Thursday, October 3, 2013
Double Coverage: Lions at Packers
By Rob Demovsky and Michael Rothstein
The last 22 times the Detroit Lions have ventured into Wisconsin to play the Green Bay Packers, they have come up empty.
This week, Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. more or less predicted an end to that streak.
“I hate going up there, but when we win this week,” Ford said, “it’s going to make it feel a heck of a lot better.”
The Lions (3-1) roll into the game riding a high after beating the Chicago Bears on Sunday, while the Packers (1-2) are coming off their bye week.
ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down the matchup here:
Rob Demovsky: Michael, you’ve spent time examining the Lions’ 22-game losing streak in the state of Wisconsin, and it’s certainly a source of pride in these parts, but how much do you think the Lions really care about it?
Michael Rothstein: Publicly? No. But when I look at all these streaks, I go back to what injured wide receiver Nate Burleson said after the Lions beat Washington two weeks ago. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here, part of being with the Lions is understanding there are streaks to break and a lot of years of not-so-good teams to overcome. This is only my first year covering the team, but there is definitely a sense of being able to win games around these guys. They are legitimately talented on both sides of the ball. I think snapping the streak is a big deal for Detroit, but mostly because if they do, the Lions will have no worse than a split against every team in the division. That could be huge come playoff time.
Looking at Green Bay, how much different does a Packers team with Eddie Lacy look offensively versus one without him?
Demovsky: If you would've asked me three weeks ago, I would've said the Packers would be in trouble without Lacy. But their running game has been surprisingly fine -- better than fine, actually -- without Lacy. James Starks’ 132-yard performance after Lacy’s concussion against the Redskins was impressive. Starks ran with power and elusiveness. His biggest issue always has been staying healthy, and sure enough, he dropped out the next week with a knee injury. Then, rookie Johnathan Franklin came in and ran for 103 yards in the second half against the Bengals. That was a huge surprise considering how ineffective Franklin looked in the preseason. So my point is this: For the first time in a long time, it looks like the Packers have some options in the running game. That said, they drafted Lacy to be their guy, so I’d look for him to have a significant role again Sunday.
Sticking with the running game, Reggie Bush sure looked impressive, especially running between the tackles, where ESPN Stats & Information said he had 121 of his yards against the Bears. How is the Lions’ offense different with him in the lineup?
Rothstein: It’s completely different. I've written this a lot over the first month of the season, but this is the best Reggie Bush has looked since he was a college student at USC. Detroit is using him exactly how he should be used in this offense: on short, dump-off passes, screens, and running both outside and up the middle. That last thing, which is what you asked about, might be the most impressive part of all. Bush is running hard between the tackles, and a lot of that has to do with his offensive line. He has huge holes to run through right now, and once he gets to the linebackers and into the secondary, he becomes the special player he was drafted to be way back in 2006. He forces teams to either pick doubling Calvin Johnson with Cover 2 over the top, or play up to stop Bush. So far, teams are still choosing to take Johnson away and the Lions are 3-1.
Flipping to how Green Bay will defend Detroit, do the Packers have the front seven that can neutralize Bush?
Demovsky: This might be the Packers’ best-run defense since 2009 when they led the league in fewest rushing yards per game. The common thread is defensive tackle Johnny Jolly. He was a key component to that '09 run defense, and now that he’s back after serving a three-year suspension, he’s picked up where he left off against the run. I wouldn't be surprised if the Packers end up with a top-10 run defense this season. As much as people talk about defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ zone blitzes, it really starts with the run. That’s where everything starts with Capers.
Speaking of defensive fronts, I can’t believe we've gone this long without talking about Ndamukong Suh. From what I've seen, it looks like he’s playing at a high level. But I think what people around here, who still haven’t forgotten about “the stomp,” are more curious about is whether he’s behaved himself this season?
Rothstein: Yeah, that might be a record here. As far as Suh’s behavior, it depends on whom you ask. He picked up a $100,000 fine after Week 1 for blocking Vikings center John Sullivan low, so there are probably some around Minnesota who might question his behavior. Otherwise, he’s played mostly clean, mostly dominant. His stats do not show how disruptive of a player he has been this season. He has been the direct reason for both of linebacker DeAndre Levy’s interceptions, and he commanded double-teams on seemingly every play against Chicago last week. Simply, he is the reason Detroit’s defense has been the best in the league on third downs this season. He changes a game.
That leads to my next question. The Packers have done a decent job keeping Aaron Rodgers upright against Detroit since Suh’s arrival, as he’s only been sacked 12 times in five games. But Rodgers has been sacked 10 times in three games this season. Can the Packers’ offensive line handle what has been a pressure-filled Lions front?
Demovsky: That seems to be a question every week, especially given the fact that the Packers are starting a rookie fourth-round pick (David Bakhtiari) at left tackle and a second-year former undrafted free agent (Don Barclay) at right tackle. But the line has actually done a decent job so far this season, especially considering they've played some pretty solid defensive fronts already, especially in San Francisco and Cincinnati. But Suh might be the most disruptive interior lineman they have faced this season, so the onus will be on guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, plus center Evan Dietrich-Smith, the victim of the stomp, to keep him off Rodgers.
The whole winless in Wisconsin thing aside, what would this win mean to the Lions in terms of the NFC North at this point? I would think back-to-back wins over the Bears and Packers could pay dividends later in the season.
Rothstein: Though the players and coaches may not make a massive deal about it publicly -- for instance, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford said earlier this week he likes playing at Lambeau Field -- there is little doubt how big this win would be for the Lions. A win Sunday gives them an edge to a potential NFC North title, especially since they'll still have Green Bay coming back to Detroit and would have wins over every team in the division. Bigger than that, it’d be a big confidence boost. If Detroit can finally win in Green Bay, the team will believe it can win at any stadium the rest of the way.
I know we discussed the streak a bit earlier, but is it something the Packers care about at all? Or have they been so good at home under Mike McCarthy it really doesn't matter?
Demovsky: Rodgers talked a little bit about it this week on his radio show. All he said is he doesn’t want the streak to end on his watch. I think what has his attention -- the entire team’s attention, really -- more than anything else this week is the fact that this is the Packers’ first division game of the season, and the beginning of a stretch of three division games in five weeks. And right now, the Lions and the Bears have jumped out to fast starts and are ahead of them in the NFC North standing.
You saw an NFC North matchup last week when the Lions beat the Bears, and I’m sure you've studied the Packers some this week. You mentioned what a win would mean for the Lions in terms of the division. How do you see the NFC North shaping up so far?
Rothstein: It’s a tough division, without question. Three of the four teams -- sorry, Minnesota -- look like legitimate playoff contenders come December and January. That should make for some really good games coming down the stretch. The positive for Detroit is it doesn't have to go to Chicago or Green Bay in December, where it can be frigid and change game plans. But I think it’s going to be a division and wild-card race that could come down to the last two weeks of the year.