot of times. We’ve done a nice job of keeping people east and west and then having people in good leverage positions."
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.