After dropping a gut-wrenching, mistake-filled home contest to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Detroit Lions now get a short week to regroup. The Green Bay Packers are coming to Ford Field for the annual Thanksgiving game.
This is a critical matchup with major implications in the NFC North.
NFC North Division Standings
|Team||Record||Points For||Points Against||Division Record|
|Green Bay Packers||5-5-1|
No team in the division won in Week 12. The Packers and Vikings played to a 26-26 tie, as Green Bay rallied from an early deficit behind replacement quarterback Matt Flynn. The upside of that unusual outcome is that figuring out the tiebreakers is now at lot easier for the mathematically challenged.
Chicago's season may very well have been lost when Michael Bush was stuffed on 4th-and-goal from the St. Louis 1-yard line while trailing 24-14 early in the second half. Lions fans saw that movie before in the last meeting with the Bears, when Nick Fairley blew up Bush in the backfield.
This time it was Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar racking up the four-yard loss, and the Bears never recovered. St. Louis had three runners gain more than 60 yards against the toothless Chicago defense.
Green Bay and Detroit met back in Week 5 in Green Bay. The Packers prevailed 22-9 in a game the Lions played without Calvin Johnson.
Here is how the teams match up statistically:
|Rushing||Passing||Run Allowed||Passing Allowed|
*These figures do not include the Monday night game.
The Tampa Bay game did not produce much swing in the rankings. The rushing offense dropped one place, while the run defense crept up a spot. Pass defense actually improved from 30th to 28th even with Tiquan Underwood's 85-yard touchdown proving its ineptitude.
Green Bay is trending in the wrong direction across the board, but most prominently in run defense. It still ranks a respectable 19th for the season, but over the past three games that standing plummets to 30th, per TeamRankings.com.
Prevailing wisdom was that the Packers would rely more heavily on their newly effective running game with Aaron Rodgers out, but that has not materialized. The Packers rank just 18th in rushing yards per game since Rodgers broke his collarbone.
Who will be starting at quarterback for Green Bay is shrouded in mystery. Or at least the Packers hope it is; Aaron Rodgers could conceivably return, but it's more likely that Flynn or perhaps Scott Tolzien will get the nod.
Obviously the Lions would prefer Tolzien, as Rogers has frequently tormented them over the years. Don't forget that Flynn made his name by throwing six touchdowns against the Lions late in 2011.
The Lions are in truly remarkable condition for this stage of the NFL season. Consider this:
Everyone on the 53-man roster is at Lions practice today. Every single guy. Not bad for Week 12.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) November 21, 2013
Detroit placed running back Montell Owens on injured reserve last Tuesday. Two players who had missed games with injuries, defensive end Ziggy Ansah and wide receiver Nate Burleson, both returned against Tampa Bay and played well.
Cornerback Chris Houston left Sunday's game with an injury that was originally reported as an ankle. However, the Lions coach tersely referred to it as a foot injury after the game. He offered no indication of the severity.
Because of the abbreviated work week, Coach Schwartz did not have the weekly Monday press conference to answer any injury questions. He did not offer any other injury updates during his postgame press conference, which you can watch here on the Lions' official site.
What Needs to Improve
The interesting thing in approaching this section after the Tampa Bay game is that the Lions did in fact improve on many recent issues.
The pass rush was much stronger and more consistent. Getting Ansah back, as well as a monster effort from fellow defensive end Willie Young, really paid dividends.
As Pro Football Focus noted in its reaction blog:
Given how much pressure he was under consider this game as another real success for Mike Glennon. He was pressured on a frankly ridiculous 68% of drop-backs but had a perfect 158.3 rating when kept clean.
The implication of that little tidbit, which is freely available without subscription on Pro Football Focus, is that while the Lions pass rush was very good, they could only do so much.
That's because the breakdowns in coverage continue to plague the Detroit defense. The relative ease of which anonymous receivers like Timothy Wright and Underwood consistently got open is disturbing.
Cornerbacks Houston and Rashean Mathis allowed too much cushion and did not use a physical enough style against the Tampa Bay receivers. The same was true in Pittsburgh, where Antonio Brown repeatedly torched the coverage.
Safety Louis Delmas has done a poor job of reading the opposing quarterback. On the long Underwood touchdown pass, Delmas crashed down on the tight end with reckless abandon. Never mind that Glennon never looked anywhere but at Underwood on the play.
There often appears to be poor communication, or poor coordination. Without seeing the All-22 film of the Tampa Bay game yet, it's hard to decipher exactly who should have been where. But somebody, or perhaps somebodies, clearly was not in the right spot.
The defensive coaching staff might want to simplify things on the back end. They have been at their best in the nickel package and using Delmas as a center fielder at safety, with Glover Quin serving as a de facto extra linebacker.
Because Green Bay uses multiple wideout formations a lot more than Tampa Bay, I would consider playing more pure zone on the back end. The corners are too vulnerable in off-man and press-bail coverage schemes.
Another area where I've been harping for improvement all season was in finding complementary weapons in the passing game.
Burleson's return also helped remedy that ongoing problem areas. He proved eminently capable of providing a legitimate secondary threat to Calvin Johnson, bringing more balance to the passing game.
It was refreshing for Matthew Stafford to throw three touchdowns and not one of them was hauled in by Megatron. This makes the offense much less predictable and a lot more dangerous.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan needs to make this a trend and not a one-week anomaly. The last meeting with Green Bay exposed how incredibly dependent the Lions offense is on Johnson. While he still needs to be the focus, getting more production out of the ancillary weapons is imperative.
Finally, the Lions have shown improvement in the punt and kick return games. Jeremy Ross ripped off punt returns of 26 and 23 yards against Tampa Bay. One week earlier, Micheal Spurlock had an effective game against Pittsburgh.
Aside from the return men being more assertive from the get-go, the blocking in front of them has visibly improved.
Unfortunately, the coverage units have regressed. Buccaneers return man Eric Page had kick returns of 39 and 44 yards, as well as a 17-yard punt return.
And then there was the blocked punt. At least two Lions missed blocks on the play, leaving punter Sam Martin with no chance.
Detroit cannot afford any more regression on the special teams front. It's not severe enough yet to be a problem, but the Lions need to make sure it doesn't get to that point. Sometimes the best way to fix an issue is to not allow it to become a big issue.
The Lions still control their own playoff destiny. They have not responded well to that fate thus far. Schwartz and his coaching staff need to make sure the team rises to the challenge against Green Bay on Thanksgiving.