Jeff Risdon, LionsDraft Editor
The Lions head to the western shores of Lake Michigan for a date with the Green Bay Packers. This trip has been a voyage of nightmares for a very long time, and this year figures to be no different.
How long have the seas of Lake Michigan battered the Lions? The last time the Lions won a game in the state of Wisconsin, Brett Favre was a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons. Jason Hanson was still in college. The starting quarterbacks were Erik Kramer and Mike Tomczak. Robert Clark caught two TD passes from Kramer and Mel Gray returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown as the 10-4 Lions beat the 3-11 Packers on a 10 degree day in December of 1991. Older Lions fans might recall that 1991 team as the only edition in the Super Bowl era to ever win a playoff game, a 38-6 blowout of the Triplets Cowboys that remains the franchise high water mark of the last 55 years. It remains the only team in NFL history to have two different quarterbacks start more than 7 games and advance to the Championship round of the playoffs. Give yourself a high five if you knew that Rodney Peete was the other starter.
Those were the days! I rocked my official Lions Zubaz pants every Sunday, invading Lucky’s in Athens, OH as an Ohio University sophomore to get their grainy, pirated satellite feed from the Toledo CBS affiliate and watch Barry Sanders, Chris Spielman, & a skinny rookie named Herman Moore. The Packers were perennial also-rans, having just two winning seasons in the last 20 years. They played some home games in Milwaukee to try and bolster attendance, and you never saw Packers gear anywhere outside the upper Midwest.
Even in the ensuing Sanders years, the Lions never had any success in Green Bay. Some guy named Favre had a lot to do with that, as has another guy named Rodgers. The weather has been a contributing factor several times, as strangely the game has been played in Week 11 or later all but five times. But just as often, it’s been the Lions themselves who have scuttled their own ship in Green Bay. From bursts of turnovers to blown coverages to fumbled punts to miserable passing games from the likes of Scott Mitchell and Joey Harrington, whose 5-for-22 for 47 yards in 2004 remains the nadir for Lions QB play, it just has not been good to the Lions in Green Bay.
This year there is a chance. The Green Bay offensive line is struggling through several injuries and has serious issues protecting Aaron Rodgers, who has been sacked more than any other QB in the league. Both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are coming off very good games against the Colts, and they figure to present a serious challenge for the rotting carcass of Jeff Saturday and his walking wounded line mates. The Green Bay run defense is sporadically effective, ranking 22nd in yards per carry but 30th in tackles behind the line of scrimmage. However, they are trending in the wrong direction, giving up a league-worst 6 yards per carry over the last three games. Even though the Lions don’t run the ball all that frequently, ranking 25th in attempts per game, they are more effective at running than commonly advertised. The Lions average 4.2 yards per carry, good for 12th in the league, and they rank 7th over the last month at 4.8 per attempt.
Those ships passing in the night give the Lions a chance. It is imperative that the Lions come out strong and not fall behind early, convincing Coach Schwartz and Offensive Coordinator Linehan to abandon the run and throw too often into the teeth of the opportunistic Packers secondary. Green Bay could be getting both Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews back (Matthews being more doubtful), but the player to watch is rookie corner Casey Hayward. The Vanderbilt rookie is already one of the best cover corners in the league, and he is very aggressive at making plays on the ball.
The Stafford-to-Johnson combination should continue to find success, but the imperative to beating the Packers will be to find a secondary option in the passing game. With Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, and Titus Young all gone, that means Mike Thomas and the Vanilla Gorilla Lance Long will be on the spot to produce. I doubt Stafford has the confidence in them to try and attack there often, even though Tramon Williams has been bench-worthy at one corner and the safeties are prone to coverage gaffes. Sam Shields, who inexplicably starts ahead of Hayward, has been a Lion tamer in his short career.
Then there is the problem of covering the Green Bay passing attack. As the Lions have shown in the heart-wrenching comeback losses to Houston and Indianapolis, a poised quarterback with more than one weapon can pick them apart when the pass rush doesn’t get home. The safety play has been awful, enough that Erik Coleman was released this week. Ball awareness remains a major issue, as do coverage of bunch formations and combination routes. Few teams run those formations as frequently as the Packers, and their depth of receiving weapons remains strong even without injured Jordy Nelson. Detroit can’t shift too much help from the linebackers or else Aaron Rodgers will torch them with his legs the way Luck did down the stretch. Gap containment is not a strength for the Lions defensive line, as Suh loves to freelance outside his own gap and create wide open pastures for mobile QBs to graze chunks of yardage. With the ends still playing Wide 9 the majority of the time in passing situations, if the interior linemen don’t hold containment, there are huge gains to be had by smart QBs as well as on short dumpoffs to the running back or blocking tight ends…or a slot receiver crossing the formation, as we saw Donnie Avery do on the final play last week. It’s all enough to sink the Lions for the 21st time in a row in the land of fried curds and butterburgers.
Packers 33, Lions 27