Packers-Lions: Keys to the game

The Packers are coming off a gruesome preseason in which their 2-2 record seemed more like 1-3 or even 0-4. The preseason record means nothing, of course. Or does it?

The Patriots went 1-3 last year but won the Super Bowl. The 2003 Patriots went 4-0 and won the Super Bowl.

The Indianapolis Colts suffered the ignominy of going 0-5 this summer. They are just the fifth team in the last 20 years to drop all five preseason games. Think the Colts are sweating that feat? Probably not, considering they're the favorite to reach the Super Bowl in the AFC should the Patriots stumble.

Certainly, the Packers have a lot more reason to sweat than the Colts as the NFL season kicks off in earnest on Sunday. Green Bay opens the season at Detroit, and the game should provide a nice opening measuring stick. If the Packers want to prove their many skeptics wrong, this is the type of game they must win. And if the Packers lose, well, the red flags raised during the preseason are still waving.

Those red flags are of primary concern in our Week 1 keys to the game.

1. Outside Ahman

The play of guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle was paramount as the Packers assembled one of the league's most prolific rushing attacks over the last few years. Rivera and Wahle are long gone, however, and the Packers' running game suffered during the preseason.

Running back Ahman Green averaged just 2.3 yards per rush during the preseason. New starting guards Adrian Klemm and Will Whitticker might form a stout tandem as the season progresses, but for now, they are a weakness.

Thus, if the Packers want to move the ball on the ground, they might run to the outside behind tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Not only are they the team's best offensive linemen, but running to the outside means the pressure won't be on Whitticker and Klemm to beat the strength of the Detroit defense, tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson.

2. Cut down Kevin Jones

Detroit's wide receiver corps, featuring three first-round draft picks, gets a lot of the ink, but it's another first-round pick, running back Kevin Jones, who is the Lions' offensive meal ticket.

The last time the Packers saw Jones, he rushed for 156 yards and a touchdown in Green Bay's 16-13 win at Lambeau Field. With the Packers unsettled at defensive tackle (with Cletidus Hunt's release) and linebacker (Na'il Diggs is injured and the other outside position will be manned by an undrafted rookie, Roy Manning, or a player acquired a week ago, Robert Thomas), no doubt the Lions will try to run the ball down the Packers' throats.

3. Three's a crowd

If Jones gets on a roll, the Packers could be in big trouble. That's because of the Lions' young receiving trio, Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. Oh, yeah, there's former Colts standout tight end Marcus Pollard, too.

If the Packers can't stop Jones with their base defense, then a safety will have to creep toward the line of scrimmage. That will open things up in the passing game against the Packers' suspect cornerbacks.

The Packers don't have much to worry about with Al Harris, but Joey Thomas missed much of training camp due to injury and Ahmad Carroll had an up-and-down camp, at one minute showing promise and the next reverting to his grabbing ways.

The Packers haven't announced whether Thomas or Carroll will start, but both will see plenty of action. If they can't stay with the Lions' talented trio, then even a shaky quarterback such as Joey Harrington will have a big day.

4. Something special

The Packers' kick coverage teams were nothing short of brutal during the preseason. Opponents averaged 8.8 yards per punt return — not too bad, but too many big plays — but a whopping 30.6 yards per runback on kickoffs. The latter figure ranked last in the league by a full two yards.

On the plus side, preseason coverage units are made up of a mishmash of players, some regular special-teamers, some young prospects, and some guys who have no chance to make the team. Now, the Packers will field a regular unit with real, bona fide NFL players.

The other side of the coin, however, is scary. Detroit's Eddie Drummond averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return last year, good for second in the league, and scored two touchdowns. He was even more prolific on punt returns, averaging a league-best 13.2 yards per runback and scoring two more touchdowns.

In what figures to be a close game, a big runback by Drummond could give the Lions some cheap points. That could make all the difference.

5. Harass Harrington

As far as his career in Detroit goes, it's do-or-die for Harrington. The former first-round pick has completed just 54.2 percent of his passes during his three-year career, with his 50 interceptions outnumbering his 48 touchdowns. Last year, he completed a career-high 56.0 percent of his passes, a figure that is way too low for a West Coast offense team.

The Lions signed Jeff Garcia during the off-season for a nice security blanket, but Garcia broke his leg in the preseason finale. That means it's up to Harrington if the Lions want to match the preseason hype. If he struggles, though, the boo birds will come out — he was booed by the railbirds at training camp — and things could get ugly.

It's imperative the Packers put some heat on Harrington, or else he'll have the time to pick apart the Packers' shaky secondary. Green Bay's best pass rusher, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, will face Detroit's best lineman, Jeff Backus. The wild card could be rookie Mike Montgomery, who impressed during the preseason, but that was against second- and third-stringers. Now, he's a member of the Packers' No. 1 dime defense.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com


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