What: Detroit Lions (3-1) at Green Bay Packers (1-2)
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
When: Sunday, Oct. 6th, 1 p.m. Eastern
Watch: Fox, check local listings
Detroit comes in with a two-game winning streak, winning in Washington and besting the Bears in Detroit last Sunday.
Green Bay had a bye in Week 3. Prior to that the Packers sandwiched a win over Washington between losses to San Francisco and Cincinnati.
It's a cliche, but you really do need to throw the records out for this game. This is especially true of the Packers. They are not your typical 1-2 team.
Injuries have played a significant role in their troubles so far this season. The best corner on the team, Casey Hayward, has yet to play in 2013. According to a report by Milwaukee radio station WTMJ, he will miss this week's game as well.
Linebacker Clay Matthews, the heart and hirsute soul of the defense, left the Bengals game early. As reported by Mike Vandermause, Matthews did not practice on Wednesday.
Not practicing today at #Packers practice: Starks, Matthews, Hayward, Van Roten.— Mike Vandermause (@MikeVandermause) October 2, 2013
That leaves his availability in doubt. Even if he does play, it's doubtful he is close to 100 percent.
Of course the Lions have some injury issues too.
Delmas is not a big deal, as he typically takes practices off to keep his knee fresh. Lions fans shouldn't fret about Johnson or Quin either, per the Lions' official team website.
Chris Houston, on the other hand, is definitely a concern. Per the Lions' injury report, the starting corner did not practice on Wednesday with a hamstring injury suffered in the win over Chicago. As the Packers can testify, hamstring injuries are not quick fixes.
If Houston can't go, and his status should be considered no better than questionable, rookie Darius Slay will get the start. I broke down Slay's progress earlier this week. Even with a healthy Houston, the Packers' passing game is a very tough enemy.
Regardless of the injuries, the Lions want to break another dubious road losing streak. Detroit has lost 22 straight games to the Packers in the state of Wisconsin. To put that in perspective, Jason Hanson never tasted victory in the Badger state.
So how can the Lions vanquish the ugly streak? It will not be easy, but here are three ways the Lions can help themselves overcome the death grip of history.
Rookie on Rookie Crime
Green Bay starts fourth-round rookie David Bakhtiari at left tackle. He will primarily face off against fellow rookie Ziggy Ansah, the Lions’ first-round pick in this past draft.
Ansah is off to a much better start than his counterpart. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium stats), Bakhtiari is easily the weakest link on the Green Bay offensive line. He has the only negative rating through three games. He is on the hook for three sacks, two penalties and six quarterback hurries already.
Meanwhile, Ansah has produced 2.5 sacks, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass in his first four games. He's also had two sacks, both of which produced fumbles, nullified by penalties.
To illustrate how Ansah can beat Bakhtiari, I watched film of every snap of both players so far.
Let's look at a play from the Cincinnati game. The Bengals are using a very similar 4-3 front as the Lions do, with the ends in a Wide-9. Michael Johnson (No.93) is lined up off the line of scrimmage a bit and outside Bakhtiari's (No. 69) outside shoulder.
Right off the snap, Johnson tacks his first couple of steps wider. That keeps distance between him and the blocker, allowing him to get a running start. When the rookie tackle rapidly scampers outside, Johnson makes his move.
Look at Bakhtiari's outside foot. Johnson catches him in the middle of an awkward shuffle step. All of Bakhtiari's weight is on his inside leg, and he's trying to push further outside. Johnson adeptly picks up on this and crosses his face inside.
This catches the tackle with a stiff leg and easily beats him. Defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry (No. 95) took his rush outside as designed, freeing Johnson for the inside move. Bakhtiari is badly beaten, and the clever scheme takes away any inside help.
Gilberry happens to beat guard TJ Lang to the outside, but that's just gravy for the Bengals here. The two defenders meet at Aaron Rodgers and drop him for a sack.
We have seen Ansah win with very similar moves against better tackles than David Bakhtiari. Factor in that Nick Fairley will command a lot of attention to his inside, and Ziggy has the potential to have a very big day.
