The teams: The Green Bay Packers (6-3) vs. the Detroit Lions (4-5).
The time: Noon CST Sunday.
The place: Ford Field, Detroit.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, with Pam Oliver reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 74-39 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Detroit’s Jim Schwartz is 22-36 (including 0-1 in the postseason) in his fifth year as the Lions’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 91-65-7. The Packers have won 12 of the teams’ last 13 meetings, and while they are below .500 all-time in Detroit (37-40-3), they are 7-3 at Ford Field.
The rankings: The Packers’ 19th-ranked offense is No. 23 in rushing and No. 12 in passing. Their 14th-ranked defense is tied for No. 10 against the run and is No. 20 against the pass. The Lions’ second-ranked offense is No. 24 in rushing and No. 1 in passing. Their 10th-ranked defense is No. 19 against the run and No. 9 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 3 points.
The injury report:
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Comeback kids: One of the more enjoyable things about a Friday conversation with Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is that you can always count on him to highlight for you the one statistic that he himself has focused on with his players during the course of the week.
Last Friday was no different, with Capers backing up perception – that the Lions are a fourth-quarter team – with empirical data.
“Here’s the thing about this team: You look at our game last year, we started the fourth quarter up 24-0, all right? And they scored two touchdowns,” Capers said, referring to the Packers’ 27-15 victory at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day. “You look at this team, more so than any other team in the league, in the first three quarters they’ve scored 95 points; in the fourth quarter they’ve scored 118. So they’ve scored 23 more points in one quarter than they have in the other three combined.
“So you’d better be ready to play in the fourth quarter. Because I don’t know if there’s ever enough of a margin when you look at the games they’ve won. They’ve come back from big deficits and won three of those (four) games (they’ve won).”
Indeed, quarterback Matthew Stafford has authored some impressive comebacks: The Lions rallied from 20-13 and 23-20 deficits to beat St. Louis 27-23 in the opener; came back from down 23-13 to beat Philadelphia 26-23 on Oct. 14; and overcame 17-7 and 24-21 deficits to beat Seattle 28-24 on Oct. 28. Capers made sure his guys heard plenty about those three games.
“We’ve tried to point it out all week that they understand, ‘You’d better be ready to play for four quarters. You’ve got to be at your best in the fourth quarter because that’s when they’ve been at their best,’” Capers said. “You’ve seen teams look like they had them beat, and then they lose to them on the last two or three plays of the game. But the way they’re built, that’s their offensive capabilities, because they’re built for being a really good 2-minute team.”
The Replacements: There is no good time to play without Matthews, but having to face the Lions without him is quite the blow. Given that Stafford throws the ball an average of 43 times per game – the Lions eschew the run even more than McCarthy and the Packers do – Matthews and his pass-rushing expertise (a team-high nine sacks) would be quite helpful.
“Now, I’m going to sit here and tell you that you replace Clay Matthews. That’s not the idea,” McCarthy said during the week. “If you look at our pressure, when it’s occurred, it has been a big improvement from the past. The ability to generate pass rush on first down alone has been something we’ve done a very good job of.
“With that, it’s a collective effort. We’re going to need that Sunday.”
While Matthews has 32 percent of the team’s 28 sacks, the rest of relatively equally distributed: C.J. Wilson has 2.5; Mike Daniels, Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, Nick Perry and D.J. Smith have two apiece, Charles Woodson has 1.5 and A.J. Hawk, Morgan Burnett, Erik Walden, Brad Jones and Dezman Moses each have one
Asked how you replace Matthews, Capers replied: “We’ve got to play very good team defense. I don’t know that you look specifically at just the rush or just the coverage, but we’ve got to be a good combination of rush and coverage. Like we’ve talked about around here when we’ve had a guy go down, other guys have had to step up, and every time, they’ve done it, (such as) the Erik Waldens of the world, Moses is going to get more of a chance, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy comes back, so we’ve got to have some of these guys step up and make up for the loss of anybody we don’t have out there.”
While Moses is in line to start in place of Matthews opposite Walden, expect both Frank Zombo, who was activated from the physically unable to perform list but was a game-day inactive on Nov. 4 against Arizona, and recently re-signed Vic So’oto, to see action as well. The oft-injured Zombo has been productive when healthy, and Capers is counting on that again – especially considering the Lions’ aforementioned fourth-quarter success.
