Just like the Green Bay team in 1962, the 10-0 Packers head into Detroit to play the Lions on Thanksgiving. And just like the 1962 Lions, the most worrisome part of the Detroit defense is their defensive line.
The 1962 version of the Lions sacked QB Bart Starr 11 times in giving the Packers their only loss of the 1962 season, 26-14. The '62 defensive line of the Lions was led by Alex Karras and Roger Brown.
The 2011 defensive line of the Lions is led by DT Ndamukong Suh (three sacks), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (six sacks) and Cliff Avril (six sacks).
The Lions can score some points as well, as Detroit is averaging 30.1 points a game, led by QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson.
The Packers have played the Lions on the road 19 times on Thanksgiving. From 1951-1963 it was an annual event. The Packers are 7-11-1 vs. the Lions on Turkey day in those games. However, the Packers have won four out of the last five games played on Thanksgiving against Detroit.
For the Packers to win on Thanksgiving and to remain undefeated in 2011, a number of players have to step up their play against Detroit.
I'm sure some of you will be surprised with a couple of the names on my list.
So...why would I say Aaron Rodgers needs to step up his play against the Lions? I mean, Rodgers has thrown 31 TD passes compared to just four interceptions for 3,168 yards and has a QB rating of 128.8. That is easily the best in the NFL. Rodgers has had 10 straight games of having at least an 111.4 QB rating, which is a new NFL record. Rodgers has also completed an incredible 72.3 percent of his passes.
Rodgers is most definitely the NFL's Most Valuable Player at this point of the season as well. So why does he have to step it up against the Lions?
For one thing, the last time Rodgers lost as a starter was against the Lions in Detroit on December 12th, 2010. Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the season in that game and the Packers lost 7-3. Rodgers missed the latter part of the 1st half and all of the 2nd half as Matt Flynn came in to replace him. Rodgers also missed the next game vs. New England.
Rodgers has to be smart when he runs with the football. He has to think slide, instead of diving out there for extra yardage like he did last week against Tampa Bay. CB Ronde Barber of the Bucs slammed Rodgers with a helmet to helmet hit near the goal line in one collision. Just imagine if the player that hit Rodgers at that point was a linebacker or a defensive lineman.
Rodgers has had very nice success against the Lions in his career. Rodgers is 5-1 and has thrown 14 TD passes to just four picks for a QB rating of 115.5.
Bottom line, it's imperative that Rodgers plays cautious when he's running with the ball and also if the pocket is collapsing around him, as the Lions have been known to play aggressively well after the whistle and have been accused more than a few times of delivering a cheap shot.
It appears that RB Ryan Grant will be called upon to take on a much larger role against the Lions on Thursday. RB James Starks suffered a slightly sprained knee vs. the Bucs last Sunday, and will be a game-time decision for head coach Mike McCarthy.
Starks actually practiced the last couple of days, but I expect Grant to get the major portion of the playing time vs. the Lions, with FB John Kuhn also getting some opportunities as well at RB. Undrafted rookie RB Brandon Saine might get a few looks at RB too, especially if Starks is held out of the game.
But it is Grant that has to come up big vs. the Lions. Grant has only rushed for 267 yards this year for the Pack, and only has averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Grant has yet to score a touchdown either.
Starks has received the bulk of the playing time at RB, especially in crunch time. Grant has a chance to open some eyes on Thursday. Remember, Grant has rushed for over 1,200 yards twice in his time in Green Bay, plus just missed 1,000 yards rushing his first year with the Packers.
Grant hasn't scored a TD in two years, but in his career he has 23 rushing TDs.
Grant has really only had one excellent outing this year, and that was against the Bears in Chicago, when Grant had 92 yards rushing on only 17 carries.
Lifetime against the Lions, Grant has rushed for 435 yards in six games (72.5 average) and has scored two touchdowns.
Jermichael Finley has the athletic ability to take over a game, but except for one instance in 2011, Finley has been somewhat quiet in terms of his production for the Green Bay Packers.
In the game against the Bears in Chicago, Finley was a beast as he scored three touchdowns. Overall in that game, Finley has seven receptions for 85 yards.
Other than a couple of other games when Finley caught five passes, his output has been rather bland. Overall, Finley has 34 receptions for 475 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. Finley does have nine 20 yard+ receptions however.
Finley has also had a number of dropped passes recently and that is surprising, because he normally has excellent hands. Of course, the same thing has been said about WR James Jones, and he too has suffered a few drops in his career.