Rock the Red Zone
One of Green Bay's bigger problems thus far this year has been red-zone defense. As illustrated in the table from TeamRankings.com, the Packers rank 31st in the league in touchdown percentage in the red zone.
Detroit ranks 20th in offensive touchdown percentage inside the red zone. They struggled against Chicago, cashing in just two touchdowns in five trips.
The Lions also had issues in the opener, scoring just three touchdowns in six opportunities versus the Vikings.
In the other direction, the Lions defense ranks 8th after holding the Bears to just two touchdowns in five red-zone opportunities. They will need to be strong again because the Packers offense ranks 8th in touchdown percentage.
Inside the red zone, Green Bay likes to use a shotgun set with three wideouts and a single setback. The back will often motion out, leaving an empty backfield. Here's an example from the Washington game. You will see this alignment frequently when the Packers are inside the 20.
The goal is to isolate coverage and subsequently exploit the most favorable matchup. The Packers do this extremely well. On this play, they caught Washington threatening to blitz with eight defenders on the line. Rodgers had his choice of two wide open targets for the touchdown.
Since the receivers cannot stretch the field vertically, they run a lot of horizontal concepts. This puts a great deal of stress on the linebackers and safeties in coverage. When those players are already out of position by schematic design, that's suicidal against Rodgers.
The Bengals played this differently from Washington and had some success. One of they ways they did this was by essentially ignoring the run as an option. The linebackers dropped deeper and wider than where the Redskins were in the above example.
When the outside receivers break inside, the linebackers are in better position to either pick them up in coverage or at least disrupt the throwing angle. Cincinnati can get away with this because they can pressure Rodgers with their front four.
On this particular play, the defensive tackles crashed in quickly and Rodgers had to get rid of the ball before the receivers could get into the end zone. The Benglas quickly swarmed to the ball and got off the field, forcing a field goal.
The Lions can also generate pressure with just the four linemen. While a well-timed gut blitz from Stephen Tulloch isn't a bad idea, the Lions should lean on the front four to get to Rodgers and use the linebackers more liberally in coverage.
Play This Game, Not the Last 22
I don't normally veer from Xs and Os on these game plans, but this is a worthy exception.
Green Bay is very good at getting under the other team's skin. Have a look at how well they draw penalties over the past few seasons.
|Season||Opp. Penalties Per Game||Ranking|
While they draw fouls from almost everyone, the Packers really bring out the worst in the Lions. In the last four meetings in Green Bay, the Lions have committed 35 penalties for 298 yards.
That figure doesn't even include the infamous Suh stomp in 2011, a game in Detroit in which the Lions were penalized 11 times.
Some mistakes are going to happen. That's football. What the Lions need to do is not get sucked into mindless penalties.
Aaron Rodgers is great at using hard counts to draw overzealous pass-rushers offsides. Both Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah have proven vulnerable to jumping early. They must stay disciplined.
Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh, and C.J. Mosley have all earned personal foul penalties for poor decisions this year, while Louis Delmas was rightly flagged for taunting once as well.
While it might feel good to make a big play, they must keep the celebrations low-key. To use a sports cliche, they need to act like they've been there before.
And then there are the demons of a 22-year losing streak. Detroit showed they can handle that sort of historical negative against Washington, but these Packers sure look more dangerous than this year's Redskins.
Coach Schwartz has done his best to downplay the ignominy of the streak. As he was quoted by Chris McCosky of the Detroit News:
You don’t win or lose the game because of the name of the stadium or what happened in the past. You win because the 11 you’re putting on the field and the 11 the opponents are putting on the field and who executes the best.
Yet it's only human for the players to think about it. The key is to not let it define them, or to overwhelm them should adversity strike.
Say the Packers jump out to a 10-0 lead, and the Lions commit a holding penalty to force a 2nd-and-21. That's the time when 22 years of failure can jump right to the forefront. Again, it's only natural no matter how much the coaches and players try to put it out of their minds.
The Lions must play just this game. When the going gets tough, they must remember it's just this game and not the losses that Brett Favre's Packers hung on Joey Harrington's Lions.
If the Lions can manage to do these three things, they stand a real solid chance of exorcising that 22-year demon. It will not be easy, but nothing great in life, or football, comes easy.