Did last week’s loss to the Vikings, in which the Packers managed just 263 total yards, had three turnovers and suffered from some all-too-familiar playcalling and execution issues, leave you somewhat concerned about Green Bay’s offense this year? Well, don’t be. Aaron Rodgers isn’t, and he fumbled three times in that game! "We don't worry about the outside opinions," the NFL’s 22nd-rated passer said Wednesday.
And nor should they. The season is two week old, the Packers are notoriously slow starters on offense and they still have the league’s easiest – on paper, at least – schedule, especially now as they begin a stretch of four straight games at Lambeau Field, beginning Sunday against the Lions at noon. Plus, Minnesota, the defending NFC North champion, remember, is good. And playing at home, in a brand new polygonal stadium, for a deafening and bloodthirsty crowd. Also, Sam Bradford switched bodies with Rodgers.
But enough about last week! The Packers are back in Green Bay and hoping some home grilling nurtures their famished offense back to health. And then, presumably, the rest of the team, which listed 11 players on its Friday injury report, can return to health during the Week 4 bye.
Detroit (1-1) enters the game ranked fifth in the NFL in total offense (411.5 yards per game) but 26th in defense (406.5 yards allowed), a sort of inverted construction of Green Bay (1-1) thus far. The Packers are No. 29 in yards per game (278.5) and No. 11 in yards allowed (316.0), though they have the league's best run defense.
On Nov. 15 last year, Detroit won in Green Bay, 18-16, which was the Lions’ first victory in the state of Wisconsin since 1991. Head coach Mike McCarthy talks a lot about the importance of divisional games and winning at home. The criticisms – and skepticism – are already elevated, but this team still has Super Bowl ambitions and a crucial opportunity to get back on track and prove all those doubters wrong.
"Our expectations and our opinions of each other and the offense is way more important than your opinion of us," Rodgers said.
OK! So then you won’t mind if we offer a few of our opinions anyway.
Some publications will tell you the key to victory is "Aaron Rodgers needs to play better" or remind you that "Defending the run is vital" and "Clay Matthews versus Matthew Stafford will be a big matchup." As astute as that analysis is, we'll try to go a little deeper. Here are three questions to consider, keys to victory and things to watch for the Packers’ Week 3 showdown against the Lions:
Questions to consider
1. Is Rodgers in a slump? After his sloppy performance against the Vikings, people have been freaking out about the former two-time MVP. Has he peaked? Is he still elite? Is he just in a slide or on the downside of his career? Many point out that the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating (103.8) hasn’t had a 100 rating in a game since Week 6 of last season; that’s a little misleading because he’s been above 95 four times during that span, and a 95 rating would rank in the upper third of the league’s quarterbacks nearly every year. But it’s a cutthroat, copycat, adapt-to-survive sport; perhaps other teams really have figured out the Packers’ inclinations and designs in the passing game. After three fumbles and an interception against Minnesota, plus overthrows and miscues that he said this week indicate his timing with receivers is off, the question has some merit: Is this an aberration for Rodgers or the new normal?
2. Will the run defense remain dominant? As mentioned above, Green Bay is No. 1 in rushing yards allowed both per game (39.0) and per carry (1.6), but a big – literally – part of that success has been defensive tackle Letroy Guion, who suffered a sprained MCL against the Vikings and won’t play Sunday. The Packers have so far survived the offseason loss of run-stuffer B.J. Raji, who retired, but can they remain stout without Guion, too? Rookie Kenny Clark played well replacing Guion in Minnesota, helping to hold Adrian Peterson to just 19 yards. The Lions, who just placed leading rusher Ameer Abdullah on injured reserve, don’t have anyone nearly as good as Peterson to run the ball, and will turn to backup Theo Riddick and rookie Dwayne Washington. Green Bay can probably survive without a dominant ground defense Sunday, and the bye could give Guion enough time to heal up for Week 5.
3. Who's the real Damarious Randall? He was the hero of the Week 1 win at Jacksonville, and the villain of the loss in Minnesota. Against the Jaguars, he was almost always in excellent position, made important breakup plays on the ball and was intuitive and aggressive as a tackler. Against the Vikings, he was taken to the cleaners by Stefon Diggs, who’s a rising star but benefited from admittedly awful coverage by Randall, who said afterward, "I just didn’t have it." Without top cornerback Sam Shields (concussion), the Packers need Randall to be at least serviceable, if not exceptional, which the 2015 first-round pick has shown the potential to be at various times over the past year.