Bottom line, Finley needs to take his game up a notch, like TE Rob Gronkowski has done with the New England Patriots. Finley is currently looking for a big pay day contract extension from the Packers, but as of yet he has not proven to the coaches and the front office that he deserves that type of deal.
A big game on Thursday will help his cause.
Josh Sitton signed a five-year $33.5 million dollar contract extension earlier this year with the Green Bay Packers due to his stellar play in 2010. 2011 has been a bit different.
In 2010, Sitton was a Pro Bowl alternate and also was named the 2010 Offensive Lineman of the Year by the NFL Alumni Association.
However, in 2011, Sitton has been hampered with a sore knee. His production at LG has suffered because of that. Sitton already has committed twice as many penalties so far this year as he did all of 2010. He has also given up more sacks too.
Add to all of that, Sitton faces DT Ndamukong Suh on Thursday. Suh brings a ferocious and physical style to the field every game, and Sitton needs to come up big against Suh. So do the rest of his offensive line mates against a very good defensive line.
The Packers need to keep the Detroit pass rush honest by running the football and using screen plays and quick slants. Sitton will play a key role in the success of the Packers in those areas.
Sitton also needs to keep Suh from collapsing the pocket around Aaron Rodgers when he is passing. Thursday is going to be a very tough day's work for Sitton, but he needs to come up big if the Packers are to win.
Like the 2010 season, Clay Matthews has been playing with some nagging injuries in 2011. Those things happen when one plays a with the physical style of play that Matthews exhibits every game.
However, his sack production is off compared to 2010, although many believe that Matthews has improved his all around play. So far in 2011, Matthews only has five sacks through 10 games. In 2009, Matthews rookie year, the hard charging LOLB had 10 sacks. Last year, Matthews had 13.5 sacks.
In 2010 however, Matthews had DE Cullen Jenkins rushing on the opposite side of the field to help balance the pass rush. Jenkins had seven sacks last year, before he left as a free agent for Philadelphia this year.
The heir apparent to Jenkins was supposed to be DE Mike Neal, but Neal suffered a knee injury in training camp and he just played in his first game last week vs. Tampa. Neal has some real ability to be good both against the run and the pass, just like Jenkins was. If Neal can take his his game up a level through reps (especially rushing the QB), I see Matthews becoming more productive in terms of getting more sacks.
ROLB Erik Walden has three sacks as well. The team leader in sacks for the Packers is surprisingly RILB Desmond Bishop, who has five sacks.
But if the Green Bay defense is going to get where it wants to be, then players like Matthews have to start making big plays. Matthews had two sacks a week ago on Monday night vs. Minnesota and that is what is expected out of the two time Pro Bowler.
Matthews has to put pass pressure on QB Matthew Stafford of the Lions, who is playing with a broken finger on his passing hand. Stafford has had an exceptional 2011 season, as he has thrown 25 TD passes, compared to 10 interceptions. The third year QB out of Georgia also has a QB rating of 93.4
Stafford has only faced the Packers once (Thanksgiving 2009) and he had a regrettable day, as he only threw one TD pass that day; he threw four picks too. The Packers lead the NFL in interceptions with 19, and a good pass rush would help their chances of increasing that lead.
After all, sacking the quarterback is Matthews' calling card.
Overall, Marshall Newhouse has been playing pretty well since he had to take over at LT for the injured Chad Clifton (severe hamstring pull) in the Atlanta Falcon game six weeks ago. However, like all young offensive linemen, Newhouse has had his share of ups and downs.
Newhouse needs to be on his A-game on Thursday, as he will face DE Kyle Vanden Bosch of the Lions, who already has six sacks this season. In addition to that, Vanden Bosch has also forced three fumbles.
It's obvious that if the Green Bay offensive line gives Aaron Rodgers time to throw, he can slice and dice an opposing defense. Rodgers has MVP numbers backing up his individual play and he has led the Green Bay offense to 4th in the NFL in total offense, as well as 3rd in passing offense.
Therefore, Newhouse and his fellow offensive linemen need to keep Rodgers upright so he can do what he does best. Make big plays.
The Packers will also need to run the ball effectively to keep the defense of the Lions honest. The Packers are averaging only 3.9 yards per carry as a team so far in 2011, and that needs to improve, especially with the colder weather on the way.
It will probably be a couple more weeks before Clifton can come back and play, so Newhouse has to hold down the fort at left tackle for awhile longer. So far, so good, in the overall scheme of things.
But the test on Thursday with Vanden Bosch could be the toughest one Newhouse has had to take this year, except for the two games he had to face Jared Allen of the Vikings.