Through three games this season, the Green Bay Packers have gone to battle with the running back and receiver duos of Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin, Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon and Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green.
The results from those clashes have been mostly mixed.
The Packers held the crafty Gore to an average of just 2.1 yards on 21 carries in Week 1, but the unit was also gashed wide open by Boldin, who used his savvy possession skills to catch 13 passes for 208 yards. A week later, Morris broke 100 yards but failed to make a sizable impact, while Garcon out-muscled the secondary for 143 yards on eight catches. Bernard, a Cincinnati Bengals rookie, recorded 99 total yards in Week 3 when the Packers all but shut down the electric Green, who hauled in just four catches for 43 yards.
Those tests now in the rear-view mirror, the Packers will have one of the most talented combinations of skill players up next when Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush of the Detroit Lions travel to Green Bay Sunday.
Given the results from the three earlier duos against Green Bay and the inability of defenses to take away both Johnson and Bush so far this season, it appears difficult to predict that the Packers will be able to contain both players during this week's pivotal divisional matchup.
For Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Sunday might be a game of pick your poison.
Green Bay could continue to commit resources to stopping the run, which has paid dividends early this season. The Packers defense is currently ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game (93.3) and ninth in yards per rush (3.7), both of which are far cries from how Green Bay finished last season (17th in yards, 26th in yards per rush).
However, any trending up by the run defense has been accompanied by a slide from the secondary, which has allowed the fifth-most passing yards per game (311.0) and a passing rating of 113.7, second worst in the NFL.
No. 1 receivers have especially given the Packers problems, as Boldin, Garcon and Green combined to catch 25 passes for 397 yards and three scores.
Given those struggles, it would only seem natural for Capers to want to do everything in his power to take away Johnson, who broke the NFL record for receiving yards in a season just last year. That's obviously much easier said than done against a man who might be the most physically dominant player ever at his position.
The Packers will finally return veteran safety Morgan Burnett Sunday, which should give Capers a more reliable option to roll coverage and play the deep half. Cornerback Sam Shields should be riding high after giving Green all he could handle before the bye week. But even a healthy and confident secondary has struggled to hold down Johnson in recent meetings at Lambeau Field.
In fact, since 2010—a span of three games in Green Bay—Johnson has hauled in 27 receptions for 448 yards and three touchdowns.
The scary realization for the Packers defense? Johnson put up those absurd numbers without a capable running mate in the backfield. He now has one in Bush.
And for that reason, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Capers' game plan on Sunday centered around making Bush a non-factor.
Again, that might be easier said than done.
Bush, who signed a modest $16 million deal with the Lions this offseason, has quickly turned Detroit's investment into one of the bigger acquisitions of 2013.
Over the season's first month, Bush put together two games of 100 or more yards from scrimmage, including outbursts of 173 against the Chicago Bears and 191 in a Week 1 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Altogether, Bush has 433 yards of total offense this season, which is good for 144.3 per game and the ninth-most in the NFL overall.
So far, $16 million has bought the Lions a perfect fit at running back and the ideal complement for Johnson.
Facing defensive fronts designed to combat the pass, Bush has averaged 5.3 yards a carry—with most of his damage being done between the tackles. While his dancing feet are still there, so is a renewed commitment of getting north and south and reading running lanes.
At USC and early in his NFL career, Bush relied far too heavily on his rare athleticism to make things work. Now a veteran, he's learned how to cut his teeth inside, where the game's best running backs do their business.
That said, Bush is still proving hard to get to the ground regardless of his avenue of attack. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bush has forced 16 missed tackles and is averaging 2.9 yards after contact this season. He's fifth overall in PFF's "elusive rating."
The Lions have also correctly utilized Bush as both an underneath receiver and the go-to option on screen plays. The 28-year-old currently has 11 catches for 179 yards, which is the fourth-most among running backs this season. His long of 77 yards came on a perfectly crafted screen play in Week 1 that went for a touchdown.
Even in his eighth NFL season, Bush is still one of the most dangerous runners in space and with ball in his hands. The Lions, who week after week face exotic coverages with two deep safeties designed to take away Johnson, have found a multitude of ways to get Bush the football in those situations.
The results have been revolutionary for the Lions offense. A pass-happy team that has led the NFL in passing attempts each of the last two seasons, Detroit is now just 12th in 2013 with 156, or 39 a game. The Lions have also scored five rushing touchdowns—third most in the NFL—and are now fourth in the NFL in points and sixth in yards through four games.
Even with two weeks of preparation time and a roster that is slowly getting healthy, the Packers can't be expected to put the lid on an offense that is riding high with Johnson and Bush leading the way.
On Sunday, Capers and the Packers defense will have to pick a poison and hope for the best.
These Lions are no longer one dimensional on offense. Adding the versatile and talented Bush to an offense already featuring the game's most intimidating receiver has clearly put the roar back into Detroit's attack.
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