Keys to victory
1. Commit to the run: This one’s simple. The Lions are allowing 5.1 yards per rush, tied for the most in the league, and three of their best linebackers are out injured. McCarthy reiterated this week that he wants to run the ball more. Eddie Lacy has only gotten 26 attempts, but he’s taken them 111 yards (4.3 average), looking impressive in his cuts and burst; James Starks hasn’t don’t anything yet (11 carries for 10 yards), but this could be the game to get him going. Detroit has a couple of big playmakers in the secondary – cornerback Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin – that Rodgers would be wise to avoid. Instead, commit to the run game, let the offensive line pound some guys and hammer the Lions on the ground.
2. Smart play-calling: McCarthy is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to public perception of his play-calling ability – not that he cares much about public perception. When the Packers’ offense succeeds, the credit often goes to Rodgers’ greatness; when it falters, McCarthy’s acumen is blamed. After two straight postseasons were halted partly due to conservative play-calling, we just wanted to see the coach be more aggressive. He has been, going for it on fourth down twice through two weeks, converting once and failing once with a questionable Starks run on fourth-and-2. Play-calling is plenty of science, but it’s also a bit of art, in that a good coach reads the rhythm of the game (and the defense’s endurance), rides his offensive stars (not backup running backs) and takes points when he can get them, extends drives when he must and plays it safe when it doesn't hurt. Let’s hope for some offensive coherence this week.
3. Nonstop pass pressure: As noted, Detroit really doesn’t present much of a ground threat. They’ve got some good receivers, but if defensive coordinator Dom Capers is both creative and insistent with his pressure – Blake Martinez inside blitzes have been hugely effective – Green Bay can overrun a bad Lions offensive line and rattle quarterback Matt Stafford, who's averaging 300 yards a game but is highly prone to interceptions. Outside linebackers Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry have combined for five sacks already (the same number the Lions have allowed), and they’re at their devastating best when they can pin their ears back, not worry about guarding the run or covering and relentlessly attack the quarterback.
Things to watch
1. Detroit’s new-looking passing attack: Calvin Johnson, who tormented the Packers – and particularly Shields – for years, is gone. Since the Lions couldn’t replace the supernaturally gifted All-Pro, they instead opted to employ a multiple and diverse approach with several good-but-not-great wide receivers who can do different things. With Shields out, Randall, Quinten Rollins, Ladarius Gunter and Micah Hyde will be tasked with tailing speedy Marvin Jones, savvy Anquan Boldin and stupid Golden Tate (he of the Fail Mary), who are part of the Lions’ seventh-ranked passing attack.
2. Packers’ linebackers in coverage: The other part of the Lions’ passing attack, and a big part, is tight end Eric Ebron and running back Theo Riddick, who have a combined 22 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns. The big and athletic Ebron presents a problem down the defensive seam, while the quick and sure-handed Riddick is a major threat out of the backfield. It will be largely up to inside linebackers Joe Thomas and Blake Martinez – Green Bay’s best coverage ‘backers – to contain Detroit’s non-receiver pass-catchers, as well as safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to provide support.
3. Wide receiver formations: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams have played 85 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps, lining up in varied three-receiver sets but still struggling to get separation. That was an issue last year without Nelson, and it’s remained problematic as he works to regain his form and timing with Rodgers. Meanwhile, Cobb has looked ordinary and often unopen and Adams is as up-and-down inconsistent as ever. How about we try something different? For as unproven as he is, rookie Trevor Davis is one of the fastest players on the team; could he at least stretch a defense downfield? For as unsexy as he is, Jared Abbrederis is one of the best route-runners the Packers have had in recent years; could he possibly find room to operate underneath? Fan favorite Jeff Janis has a cast on his hand, and still can’t play on offense, but there are other options and new looks Green Bay can utilize to help Rodgers and boost its passing game.
What do you think? Agree with any of this or disagree with all of it? What's the biggest key to victory on Sunday? Let us know in the comments.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.