Star players are normally the main focus when evaluating big matchups, but role players will determine the outcome of the Thanksgiving Day opener when the Green Bay Packers take on the Detroit Lions.
The two teams will get the holiday started at Ford Field on Thursday, and both franchises are desperate for a win. The NFC North is wide open with five games left to play: Chicago and Detroit are atop the division with records of 6-5, while Green Bay is one-half game behind at 5-5-1.
The two familiar teams have no love for one another, and the trash-talking started days before the game, as noted by Eye On Football, which reported Josh Sitton calling Detroit's defenders, "dirtbags" and "scumbags":
With so much on the line in this game, it's going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to come away with the victory. Both teams feature a few of the league's superstars, and those healthy enough to play will have a big impact on the outcome.
However, these following role players will need to show up at the top of their games on Thursday in order to ensure their respective teams come away victorious.
Nate Burleson, WR, Detroit Lions
Nate Burleson is officially back, ladies and gentlemen—as if the Lions needed any more offensive firepower for opposing teams to deal with.
The veteran receiver made his return to action last weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, catching seven passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.
Incredibly, Burleson is a No. 3 option for Detroit's offense, with Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush being options No. 1 and No. 2. He's a reliable receiver who has been exceptionally productive in every game he's been involved in this year, catching no less than six passes in each game.
With Burleson healthy and back in the starting lineup, opposing defenses can't afford to put so much of an emphasis on shutting down Johnson down the field. Leaving Burleson alone on an island on the other side is a strategy that quickly backfires.
Jarrett Boykin, WR, Green Bay Packers
From obscurity to fame in a flash, Jarrett Boykin became a household name this season after Randall Cobb was injured earlier in the year. Nobody knew who this kid was before that fateful afternoon, but he's been a lifesaver for the Packers this year, according to Marshall Faulk, via NFL Media PR:
James Jones and Jordy Nelson are still the top receiving options for Green Bay, but Boykin has provided a spark a few times for this offense this year.
His ability to make defenders miss in the open field is a useful tool the Packers must use effectively this Thursday, as weak-armed quarterback Matt Flynn is expected to start in favor of Aaron Rodgers, who isn't likely to play, as noted by ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Boykin came up with five catches last weekend in the overtime game, one of which he took for a score. He's caught at least five passes in each of his last three games, and the Packers will need another big game from him this week to come away from Detroit with a win.
Chris Houston, CB, Detroit Lions
Without Rodgers in the game, Detroit's defense should be able to bottle up Green Bay's offense.
The Lions feature the league's No. 4-ranked run defense, meaning Eddie Lacy is likely going to have a tough time churning out respectable yardage on the ground.
If things work out in the game the way they should on paper, then the only way the Packers will win this upcoming game is if Detroit gives up some big plays through the air—something the team has done with regularity this year.
Detroit's pass defense is atrocious, and Chris Houston hasn't lived up to the five-year, $25 million deal he signed with the club before the season began. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has graded Houston as its No. 87-ranked cornerback, with a minus-6.6.
He'll need to play better this Thursday in order to ensure Green Bay doesn't slip a few deep passes deep downfield for touchdowns.
Morgan Burnett, S, Green Bay Packers
Whereas Detroit's defense must guard against the occasional deep shot with Flynn behind center, Green Bay's secondary will be assaulted early and often. From the opening whistle until the final snap, Matthew Stafford will be looking to connect with Johnson, Burleson and the rest of his talented corps of skilled receivers.
This isn't a happy proposition for Packers fans, who know their team's secondary has been highly exploitable this year. One of the men responsible for the lapses in coverage this year is Morgan Burnett, who was terrible last weekend, as noted by Brian Carriveau of Cheeshead.com:
After the game, Bleacher Report's Zach Kruse didn't pull any punches when evaluating Burnett's play, either:
The last time these two teams played, neither Johnson nor Burleson was in the lineup. Predictably, Detroit's offense wasn't able to generate many points in that contest, but things will be different this time around—especially considering the game is being held in Detroit.
Burnett must play with exceptional discipline this week, or the Lions will have a field day completing deep passes for big scores.
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