Despite nearly coughing up a win against the Chicago Bears in Week 4, the Detroit Lions will come into Lambeau Field on Sunday riding a wave of momentum. It will be the jobs of the Green Bay Packers in Week 5 to knock the Motor City men from their perch off the top of the NFC North.
While the Lions defense has improved over the past few seasons because of the additions of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, the key to beating Detroit still lies in slowing down its high-powered offense led by Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be thankful to get Green Bay's best playmaking safety Morgan Burnett back to help over the top on deep balls thrown to Johnson. But Capers may not have 2012 rookie breakout corner Casey Hayward back, who has yet to make his season debut after injuring his hamstring in the preseason.
To make matters worse, outside linebacker Clay Matthews—the Packers' best pass-rusher—suffered a hamstring injury in the Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and could potentially miss this important division tilt. If he is indeed inactive for the Lions game, more pressure will be put on Green Bay's young corners Sam Shields, Micah Hyde and Davon House to prevent Detroit's wideouts from blowing past their coverage for big plays.
Green Bay will take full advantage of rolling its coverage to wherever Johnson lines up. Detroit has a gaping hole at its wide receiver complement to "Megatron" right now, which has prevented Johnson from tallying a massive 12-catch, 170-yard, two-touchdown-like performance that has been customary over his career.
The Lions' first two choices at No. 2 wide receiver have been Nate Burleson—who recently fractured his arm in a car accident—and Ryan Broyles, who registered zero catches in a 40-32 win over the Bears last week. All of the Fantasy Football Players Championship (FFPC) owners who blew a few hundred dollars in their bidding budgets on Burleson and Broyles over the past few weeks have to be kicking themselves.
Detroit now has third-year man Kris Durham opposite Calvin Johnson. Durham's three catches for 58 yards last week were solid, but it's not a performance that Capers and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy need to game-plan against.
So Green Bay should line up veteran corner Tramon Williams (if Hayward can't go) against Johnson and roll Burnett over to bracket Johnson and limit the plays he can make downfield. Safety M.D. Jennings, Shields, Hyde and House are more than capable of making the other Detroit wide receivers nonfactors.
Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew has not been as effective this year as he has been in years past. Since the tight end has only 12 catches for 92 yards with no scores in the first four games, Stafford isn't even looking to him as much as he is to Bush. Many of Pettigrew's underneath routes that got targeted by Stafford in 2012 have been going to Bush and backup running back Joique Bell instead. The backfield pair have already combined for 29 catches and 207 yards.
The Packers will shift their focus away from Pettigrew and have outside linebackers Matthews and Nick Perry keep the elusive Bush and Bell in front of them. Green Bay will be content to take a "bend-not-break" approach in defending Detroit's running backs. Capers will be thrilled even if the two combine for 10 catches, as long as their yardage is kept under 60 total.
Bush has also been good in the running game this year by averaging 5.3 yards per carry. But the Packers' rush defense is much improved from when it finished 16th in the league in 2012. Already, Green Bay has faced All-Pro running backs Frank Gore and Alfred Morris along with dynamic rookie Giovani Bernard this season and still ranks eighth in the league in rushing yards allowed at 93.3 per game.
Because Pettigrew and fellow tight end Tony Scheffler have failed to make defenses respect them over the middle by busting big plays down the seam, Green Bay inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones will be able to cheat up a step in the box to slow down the Lions' running game as a result.
With Green Bay being a seven-point favorite at home and Rodgers' previous success passing against Detroit, I expect that the Lions will be in catch-up mode for most of the second half. That will effectively eliminate the ground game for the Lions as a threat. And with no proven second passing option for Detroit, the Packers will be able to shift nearly all of their attention to Johnson on defense.
As long as the Packers' defensive backs can support Matthews and Perry on the outside when the Lions running backs get into space, Stafford will have many of his safety valves taken away from him. And if Green Bay can generate a solid pass rush (with or without Matthews), that will result in more forced throws into the secondary by Stafford.
With the Packers' attacking and risk-taking approach on defense, they have thrived on forcing turnovers the past few seasons. And that will be the exact approach in this Week 5 matchup against the NFC North leaders as well, which is why the Packers defense will get the better of the Detroit offense on Sunday.