“If (Zombo and So’oto) are both up on the 46, then they’ll factor in (on defense),” Capers said. “Again, probably the most strenuous thing is rushing the passer, and the way these guys throw the ball, it could be one of those 50 throws-a-game. If you’re rushing the passer 50 times, you’re going to have to have fresh guys in there. Because what you don’t want is, you don’t want guys to get worn down to the point where they aren’t at their best in the fourth quarter when we need to be the best against these guys.”
Fabulous on first-down: Capers’ rule of thumb for “winning” on first down is to yield 3 yards or fewer. And by his math, his guys have been Charlie Sheen-ing first down roughly 57 percent of the time. No wonder his defense has improved as a whole as well.
Last season, the Packers ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL in first-down defense, yielding a whopping 6.82 yards per first-down play. This season, the Packers rank 10th with at 5.25 yards allowed per first-down play, and that has helped the unit in roughly every other area.
“People talk a lot about third down but maybe the most important down is first down,” Capers said. “I say that because, if you’re calling the game, first down has a big influence on (the calls). If people are controlling first down and they always keep you at a down-and-distance disadvantage to where it’s always second-and-5 or second-and-4, you’re calling a different game than if it’s second-and-8 or -9.
“We’ve always emphasized, ‘Let’s win first down and get things to our advantage to where we can do all those things we like to do. We can’t do all those things if we’re always fighting an uphill battle.’ That’s where teams, if they can come in and run the ball and they can run it in there for 4, 5, 6 yards, that can make for a long day.”
As one might expect, the Packers’ improvement on first down coincides with better run defense. Since Week 4, Green Bay leads the league in run defense (79.7 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.5 yards allowed per carry).
“That’s the first thing every week: stop the run. That’s part of Dom’s coaching,” defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “He wants to stop the run first.”
Also helping the Packers is the fact that of their 28 sacks, 10 have been on first down. Add it all up, and you have a defense that ranks seventh in the NFL in third-down defense at a 34.9 percent conversion rate.
“If you can play good run defense on first and second down and you can get 23 sacks on first and second down, that’s a combination you’re looking for,” Capers said. “From a philosophy standpoint, that’s where it starts: stop the run, get them into predictable situations and then be able to pressure the passer.”
On the flip side, the Packers offense has been abysmal on first down. The unit is averaging only 4.86 yards per play on first down, which ranks 28th in the league. And the offense will be facing a Lions defense that is among the NFL’s best, allowing just 4.65 yards per first-down play, good for third in the NFL.
Against a formidable pass rush, the last thing the Packers want – especially given a Lions secondary that is riddled with injuries and could be ripe for the picking – would be to face third-and-longs against that front, putting Rodgers under constant duress.
“If they can get you in third-and-long, it’s to their advantage,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “You want to stay out of third-and-longs, and one way to do that is to do well on first down. We like to stay on schedule, so we want to eliminate negative-yardage plays or penalties or sacks or anything that’s going to make it difficult to get into a manageable third-down situation.”
YAC attack: Historically, the Packers have been among the league’s best in gaining yards after the catch, but they’re down considerably in that department this season, and it’s not just because of injuries to Jennings and Nelson.
According to STATS, the Packers ranked 10th in the league entering this week’s games in yards after the catch with 1,185 yards. The Oakland Raiders lead the league with 1,449, followed by New England at 1,299 and Denver at 1,284. In terms of YAC yards per reception, the Carolina Panthers are No. 1 at 6.9 yards per catch, followed by Tampa Bay (6.7), Cleveland (6.4) and Buffalo and Oakland (6.3). The Packers, at 5.4 YAC yards per reception, are a middling 15th.
“We can get better,” Nelson said. “We've made some plays, but we've left some opportunities out on the field. We can always improve. We'll just continue to work at it.”
The Packers have perennially been among the NFL’s best in YAC yardage. They finished 14th in YAC in 2008 in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ first year as the starter but were sixth in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third last year, when they had 2,410 YAC yards.
Having Nelson, who missed the Oct. 28 game against Jacksonville with a hamstring injury and left the Nov. 4 game against Arizona with an ankle injury in the first quarter, should help. He led the team in YAC yardage last year (429 yards). This year, 162 of his 532 receiving yards have come after the catch.
“You just aren't making the guy miss or not breaking anything. They get paid, too, to tackle, so we've just got to break the tackle and keep moving,” Nelson said.
Randall Cobb leads the Packers in YAC yardage with 264 (5.9 per reception) while tight end Tom Crabtree is third with a whopping 144 of his 183 receiving yards coming after the catch, thanks to his three long TD receptions, including a 72-yarder. He’s averaging 24.0 yards of YAC per reception. For comparison, tight end Jermichael Finley has 102 YAC yards and is averaging 3.5 YAC yards per catch.
“Everyone has their own way,” Nelson said of racking up YAC. “I'm not one who's going to sit there and juke someone. I usually stiff arm a little bit but I need to change it up. Guys are getting used to it they start going lower on your legs and underneath the arms so you've got to adjust because they're adjusting. … If a guy always throws out a stiff arm, they're going to go low at your ankles instead of trying to hit you high. Whatever it is, you just have to try and avoid as much as possible.”
Line dancing : No offense to Bryan Bulaga, the team’s 2010 first-round draft pick and right tackle who was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season (save for a poor showing at Seattle in Week 3) before suffering a season-ending dislocated hip and landing on injured reserve. But if it feels as though his injury has received less attention than one might expect for a key player, you’re probably right.
That’s a testament to the team’s confidence in T.J. Lang, who shifted from left guard to right tackle when Bulaga went down against Arizona on Nov. 4, and sixth man Evan Dietrich-Smith, who came into the game at left guard. That’s where those two will line up again Sunday and for the rest of the season, barring any further offensive line injuries.
And while it’s perfectly reasonable to worry about what the Packers would do if one of their five remaining starters went down, there doesn’t seem to be the least bit of worry about a drop-off following Bulaga’s injury.
“I don’t believe it is (a significant drop-off),” offensive line coach James Campen replied when asked about that very thing during the week. “My whole thing is, the reason why I’m saying that is, and I truly believe this and I’ve said it to you guys 100 times, whoever’s starting, they’re expected to start and play as a starter. The backups should be ready to go and, if they have to go in, they’re expected to play at a starting caliber. There is no compromise with that. There really isn’t. There really is no compromise. They’re expected to win.”
Lang has played right tackle before, starting one game there as a rookie in 2009 and seeing extended action there late last season. McCarthy made a point of saying during the week that the game plan didn’t change one iota after Bulaga went down.
Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t change the game plan or his play-calling with Lang at right tackle last year and he’s not going to change a thing for Sunday and beyond.
“When the head coach says that he doesn’t have to change how he’s calling things or we don’t have to change a scheme, particularly because maybe he’s not in-tune with or can’t do something, I think that’s a big plus, obviously,” Campen said. “That’s a high compliment from the head coach to the player, no question.”
Said Lang: “I (was) definitely happy to get the chance this week to have a lot of snaps at practice to get better with the technique. Assignment-wise, I feel fine. It’s my fourth year in the system now, so I feel sharp. It’s just a matter of continuing to work on the technique and get better in that aspect.”
Dietrich-Smith, meanwhile, has gotten more serious about football after making the team as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, then getting cut at the end of training camp in 2010. He was out of football when the Packers brought him back just in time for the team’s run to the Super Bowl XLV title, and he’s grown up immensely since..
“I had a daughter, I have a family, I'm married now. It wasn't like that beforehand,” Dietrich-Smith said. “I was kind of going wild and just enjoying being in the NFL and stuff like that. You realize this is a job. This isn't something fun, like it used to be. People support their families by doing this job, and there's guys out there that are willing to take your job if you're willing to give it up so you've got to make sure you're doing something to earn it every day.”
The Packers accomplished their goal of a four-game winning streak and 6-3 record entering the bye, but now they have their work cut out for them. Of their final seven post-bye games, five will be against NFC North foes, starting with this one. While the Lions’ record is unimpressive, this is a dangerous team with its back against the wall and guys who aren’t afraid to mix it up. The Packers, even with their injuries, are the better team. Will the better team win? I’m not so sure. Lions 37, Packers 34. (Record: 5-4)
– Jason Wilde